Spain’s path to the round of 16 in this year’s Women’s World Cup began at the same time every other team’s did: in the summer of 2015, just after the last tournament ended.
Its journey began not on a field but in a stuffy conference room, where the board of directors for FC Barcelona, the second-richest soccer club in the world, decided to invest heavily in its women’s team.
“We believe we had to do it,” said Maria Teixidor, the board’s secretary. “We are committed to bringing women to the next stage. We wanted to make the women into a pro team. So that’s what we did.”
That investment has paid off handsomely, with a record 15 Barcelona players advancing to the second round in France, 10 of them with the Spanish team.
In the last four years Spain, which will play the U.S. in an elimination game on Monday, has gone from winless World Cup debutante to the No. 13 team in the world. Barcelona captain Vicky Losada credits the club’s generosity for fueling that rise.
“In the last three years things have changed massively,” said Losada, who had to play against boys growing up because there were no programs for girls in the neighborhood where she lived. “And each day is a new step for us.”
But they’ve lost only three, playing to a draw in the other two.
“We are closer to them. The rankings say that also,” said Losada, who scored the first Women’s World Cup goal in Spanish history four years ago in Canada. “The difference between them and us in physical. Everybody knows we are technique players, really good [at] tactics and skills.
“Those countries started 20 years before us. So it’s going to take time.”
Time and money. Teixidor said the players, no matter how good they are, can’t close that gap alone. So Barcelona has opened its famed academy, La Masia, to four girls’ teams and is paying the players on its first team some of the highest salaries in women’s soccer.
Dutch star Lieke Martens, a former world player of the year, signed a contract worth more than $200,000 a year when she moved to Spain in 2017. That same year only 0.1% of the 30,000 registered female players in Spain received a salary of any size.
“Making them professional doesn’t only mean to pay them a wage which allows them to live from their work,” Teixidor said. “But also giving them the possibility to train in the morning and not in the night. To have their own medical team following their health and their nutrition.
“It’s all about creating the same structure men have, for women.”
That process might be taking root in Spain. Real Madrid, the only club richer than Barcelona, announced Saturday that it would field a women’s team in the 16-team Spanish league for the first time next season. Hours earlier Andreu Camps, general secretary of the Spanish soccer association, said his group would funnel nearly $23 million into the women’s game in the next year and show first-division games on TV or stream them live online.
A change in the structure of Spain’s women’s professional leagues is also in the works because of an increase in the number of teams competing.
Not surprisingly, those investments come at a time when the women’s game is taking off in Spain. A match between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid drew a record crowd of 60,739 in March, two months before Barcelona became the first Spanish team to reach the Champions League final.
Last year Spain won the U-17 Women’s World Cup and made the final of the U-20 tournament, the country’s best finishes in an international women’s championship at any level.
“Little by little there are more girls playing ,” Alexia Putellas, Losada’s teammate with both Barcelona and the national team, said in Spanish. “The age-group teams are winning more and more. That’s only going to benefit Spanish football.
“We have good material on which to build a good future.”
Now Spain is hoping for similar results on the senior level, where it’s already made history by reaching the knockout round for the first time. Spain limped out of the group stage, failing to score its final two games — a 1-0 loss to Germany and a scoreless draw with China — but it is second in the World Cup in time of possession and shots, trailing only the U.S. in both categories.
“Their women’s program has gotten increasingly better through the years,” U.S. defender Kelley O’Hara said. “These are examples that FIFA and the federations need to look at, to see that if you do invest the time, you do invest the money, you will get results.”
For Barcelona and Spain, it’s proved to be money well spent.