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“Where did this girl come from, where did she come from?”
Around Catalonia, those incredulous words were heard every time Aitana Bonmati took to the pitch.
In the early 2000s – an era when football pitches were often not seen as a place for girls – she defied stereotypes and scepticism from the beginning.
Oscar Gamez was her first coach, guiding her as a seven-year-old girl in a CD Ribes boys’ team. He vividly recalls the post-match scenes, when parents from opposing teams would approach him in disbelief.
“She was like a tsunami,” Gamez told BBC Sport. “On the pitch, she was a force of nature. It was a sensation to see her play.
“She had an extra thing that the boys didn’t have – this effervescence, this character of always wanting and wanting and wanting to go… that was the main difference.”
Bonmati was not just the only girl on her team; she was the only girl playing for CD Ribes as a whole. One club, with 400 boys and one girl.
“We know how boys can be, and at that time, they discriminated against her for being the only girl,” Gamez said. “But I never had to mediate. Aitana had a very strong character and didn’t let anyone trample over her.”
Playing on rough pitches, Bonmati would throw herself into tackles, dust herself down and never complain.
Small-town scepticism quickly turned to awe.
Bonmati’s story isn’t merely one of a girl who played football; it is a saga of mental strength, intensity, and a relentless desire that transcends generations.
From the dirt and grit of Ribes’ proving grounds, Bonmati has risen to the pinnacle of women’s football, yet the source of her energy and resilience stretches back, far beyond the pitch and even her own birth.
Rosa Bonmati, Aitana’s mother, faced a form. And a decision.
It was 1998. She had come to the civil registry to register her daughter’s birth.
Spanish tradition, convention and legislation were unanimous. The surname of Rosa’s father – Vincent Conca – must be the first of Aitana’s two surnames. Bonmati would be retained as a name, but only on official documents. Aitana would be commonly known as Aitana Conca.
With Vincent’s full endorsement, she put her own name – Bonmati – before her husband’s.
When the bureaucracy wouldn’t allow that, Rosa instead registered herself as a single mother, leaving Vincent’s details off the form entirely, and giving Aitana only one surname, but an early example of standing up for what she believes in.
Rosa left the registry but refused to let the issue lie. Together with politician Imma Mayol and a team of legal experts, she put forward a proposal to change the law to allow parents to ascribe their children’s’ surnames in any order.
It was passed at the end of 1999, a few months before Aitana’s second birthday. Vincent’s name was added to Aitana’s official documents, but after Rosa’s. She became Aitana Bonmati Conca, just as Rosa had always intended.
Vincent, like his wife, is committed to causes.
As well as advocating for family rights, he is a campaigner in the Movement for the Defence of the Land (MDT), a coalition of socialist organisations pushing for the independence of Catalonia and other surrounding regions.
“Rosa has always been a bit more impulsive, while Vincent is a bit more reflective and thoughtful and composed. The blend has given Aitana this way of being”, her aunt Lily Bonmati told BBC Sport.
Aitana’s upbringing was a peaceful one.
Nestled on the outskirts of Barcelona, Ribes is a tranquil village of about 30,000 residents.
In this idyllic spot, where the sound of children playing football echoes off the town square’s stone buildings, Bonmati thrived.
For her parents, intellectual stimulation was more important than athletic passion.
Both Rosa and Vincent taught Catalan language and literature and the family home resembled a quaint library, with every room adorned with books.
Guided by Rosa, Aitana would piece together puzzles as a toddler, building focus and concentration to go with her natural energy.
By then she had long since been in her own room. Her parents, keen to develop their daughter’s independence, had taught her to sleep alone from the tender age of three months.
The love of books is something that has been passed down through the generations, with Bonmati fascinated by philosophy, justice and history.
Her reading includes If This Is A Man and Man’s Search for Meaning – Primo Levi and Viktor Frankl’s accounts of their incarceration in Nazi-run concentration camps during the Second World War – and Heather Dune Macadam’s The Nine Hundred, which details the story of a group of young women who were the first Jews to be taken by official transport to Auschwitz.
Currently, she is engrossed in Open – Andre Agassi’s 2009 autobiography – which charts the legendary tennis player’s intense childhood and difficulties dealing with fame.
Bonmati had tried swimming and basketball, but it was football that fit best, both for her and her family.
Her mother relished Bonmati’s disregard for gender norms, while her father would fashion a ball from aluminium foil and take on his young daughter in high-spirited games in the kitchen.
As her passion developed, Bonmati would wear her Ribes football kit to family gatherings rather than a dress. And in her family, such freedom of expression was encouraged rather than challenged.
Her first coach, Gamez, saw her fearless spirit and drew a comparison with charismatic Barcelona captain Carles Puyol. Starting as a defender, Bonmati’s ability to steal the ball and initiate attacks showcased her strength on the pitch.
But as Gamez rotated her from defence to midfield, Bonmati’s influence only grew, paving the way for her journey, 40 minutes east, from the serene village of Ribes to the noise and light of FC Barcelona.
The move to Barcelona marked a substantial step up in the standard of football. Yet, there was not the same improvement in conditions off the pitch.
After training, Bonmati and her Barcelona youth team-mates would make do with cold showers in makeshift changing rooms.
Gym sessions and tactical video analysis lectures, pivotal to developing their teenage minds and bodies for the professional game, never happened.
And, while their male counterparts had the famed La Masia, Barcelona’s female youth players had no similar on-site residential facility to help their training.
Instead, once their three-hour training sessions finished around midnight, Bonmati would watch her team-mates climb into family cars to head back to their distant hometowns, fighting off sleep to study schoolwork as they went.
And they were the lucky ones.
Bonmati used to take public transport every day, first the bus and then the train, to be able to train with Barcelona. This was because her mother suffers from chronic pain condition fibromyalgia and was often unable to drive and her father had not passed his test.
It was a journey of 23 miles and more than an hour each way for Bonmati.
“I was running so as not to miss the train home… I even wondered if it was worth all the effort,” she admitted last year, thinking back to those days.
“She got tired because it was tough,” her aunt Lily said. “She was about to quit football in adolescence.”
Aitana was 13 when her mother suggested that, as well as working hard towards her goals, she should also work on herself.
Bonmati started seeing a psychologist, focusing on accepting frustration as a normal part of achievement and the pursuit of excellence.
Some of the exercises that she learned, such as writing down her emotions to help ease their burden on her mind, she still practises today.
Through these testing years, though, Bonmati’s love of football never wavered. Former team-mate Carla Rivera vividly recalls Bonmati’s relentless pursuit of improvement.
“I recall her being extremely demanding of herself, obsessed with sport and driven to improve,” Rivera told BBC Sport.
“There were times when she stayed overnight at my place after late training sessions, and after dinner she remained engrossed in football-related content on the internet.”
The obsession did not translate into instant success. When Lluis Cortes was appointed manager of Barcelona in 2019, the 21-year-old Bonmati was a fringe player.
“Aitana is a very ambitious player who always wants to play and be important, and that role was proving to be challenging for her,” admitted Cortes of Bonmati’s bit-part presence in the team.
However, Cortes, who knew the midfielder from working with the Catalan ‘national’ team, was soon won over by her determination and quality.
“She’s a player who gives her all in every training session, and through that she has undoubtedly secured her place in the first team,” he added.
Bonmati has since emerged as a key player in Barcelona’s midfield, winning four successive domestic titles and two Champions Leagues.
Bonmati’s importance for club and country increased after Alexia Putellas, her predecessor as the Ballon d’Or winner, suffered a knee ligament injury in 2022.
Bonmati seamlessly stepped into the breach, not only assuming a crucial role in Barcelona and the Spain national team, but also shouldering leadership responsibilities.
“I believe that Aitana did have to step up with Alexia’s injury,” said Cortes. “She was the player who had to assume that role because we had been preparing her in recent years to be a leader within the team.”
In August 2023, when Spain’s Ivana Andres hoisted the Women’s World Cup into the night sky in Sydney, Bonmati was on the edge of the celebration image that would appear on front pages around the world.
But, on the pitch and in the aftermath, she was central.
“She is a leader, especially on the field, where she demonstrates it the most. She is considered the brain and nerve of the team,” Ona Batlle, a team-mate for club and country, told BBC Sport.
In the story of women’s football, Veronica Boquete, a revered figure and former Spain captain, stands as testament to the national team’s resilience against their own football association.
Eight years ago, Boquete skippered Spain in their first World Cup appearance. The outcome – a group-stage exit – was very different from 2023, but the backdrop was depressingly familiar.
In the aftermath of the tournament, Boquete and the rest of the squad demanded the removal of Ignacio Quereda, who had coached the team for 27 years, later accusing him of overseeing a toxic culture.
Quereda resigned in July 2015.
Boquete believes that collective uprising, aimed at reshaping the federation and national team structures, lay the groundwork for subsequent transformations off the pitch and success on it.
“When we started to experience good conditions abroad, we knew how important it was to make this leap in quality,” Boquete told BBC Sport.
“It was the only thing missing.”
Boquete says Spain’s women’s team are not seeking identical salaries to men but rather parity in training, travel and technical staff to optimise their competitiveness and maximise their chances of victory.
In August 2023, the ultimate moment of triumph arrived – a team who, a decade before had never even qualified for the Women’s World Cup, won the game’s greatest prize.
But Spain’s sweetest moment was soured by the kiss that former Spanish Football Federation president Luis Rubiales gave forward Jennifer Hermoso as the team went to collect their prize in Sydney.
The image of that kiss, which Hermoso says was non-consensual, circled the globe and started a worldwide debate.
Bonmati was one of 15 players who wrote to the Spanish federation in September 2022 saying that they would not play for the team again until changes were made to a culture and set-up that was damaging to their “emotional state” and “health”.
The Spanish federation made their writing of letters public and backed coach Jorge Vilda instead. Bonmati, Batlle and forward Mariona Caldentey were the only three of the 15 complainants to be included in the squad for Australia and New Zealand 2023.
In the wake of their World Cup victory, Bonmati used her platform when receiving an Uefa award for the best European player to point out the parallels with women everywhere.
“We won the World Cup, but we’re not talking a lot about that because of some things I [would] rather not ignore,” she said on stage in Monaco.
“As a society, we cannot allow the abuse of power in a professional relationship, as well as acts of disrespect.
“I would like to extend my support from my team-mate Jenni to all women going through the same.”
The power of words and the importance of her profile is part of the legacy of Bonmati’s upbringing.
Having won the game’s top individual, club and international honours, what is next for Bonmati to aim for?
Batlle insists there are plenty more goals to achieve.
“We no longer think about being world champions; instead, we want to be Olympic champions or secure another victory in the Champions League,” she said of Spain and Barcelona’s next objectives.
Yet Bonmati’s greatest legacy may not be in the trophy cabinet. Six years ago, back at her first club of CD Ribes, there was no female team.
Now locals describe Bonmati as the ‘godmother’ of a club which can boast 180 girls playing across 14 teams. It is a transformation that has been mirrored across the country.
Nine years ago, there were 44,873 registered female football players in Spain. In 2023, the total reached 100,000.
Bonmati still visits her first club a couple of times a year. When she does, there are extraordinary scenes. The girls don’t just welcome her; they cry, fight, or even scratch themselves out of pure emotion for a photo.
Her influence is not only felt in grand stadiums but it resonates deeply at the grassroots, where dreams are nurtured and the level of competition rises with each passing day.
Despite her impact and influence, Bonmati is still true to the quiet, reserved girl who started out on her journey. After she won the Ballon d’Or in October, the family WhatsApp group wasn’t flooded with messages and behind-the-scenes selfies from Paris.
“We extended our congratulations, reaffirming our support for her,” remembered her aunt Lily.
“I also took a moment to reflect on our family, considering the award as a collective recognition of our shared efforts.
“Her response only came a few days later. We understand her reserved demeanour; it’s part of who she is and the demands of her profession.”
Bonmati’s journey, marked by silent struggles and vocal triumphs, has not always been easy.
“Ambition is all well and good, but behind it comes suffering,” she said this summer in an interview with El Pais.
For Bonmati, those words are more than a soundbite statement; they belong in an anthem of resilience that has played since the start.