What I’ve Learned from a Year in the Shadows

Madeleine Penfold for The Players’ Tribune

Para leer en Español, haz click aquí.

I wanted to go.

That is the truth. You may remember me as one of the 15 players who sent those emails to the Spanish football federation. But when they announced the squad for the World cup, I didn’t want to stay at home. 

I didn’t want my friends to play the World Cup without me. 

I was like, If they call me up, I’m going

Even now, I find this difficult to talk about, because it still hurts a lot. In September last year, we sent the emails saying that until they made major changes to the way the players were treated, we would not play. After a while they promised changes. For some of my teammates, it wasn’t enough to return, and I really respect that. I mean, we were fighting over fundamental issues that affected our performance and wellbeing. 

So why did I want to go? Well … it’s Spain. Playing for your country is the greatest thing you can do as a footballer. I cannot even describe the feeling.… So to do so at a World Cup? At 22 years old? Pffffffft. 

I could not say no to that. If they called me up.… 

There was a lot of uncertainty. When the squad list was about to come out, I had been injured for two months. But I had worked really hard to get fit, and at the Euros, I had participated in every game. I flew home to Barcelona to be with my friends and family, just to have support in case the news was bad … and then it came out. 

Nobody from the federation called us, they just published the list on social media. I took a deep breath. I scanned the list of names. 

No Laia

I checked the names again. 

Did I overlook one?

I double-checked the account. 

Is this the official one?

But I had read it correctly. I was out. 

My World Cup dream was over. 

Laia Aleixandri | Spanish National Women's Soccer Team | The Players' Tribune
Madeleine Penfold for The Players’ Tribune

I was shocked. Honestly. I thought I was ready for it, but when your whole career has led you to this moment, and you get dropped, it’s not just disappointment. Your stomach gets twisted up. Your heart sinks to the floor. The sense of loss is just overwhelming. 

It’s like all your friends were invited to a huge party, and you weren’t. 

And then as the summer goes on, you realise that this is the one legendary night that everyone will talk about forever. And it will be four years until you get another chance. Of course, you are happy for your teammates, especially the ones you have known for years. 

But you look inside of you, and you have so many conflicting emotions. It’s normal, you know? It’s also weird. It’s painful. 

Yes, we won the World Cup!

But I’m not there. 


I’m not there…. 

I’m seeing a psychologist. 

About 18 months ago, she taught me a big lesson. 

She told me that there are two Laias. One is the footballer, and one is the person who likes to paint and walk her dog. You have to learn to separate the two, and, if you can, bring the positives from one side over to the other. The world of football is so big and brutal that, if you don’t have this balance, you can lose your way. 

Over these last years I have worked to get a balance between these two parts of my life. But when I was playing for Spain, it was hard to find it.

It had started so well. I remember being called up for my debut in 2019, against Cameroon, and I scored, and we won. I called up my dad on FaceTime, and for the first time ever, he was actually emotional. He always asked me if I was having fun … that time he didn’t have to ask. 

But I soon realised that the dynamic around the team wasn’t good. The worst was at the Euros in 2022. We had an amazing squad, and we were giving everything, but we were never treated as professionals. We lacked certain things that are basic at the top level – stuff like proper travel arrangements, a team nutritionist and enough physiotherapists to treat all the players. At some point we all began to doubt ourselves. Emotionally and physically, many of us were not well. I was one of the youngest players there, and I have always been a quiet person who keeps things discreet, but it got to a point where I went, OK, things are not right. I am not right.

Laia Aleixandri | Spanish National Women's Soccer Team | The Players' Tribune
Madeleine Penfold for The Players’ Tribune

There were a lot of more experienced players, too, who had simply had enough. When England beat us in the quarterfinals, we went to the federation and put all our unhappiness on the table. We wanted to be completely transparent. 

For me, there were two roads we could have taken. 

One was for the players and the federation to listen to each other, reflect together and make changes, slowly but surely. You give us this, we’ll give you that. Let’s help each other along, you know?

But a second path was taken, which was not as cooperative. So 15 of us decided to stay away from the team until they made proper changes, and even though we did it as a group, it was a very personal decision. To leave what you should enjoy doing the most …  f*** … it was hard. So hard. I spent so much time thinking about it. 

In the end, I did it because our fight was worth the sacrifice. Because we wanted equal rights and to be treated as the professionals we are.  

And the thing is, when you actually make the decision, it doesn’t hurt that much. But later, when you look back at everything that has happened … pffffffft … 

… yeah … difficult … 

Emotionally, this past summer was the hardest thing I have ever experienced. Only three of the 15 made it into the final squad. What made it even more brutal for me was that many of my teammates were close friends. We had known each other for years playing for the Spanish youth teams, winning and losing together, travelling the world together, and now I wanted to join them on this huge adventure. And I got left behind. 

I talked a lot to my psychologist. Everything I do with her is to make sure I stay emotionally stable, as a footballer, as a student and as a person. I didn’t want this experience to change me. I didn’t want to get bitter or jealous or sad. 

So I went away. In late June, my boyfriend and I flew to the U.S. for a road trip. We rented a jeep and drove to Orlando and Miami. We took pictures by the Golden Gate and hung out at Hermosa Beach. The Grand Canyon was incredible. I tried so hard to forget about the World Cup. My biggest trick was to just eat and travel and explore so much that you chase everything else out of your head. 

But it was always in the back of my mind. I was still checking the scores on my phone. It is my team, my teammates, my country. How could I not? 

Laia Aleixandri | Spanish National Women's Soccer Team | The Players' Tribune
Madeleine Penfold for The Players’ Tribune

When I came home, the World Cup was still on. I didn’t watch a game. Not a minute. I just focused on my preseason and becoming the best player I could be. 

I told my dad, “I’ve missed out on two things at once: Playing a World Cup and winning one.”

That is still very difficult to accept. 

Today, I’m trying to look at it positively. I had a great trip with my boyfriend. The World Cup title has served to make structural changes in the Spanish federation, and I believe we all deserve respect for that. It’s a cliché that we won much more than a trophy, but it has turned out to be true. I was also called back into the squad right after the World Cup, which happened way sooner than I expected. I’m playing the games. The federation is making some changes, at last. 

And if you zoom out, I’m still able to play football for a living. 

Really, I’m a lucky one. 

But I have to be real, too … It hurts. It always will. I’m still young, and I’m sure I’ll play in a World Cup one day, but I will never be able to have that experience. I was in touch with some of my teammates during the tournament, and one of them sent me a message that nearly broke me. I got it just before the final. 

She wrote, “Laia, you are also part of this. I miss you a lot.”

Damn … what can you say?

In a way, I was. 

I just wish she never had to miss me.