Alexia Putellas is slowly returning to training. “I have started to get some feeling back when it comes to running. Now I’m starting a cycle of adaptation, to running, to the body, and this takes time,” the FC Barcelona midfielder shrugs, displaying a little impatience. The best soccer player in the world has not kicked a ball since July 5 after suffering a cruciate ligament injury in her right knee. That hasn’t stopped her off the field though. In October she picked up her second consecutive Ballon d’Or in Paris and in November a documentary about her life and career premiered on Prime Video. Alexia: Labor Omnia Vincit tells the story of how the little girl who posed with a ball at her feet in family photographs became an elite athlete who personifies the evolution and revolution of women’s soccer.
She wears the Latin phrase that provides the title of the documentary as a tattoo. It means: “Work conquers everything.” She also has another old photograph tattooed on her back, taken with her father, who died in 2012 when her career started to take off. Are tattoos a kind of personal diary? “I got my first one when I was 18 and it’s the one I like the least, I guess like all people... It’s an esthetic question. I used to like getting tattoos, some have a meaning, others don’t. The one with my father’s picture obviously does, some phrases too...”
Question. A 14-year-old player wanted me to ask you how you kept going when you were in the youth category, despite all the obstacles. She says that nowadays girls still get picked on.
Answer. I would tell her to be strong and fight for her passion, that she shouldn’t even think of giving it up, because in the end she would be letting those who tell her not to play win. Unfortunately, she is right that there is still a long way to go, even though it has advanced so quickly. But it goes beyond that; it is a matter of education, a matter of culture. That takes many years to change, but we have to do it.
Q. Homophobic and racist insults are sometimes heard in soccer. There is criticism that it isn’t sanctioned enough. Should the authorities come down harder on it?
A. Yes, without a doubt. But this is not only an issue in soccer, but society in general. I think that the fans, the soccer fields, are a reflection of the society we have in this country. When there are racist or homophobic insults, or when there is no respect for a person who is different from you, we are doing something wrong.
Q. Do you think women’s soccer is more inclusive in this respect, with stars like Megan Rapinoe, who is known for her LGTBI+ activism?
A. I think so, yes; it is much more inclusive because of the simple fact that in today’s society these issues, fortunately, are not taboo, you can talk about them. They certainly existed before but they weren’t discussed. I think [women’s soccer] has grown in a much more inclusive environment because of the moment in which it has come into focus in society. That’s good and hopefully the men’s game will also achieve that.
Q: The Spanish women’s league was recognized as professional this year. Is this exposure, this coverage, the visibility and income it provides, necessary for the sport to move forward?
A. It’s the foundation of everything. It’s like the key for this wheel to start turning. What isn’t seen, doesn’t exist. It’s the same as when the men’s wheel began to turn with free-to-air games. Now they say: “We’re paying for this with everyone’s taxes.” Well, my grandfather’s or my mother’s taxes also paid for the men’s game. We’re just getting started.
Q. What did it mean to you to win the Ballon d’Or in 2021? No Spanish player had done so since Luis Suárez in 1960.
A. Now, with a little bit of perspective, it’s like wow, right? It’s a very long road, many years, and that tells me something. That’s not to say I don’t think someone in between also deserved it, eh? But that’s the reality: a Spanish player winning a Ballon d’Or when it has been 60 years since the last one.
Q. Did you think you’d get to where you are now when you were a kid?
A. No, not at all. It was impossible. I could love playing soccer, but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to make a living from it, it was an impossible dream because the means didn’t exist. It wasn’t a profession.
Q: Do you think one day women’s salaries will be in line with men’s?
A. In the men’s game there are many gray areas and two extremes. Depending on which one we’re talking about, I could say that it could happen in the future, but the other extreme would be impossible. Anyway, the trend in the men’s game is moving away from those sorts of numbers. In a few years they will be the exception, not the rule.
Q. When Ada Hegerberg won the Ballon d’Or in 2018 the presenter asked if she knew how to twerk. Have you experienced sexist behavior or is it not so common now?
A. I don’t think so these days. And I don’t know if that’s because people look at my face and say: ‘This is one isn’t taking any nonsense.’ This kind of humor is another reflection of what we were talking about. Now I genuinely feel that everybody just treats me as a soccer player, nothing more. You realize that people are really starting to respect this profession the moment they treat you like that.
Q. Recently athletes have begun to speak publicly about mental health problems, unafraid to show that they are not invincible.
A. Well, it’s not that you think you are invincible. Maybe it’s the external expectation that is put on you, but in 95% of the cases people don’t really know you, they have their image of who you are and that can generate expectations that, depending on your personality or at what point you are in your life, can affect you. Everyone should be free to talk about whatever they want and no one should feel obliged to do so.
Q. Is it difficult to manage fame?
A. It’s not a subject I particularly like, basically because I don’t care. At no point has seeking fame or being famous been one of my objectives. It’s the same with awards. They are the results of my job, what we are doing now is also a result of my job. But this isn’t my job.
Q. You recently presented Rosalía with an award and she said she is a big fan of yours. Do you feel you are part of a generation that is leaving stereotypes behind and creating new references?
A. Not intentionally. I’m going to talk in the singular because I don’t want to say anything in her name, but I think it’s just being yourself. What I like most about Rosalía and what I totally identify with is that “I came here to break out and if I fail, I fail [paraphrasing the lyrics of Rosalía’s song Sakura]. She says it in a song and, literally, that’s how it is. This is one of the things that is permeating the next generations the most. It’s nice that everyone can and wants to be what he or she wants to be and that we all live in this environment of respect and admiration for each other.
Q. Do you yourself as a future Spain coach or Barça manager?
A. “[Smiles], I don’t know, I don’t know. I would love - because I am very impatient - to know what I’ll do after I stop playing, but I don’t know, I can’t say.
Q. What will the 2023 World Cup mean for the sport?
A. It’s going to have a huge impact, just like this summer’s European Championship in England, which achieved record [television] audiences, record attendance, everything.
Q. And would you like to be with your teammates at the World Cup?
A. It’s a subject that I’m not going to talk about publicly for now, I think it has to be solved privately. It should have been solved internally [a group of 15 Spain players have refused to play for the team until institutional changes are enacted by the Spanish Football Federation].
Q. What’s left for you to achieve?
A. I’m still missing a lot of things. I would love to win many more Champions League titles, some national team titles. I would love to win practically everything every year with the club. I still have a lot to do...
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