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The Capital of Women’s Soccer

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A little more than an hour before the game begins, the gates outside the Johan Cruyff Stadium swing open and a thousand or so fans rush inside. Some scurry to the turnstiles. Others wait patiently at the merchandise stalls, anxious to buy a jersey, a scarf, a commemorative trinket.

The busiest and longest line, though, forms outside a booth offering fans the chance to have a photo taken with their heroes. Within a couple of minutes, it snakes all the way back to the entrance, populated by doting parents and spellbound preteens hoping they arrived in time.

They have come to see the most dominant women’s soccer team on the planet. Barcelona Femení has been Spanish champion every year since 2019. It has not lost a league game since last May, a run during which eight of its players also lifted the Women’s World Cup. On Saturday, the team can win its third Women’s Champions League title, which crowns the best professional team in Europe, in four seasons.

That success has turned the team’s standouts into global stars and the club into what often seems like a juggernaut. It has also transformed Barcelona, and the broader region of Catalonia, into the global heartbeat of women’s soccer, a case study in what happens when the women’s game wins the same prominence as the men’s.

On the city’s streets, jerseys bearing the name of Alexia Putellas or Aitana Bonmatí, Barça Femení’s biggest stars, are just as common as those with the names of an icon of the men’s team. And on the region’s soccer fields, a boom is playing out, with what was once a male-dominated space now awash in women and girls.

The number of registered female soccer players in Catalonia has doubled in the past six years, and it is expected to grow exponentially in the decade to come. There are more coaches, more clubs, more teams, more games, more leagues.

The young fans queuing for a photo were not hoping for a picture with a distant hero. They were hoping, instead, to be close enough to touch the women who have helped make all of that real.

From the age of 11 until she was 14, Marta Torrejón said, she never played soccer against another girl. She had, in her younger days, when she was representing neighborhood teams. But from the moment she joined Espanyol — the smaller of the two professional soccer clubs in Barcelona — her teammates, and her opponents, were all boys.

At times, being the only girl among talents who would grow up to play in Spain’s top league made her feel “out of place,” she admitted, but for the most part she was just thankful.

Torrejón’s first steps in soccer were both typical and not. Typical because she started playing in the late 1990s, when opportunities for girls to do so — in Barcelona, in Spain, in Europe — were scant and when those who joined boys sides were not always welcomed.

“My mother has told me that there were parents asking if she knew there were girls’ teams in some villages,” Torrejón said. “My mother would say, ‘That’s great, but she’s here.’”

And not typical because Torrejón was not only courageous enough to withstand it, but also talented enough to make it. She only rejoined a girls’ team at the age of 14, when Spanish law required her to do so. A few months later, she was in Espanyol’s first team. She won a Spanish title there, and then added another six with Barcelona Femení.

Now, though, her experience feels anachronistic. Despite Spain’s World Cup win last year being clouded by the sight of Luis Rubiales, president of the country’s soccer federation at the time, forcibly kissing Jennifer Hermoso, one of its most celebrated players, on the rostrum — an incident that ultimately led a charge of sexual assault — the exponential growth of women’s soccer in Barcelona is unchecked.

Over the past three years, Barcelona’s women’s team has tripled the money it brings in through sponsorships, merchandise and ticketing. It now earns $8.5 million a season from its sponsors alone. Its stadium is packed. In 2023, the year that brought the World Cup title for Spain, the club’s online sales of women’s apparel increased roughly 275 percent.

For the club, the success of the women’s team has been more than an economic stimulus: At a time when corruption allegations, financial mismanagement and flagging performances have swirled around the men’s team, executives privately admit that the women’s side has proved a welcome tonic for the club’s self-esteem.

Far more significant, though, are the opportunities it has created. Two decades since Torrejón blazed a lonely path, girls hopeful of following in her footsteps have an abundance of choice.

One illustrative example: In 2019, Sant Pere de Ribes, a club on the city’s fringes where Bonmatí started her career, had a single girls’ team, and it had only nine players. Now there are 10 girls’ squads, as well as a senior women’s side.

“We have a lot of girls joining because it’s the team where Aitana played,” Tino Herrera, the club’s president, said.

That growth has been mirrored elsewhere, forcing the body that oversees soccer in Catalonia — the Catalan Football Federation — to modernize, and quickly, to make sure all of the girls who want to play have a place to do so.

To Torrejón, with her memories of being told soccer was not a place for girls, that is a source of immense “pride and satisfaction.”

“What you do creates an impact on other people and a change that wasn’t there before,” she said. “The girls coming now have those references that we didn’t have. They see something in the future of this profession.”

Laura Cuenca tried everything. She took her daughter dancing. Tried ice-skating. Offered cross-country running. But Sonia was adamant: She wanted to play soccer.

Her hesitation was purely logistical. She knew soccer would mean a demanding schedule of training during the week, and weekends eaten up by games. “You can’t ever go away to the beach, for example,” Ms. Cuenca said, just a little ruefully.

Sonia was insistent, though. She loves soccer, and her mother loves her, so surrender was inevitable, really. And so now, Ms. Cuenca finds herself spending another Saturday night at the Sabadell Sports Center, watching as Sonia takes the field. There will be another game tomorrow, an hour or so away in Barcelona. Next week will bring three more training sessions.

It is a lot for Ms. Cuenca, but even more for her daughter. “She’s 16, so there is schoolwork, obviously,” her mother said. “Then there are her friends, her job, her love life. It’s a lot for her to balance.”

Like everywhere else, Sabadell has seen a surge of girls wanting to play: 206 players this year, up from the 84 who registered in 2020, according to Bruno Batlle, president of the center.

Logistically, that is a challenge — there are only four fields, and many more teams demanding to use them — and it leads to certain iniquities that, for parents like Ms. Cuenca, are a reminder that soccer remains a more challenging place for girls than for boys.

At Sabadell, for example, it is the girls’ teams that often must make do with the worst training slots. “Sometimes they do not finish until 11 p.m.,” Ms. Cuenca said. “So Sonia does not get to bed until very late, which means she’s tired for school.”

And while talented players on the boys’ teams might have their registration fees or travel costs subsidized, the girls all have to pay their own way. The revolution, Ms. Cuenca noted, is not yet complete.

The fact that there are battles still to be fought, though, does not mean that the war is not being won. Ms. Cuenca is not sure what percentage of that can be attributed to Barça Femení — there has, she said, been a broader social change that has all but extinguished the “idea that soccer is not for girls.”

She has no doubt, though, that her daughter has been inspired by seeing what is possible, playing out just an hour down the road.