Some made their way home to relax after the tedious hours of lectures they had been through, others hung about in the cafeteria to get a refreshing shot, while some made plans for a group dinner at a fancy restaurant. There was something off about this one though. Clutching her thesis papers, taking a quick peek at her modest watch, she made a hurried walk home. Plans of sleepovers and talks about trendy hairstyles and fashionable dresses fell on deaf ears. She didn’t have time enough to brush away strands of hair falling over her face, let alone discuss how to color or condition them.
Tired, hungry, eyes red and swollen as if she had been crying a lot, she reached her home and flung her bag around. Quickly changing into tracksuits and getting her training gear, she grabbed a sandwich from her kitchen and set out for her daily training routine. No time to catch a break like others. She was about the slam the door behind her and a voice called out –
“Alexia! At least sit and eat. And have you been crying again?”
She sat down because her mother asked. Took a few deep breaths and tried to eat quickly as possible. She had a training schedule to meet but she had assignment deadlines to meet at the university as well. Her father had just passed away, her pillar of support, the person who had introduced her to this game, but circumstances change in an instance – that’s life.
And this was life for Alexia Putellas in 2012. Assignments, training, little opportunity to catch a break, an uncertain future.
Spain is a footballing country, but even there just like many countries in the world, opportunity and exposure rarely came the way of girls. A career in any sport was something that was seemingly out of place for girls and that was evident in the fact that even one of the biggest clubs in the country, Real Madrid CF, did not have a team for women. Despite the challenges, many loved the game and were bold enough to take that leap of faith. Alexia was one of them.
Their youth teams perform brilliantly yet at the senior level the same doesn’t happen. If you wonder why it is because the same level of support isn’t extended to women’s football at the highest level. Girls who have a professional contract are numbered and many have to keep up their side hassles because with football – there is no guarantee.
Alexia was that little girl who was among the 80,000 people in Camp Nou when Espanyol played Barcelona in February 2000. Just months shy of her 6th birthday, she had accompanied her father to the enormous coliseum-like stadium, for the first time ever. Barcelona at that time wasn’t the greatest team in the world but they had quality on the pitch.
Among those on the pitch was Rivaldo, the Ballon d’Or winner in 1999, and when you have that kind of quality it is only a surprise if they don’t get on the act. Rivaldo scored twice in the game. First, he brought down Kluivert’s cheeky lob from the edge of the box and slammed it into the ground. The keeper got a piece of it but not strong enough. The next was a gung-ho counter-attack which finished off the arch-rivals sending the 80,000 home satisfied at their team’s work.
When you first see the quality on display, you are not aware whether this is the best there is, you just fall in love with it. It just awes you. That happened with Alexia. The Rivaldo she saw at 6 years old for the first time in Camp Nou is one of her idols in football.
It was not a one-time thing with her for football. She played her school with whomever she finds. Not on pitches, maybe on mud, or maybe on concrete surfaces, and she went home with a number of bruises but a nice little smile on the face. Her mother urged her father to enroll her in a football academy and this presents the next challenge in Spanish football for women – girls don’t know that actual football teams exist in the women’s division at youth and senior level.
Alexia started her footballing career at the age of 6 at Sabadell which she got to know through a family friend. Later she went on to join FC Barcelona’s youth ranks and then Espanyol. Growing in years, Alexia’s big break came in 2011 when she was transferred to Levante. She was a 17 year old then and ended the season as Levante’s top scorer with 15 goals in 32 games. This brought eyes upon her by Barcelona themselves. The team she had first watched before getting into the sport. The team which her idols Rivaldo and Ronaldinho both played for. Life was seemingly taking a good turn for her but this is life – the unexpected happens here.
She secured her move to Barcelona in 2012 which was a considerable feat. But at the same time, her Spanish team lost to Sweden in the U19 World Cup Final, one step short of glory. Then her father’s death happened which left another scar in her young mind. With football, she had to carry her studies and now she also had the responsibility of her mother and younger sister but she herself made it clear that she had support from family and she was grateful for that.
University and football in tandem was tough on Alexia so she had to switch to distance learning. She was aware that football isn’t something which would guarantee you a living in Spain – it could you’re a man but a girl – maybe not – this wasn’t the 18th century but still it was this way. However, she loved football, she wanted to succeed in this and I’m taking the liberty to quote Paulo Coelho here – “When you want something, the entire universe conspires to help you achieve it.”
Alexia was good at football. Too good if you are to watch her goal in the Copa del Rey Final in 2013. Or something as recent as her free-kick goal against Hoffenheim. In a 2012 interview, Alexia quoted her dreams as follows – “Make my debut for the Spanish team. Win the Champions League. Keep growing as a player and help my team.”
The Champions League was something that evaded her and the Barcelona team for long. They faltered against Lyon in the Final, they faltered in the semis against Wolfsburg, but destiny had a Champions League for Alexia and it would eventually come – it took her 9 years after she initially let her intentions known – but it came.
From juggling between studies and football, she had to make the call to prioritize something which wasn’t niche, it was a leap of faith, a leap which in hindsight paid off but one which won’t be taken by many in her situation. In 2021, 22 years after her she was first in the stands in Camp Nou, she was on the pitch with her team. The Senyera around her sleeves and she rose to head her team into the lead on the night. FCB Femeni playing at Camp Nou. The 6-year-old who watched Barcelona play Espanyol was now the captain of Barcelona against Espanyol. Who would have thought?
She put both fingers up in the air, pointing towards the heavens, in memory of her father who introduced her to the game.
Alexia was called “a role model” by Andres Iniesta. Yes, she is. Just to mention that Alexia wears #14 with the Spanish National Team. The number belonged to Barca legend Johan Cruyff. But Alexia did not imitate Cruyff by taking #14 – she took it because its original owner Virginia Torecilla had to take a sabbatical from the game due to cancer treatment. Yes, Alexia is a role model, not only on the pitch but off it as well.
The Ballon d’Or – it is just something that gives her the worthwhile recognition she deserves. The award itself doesn’t matter as much as it helps her be known to people around the world. A player of her talent, who has gone through ordeals as much as she did, that should be known to the whole world. She was interviewed by Vicente Del Bosque. She was presented her Ballon d’Or at Camp Nou by Hristo Stoichkov.
These might sound small things from some perspectives but from the perspective of a little girl watching all this, tomorrow a girl will be saying – “I want to be like Alexia Putellas.”
That’s what matters. She had not only given her best for herself. She had done so for the sport itself.