The Catalan club have made history
by reaching the final, but captain Vicky Losada believes this is just the beginning

INTERVIEW: VICKY LOSADA

BARÇA BREAK NEW GROUND

For Barcelona captain Vicky Losada, there is one word which best captures the famous Catalan club: "unique". As the first Spanish side to contest a UEFA Women's Champions League final, they are certainly one of a kind. In fact, they have been blazing a trail for Primera División teams in Europe since reaching the last eight for the first time five years ago. But that is not what Losada has in mind.

What sets Barcelona apart, according to the Spain midfielder, is the unified ethos that has made the club a powerhouse on multiple fronts. "Barça's style and DNA applies to every department," she explains, proud to have been groomed in the Blaugrana tradition. Indeed, listen to her describe her team's approach and you might begin to wonder if she means Lionel Messi and Co.

"Barcelona players are very technically skilled, very intelligent," she says, having observed various rivals up close before she began her fourth Barça spell in 2016.

"They want to keep the ball. There's pressure high up the pitch after turnovers, space, a lot of connections, creating situations of superiority on the pitch. It looks easy, but it's not that simple."

The similarity is no coincidence. Like the men, the young female talents developed at the club hone their gifts at the celebrated La Masia youth academy, learning the Barça way of possession- based football pioneered by former player and coach Johan Cruyff. Barcelona have even launched a project, Masia 360, to fortify their institutional DNA through the greater exchange of expertise between every department.

"We've continued playing in the same style as the club as a whole, from the five- year-old girls and boys all the way to the senior squad," adds Losada. "That's rare and can be difficult, because it's not easy to play for Barça. Some of my team-mates come here from sides who are more direct and they struggle because this is a unique style, and the club have always put their faith in that. You need to adapt, but it's producing results. For the club it's very important not only to win, but how you win."

Style and substance have aligned this season, and the club's integrated philosophy has been remarkably successful, with Barcelona reaching the semi-finals of four separate European competitions: both the men's and women's UEFA Champions League, plus the UEFA Youth League and UEFA Futsal Champions League.

"That deserves respect," argues Losada, and perhaps the women's team deserve the greatest acclaim of all. Not only did they oust Bayern München to reach the Budapest final, they have also had to catch up with

"We're on the right path. Step by step, our moment is getting closer"

their Catalan club-mates. The history of Barcelona's women's section dates back to 1988, when the Camp Nou outfit sponsored a new side named CF Barcelona, but it was only in 2001 that the team were fully incorporated.

Nor has it been plain sailing ever since, with Barça suffering relegation from the Spanish elite in 2007. Crucially, however, that came a year after they had appointed the coach who would lead their surge. At the time, Xavi Llorens was best known as the academy coach who had brought on the likes of Messi, Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta, but he forged a whole new reputation during a breakthrough 11-year spell with the women.

"I started completely from scratch," he remembered. "We dropped down a division but then came back up, and based on that we could see where we were going wrong. The best part of the whole process was that we always had the support of the board of directors."

At first, Llorens had no assistant and his players had to train late at night. But investment under successive boards gave him the resources to lift the team back into the top division, and by 2011/12 they were Spanish champions and preparing for a European debut. They lost 7-0 on aggregate to Arsenal in their first ever tie,  but since then they have missed out on the quarter-finals only once.

By 2015, with a budget that had increased tenfold, Barcelona had become a full-time professional outfit. Not long after, they snapped up Danish defender Line Røddik Hansen from Lyon as a sign of their ambition, showcasing her alongside Ronaldinho to promote the club in the United States.

Big-name signings have continued, including the arrival of Lieke Martens in 2017 just ahead of her starring role in the Netherlands' victory at UEFA Women's EURO that summer. As Llorens explained in announcing his departure to take on a role with Masia 360 that year: "Not many girls wanted to play for Barcelona before I arrived. Now they all want to come here." Some have had less distance to travel than others. While the squad includes eight different nationalities, Barça's overseas talents share a dressing room with a core of Spanish gems. It may have taken 18 seasons for Spain to produce a UEFA Women's Champions League finalist, but it has excelled in women's youth football for a number of years – and Barcelona have reaped the benefits. Not even Germany can match the country's combined recent success at Under-17 and U19 European Championships. Spain twice lifted the trophy and reached five straight finals in both tournaments between 2014 and 2018 – and while Barcelona have contributed the likes of Patricia Guijarro and Aitana Bonmatí to those wins, they have also picked up European champions such as Alexia Putellas and Gemma Gili from rivals.

That canny recruitment strategy reflects Barcelona's growing embrace of the women's game, a trend clear enough to anyone who has seen their #WeAreFootballers campaign. With joint photo sessions for both male and female players, Barça have been publicising the two sections side by side on social media to raise awareness among the fanbase.

Meanwhile, a team now coached by Lluís Cortés have no more passionate an advocate than men's boss Ernesto Valverde. Having marked International Women's Day by suggesting a woman could one day take charge of his own side, he and midfielder Carles Aleñá were in attendance on 28 April to support Cortés's charges in their semi- final decider against Bayern.

They were in good company. A club- record crowd of 12,764 witnessed the 1-0 victory at the Mini Estadi, the ground opposite the Camp Nou where the women host their highest-profile matches – at least until the Estadi Johan Cruyff opens later this year. It was a figure in keeping with increased attendances throughout Spain, with the high point set in March when a world-record 60,739 watched Barça defeat Atlético Madrid at the Estadio Metropolitano.

Llorens was another face in that landmark crowd for the Bayern game. "Barcelona show that women's football has finally found its place in Spanish society," he noted afterwards, having watched the team he did so much to build continue their upward trajectory. "More and more people support it, there are more and more sponsors, and there is an increasing interest in television."

Curiously, his old side have been outstripped by Atlético on the domestic stage in recent years, but it is Barcelona who will make history in Budapest. And, for Losada, nothing can stop them from eventually claiming the European crown. "I've been dreaming for a long time, more and more, of reaching the final, of winning the Champions [League] with the club of my heart, which is Barcelona. We're on the right path. Step by step, that moment is getting closer, and perhaps it'll be this year."

STRIKING FEAR FOR BARÇA

Toni Duggan and Lieke Martens have given the Catalan side a cutting edge in their run to the final

Barcelonaws style might be famously home-grown, but their run to a first UEFA Women’s Champions League final has been spearheaded by a pair of illustrious imports in the shape of Toni Duggan and Lieke Martens.

Similar in style – both can play wide or through the middle, and each is adept at creating chances as well as finishing – the duo have struck up a great understanding, providing seven of the Spanish side’s 18 goals en route to Budapest, including three of the four in the quarter-final defeat of LSK Kvinner. Duggan and Martens both moved to Barça in 2017, hungry to be involved in the biggest occasions, and that decision has been thoroughly vindicated this term. 

Not that it was an especially difficult choice, for Martens in particular. “When I was a young girl, I was a huge Barça fan,” says the Dutch international. “I loved Ronaldinho and playing for Barça was a dream come true.” She responded with 14 goals in her debut season, a tally matched by England stalwart Duggan. But the club’s European campaign ended at the hands of Lyon in the quarter-finals, giving the two forwards additional motivation to flourish this season. 

They have done just that. While Barcelona’s defensive steel has caught the eye, at the other end they have shown a clinical edge. Duggan’s five goals in Europe have come from ten shots on target and only 567 minutes of play; Martens, meanwhile, has two goals in five appearances. With each also delivering an assist, their contribution has been significant. 

Attacking midfielder Alexia Putellas believes the pair have played key roles in raising standards, explaining: “They always contribute a lot. They’ve brought something that we needed to improve the true level of Spanish players; it’s helping to make us among the best in the world.”  For now, Barcelona would settle for being the best in Europe.

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UEFA WOMEN'S CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL 2019
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