SANT JOAN DESPÍ, Spain — When Barcelona midfielder Aitana Bonmatí was the only girl playing on her village’s soccer team, she quickly learned that she would have to fight for the game she loved.
That character-forging experience has helped the 25-year-old Bonmatí lead her team to a fourth Women's Champions League final in five years. On Saturday, the Spanish club will face German team Wolfsburg in Eindhoven for the title.
Back in her younger days, her opponents weren’t the source of trouble. It was her own teammates.
“I was the only girl and I remember having lots of fights. The boys had a hard time accepting that a girl could play soccer,” Bonmatí told The Associated Press recently in an interview at the stadium where Barcelona’s women play most of their games. “It was like ‘I can’t step on a girl,' or 'How can a girl play ahead of me?’
“But I don’t blame those boys, it was an issue of education and society as a whole,” she said about her childhood in Sant Pere de Ribes, a village just south of Barcelona where Bonmatí grew up watching Lionel Messi and his teammates dominate men’s European soccer on TV. “I think those years helped me grow as a person, forging my character, and as a player. I believe they made me a more physical player, and the intensity I play with I got from that time.”
Bonmatí is hoping Barcelona will win its second European Cup, and, if all goes well and a group conflict with Spain’s coach can be resolved, play at her second Women's World Cup this year.
Bonmatí has been a key part of Barcelona becoming the dominant team in Spain, where it has won four league titles in a row, and is now a regular finalist in Europe's elite club tournament.
Slick with the ball, possessing great vision and quick with her feet, her dribbling and passes for teammates are critical to Barcelona’s possession-based attack. Bonmatí is proud that her style of play is pure “Made in Barcelona.”
This season, Bonmatí tops the Champions League with seven assists and is tied with six other players with five goals, second only to Wolfsburg forward Ewa Pajor with eight.
“When I was young, I didn’t have women players to look to as references. So my references were 100% masculine: Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta,” she said. “At the end, a Barcelona midfielder knows how to manage each second of the match, when to push the pace, when to hold the ball to let the team regroup.”
Bonmatí also knows what it is like to lose two Champions League finals — both to Lyon. The French club beat Barcelona in the 2019 final and in last year’s final when Lyon scored three times in the first half for a 3-1 victory.
“It is important not to concede early (Saturday) so those phantoms of the past don’t reappear,” she said. “(But) it is very important to know how to handle those moments when the rival scores. Even if things are not going our way, we have to know how to keep our heads in the game.”
But between those losses Bonmatí helped Barcelona rout Chelsea 4-0 in the 2021 final, becoming the first club to have won both men’s and women’s Champions League titles. Bonmatí was MVP of that final for her goal and her role as Barcelona’s passing engine.
This season she has taken a step forward, literally. With two-time Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas missing most of the season with a leg injury, Bonmatí was moved forward by coach Jonatan Giráldez into a more attacking position.
Bonmatí debuted with Spain’s senior team in 2017. She played in the 2019 Women's World Cup and the 2022 European Championship. But then things went awry.
Bonmatí was one of 15 players, including five of her club teammates, who renounced playing for Spain in September, citing their differences with coach Jorge Vilda. The Spanish soccer federation backed Vilda and the rebels have not played for Spain since.
Bonmatí hopes that there can be a reconciliation so she can play at the Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in July.
“I always say that I am prepared to play in each and every competition, after all I am a professional player with ambition. So I would be lying if I said that I haven’t thought about the World Cup this season,” she said. “But this does not only depend on me. It is true that there has been an attempt to bring the two sides together, but we will see what happens.
“Once you have taken a step forward,” Bonmatí said, "it’s the other side’s turn.”