The rise of the national team from equally raced to ubiquitous in major competitions over the past decade has been one of the most remarkable rises on the women’s international stage.

Euro 2022 was meant to show how a thriving domestic league, landmark payment deal and dedicated youth system resulted in Spain qualifying for the tournament unbeaten, becoming an international force.

In the opener against Finland, Spain impressed in a 4-1 win, but Tuesday’s clash of behemoths, when La Roja take on Germany in Group B, will be a tougher test for a team without two of the best players in the world.

On the eve of the tournament, Spain received their second blow in as many weeks. After announcing in June that all-time top scorer Jenni Hermoso would miss Euro 2022 with a knee injury, La Roja then learned on July 5 that totemic midfielder Alexia Putellas had broken down the left anterior cruciate ligament.

It’s hard to overstate how important Putellas is to this team: a prolific goalscorer, a mercurial playmaker and a player with the individual genius to single-handedly win any game.

Spain will now have to try to compete without two of the best players in the world, with Putellas and Hermoso finishing first and second respectively in the Ballon d’Or rankings in 2021.

“Alexia, it’s very strong to say it, but she is everything,” Amalia Fra, football expert for Spanish sports newspaper AS, told CNN Sport. “She is the whole team because she is like a compass in the middle of the field distributing and moving the opposition team.

“On top of that…she goes up and makes herself a No.9 and scores a goal for you. She makes sure the whole game at La Roja is based around her, but the rest of the game shouldn’t be underestimated. because we have incredible central defenders; Mapi León and Irene Paredes are among the best in the world.

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“In midfield, Aitana [Bonmatí] and Patri [Guijarro] are also the best and her game with them, with whom she plays every day at Barca, keeps the team moving.”

Now, in the absence of Putellas and Hermoso, it will be up to Paredes, León, Bonmatí and Guijarro to lead the Spaniards to their first major international trophy.

‘Exponential growth’

Prior to the 2015 World Cup in Canada, Spanish women’s football was unrecognizable by the standard it sets today.

Fra recalled that players had to travel hundreds of miles every day to train and said any form of nutrition plan was non-existent.

“It was after the 2015 World Cup, which was the first time Spain qualified for the World Cup, that Spain really started to commit to women’s football and the players turned professional. “Fra said.

“They started to receive financial allowances, then they [the federation] also bet on the creation of a more powerful league and its professionalization, which, one would almost say, is something unprecedented.

Spain withdrew from the 2015 World Cup, finishing last in their group.

“Since then there has been an exponential growth in the squad in terms of players, physique, resources, and even the fact that the players, as national team coach Jorge Vilda said, are now professionals and can live off this.”

At the start of 2020, the players of the Women’s First Division reached a historic league-wide agreement which guaranteed each footballer an annual salary.

The agreed minimum wage for a full-time player for a 40-hour week was €16,000 ($18,000) and for a part-time 30-hour week €12,000 ($13,600), both comprising maternity leave, injury compensation and vacation pay.

The deal was the culmination of years of incremental improvement, which also included a TV deal and major title sponsor with renewable energy company, Iberdrola.

Historic agreement for women

But the path has not been easy. In November 2019, after their minimum wage demands were not met, footballers boycotted all eight Premier League matches over a weekend, after 189 representatives from the league’s 16 clubs voted 93% in favor of the strike.

However, once the deal is finally done, the Premier League players could start devoting their professional lives solely to football.

“Today there are still many Spanish national team players who are still studying because they think their career is too short and what they earn is not enough to live the rest of their life” , Fra said.

“So they continue to study, they continue to educate themselves… but today a player from any team in the league can live with what she earns in her team and with the national team.

“In addition, they have a bonus which, with the euros, they will have allowances and image rights which will supplement these salaries.”

“The essence of Barca”

Negotiations over the new deal coincided with the start of Barcelona’s meteoric rise to the top of European football.

Earlier in 2019, Barca became the first Spanish side in history to reach the semi-finals or final of the Women’s Champions League, eventually losing 4-1 to powerhouses Lyon in the final.

Two years later, Azulgrana would finally get their hands on European football’s most coveted prize, as they hammered Chelsea 4-0 in the final to herald what they hoped would be a power shift in the European game.

Barça reached the final again this year, where they fell to Lyon, and many of the players who took part in Barcelona’s rise played a vital role in the Spanish national team’s ascent to a record seventh in the world ranking.

Alexia Putellas celebrates after scoring against Chelsea in the 2021 Champions League Final.

Certainly, parallels can be drawn with the men’s national team that dominated world and European football between 2008 and 2012 with a majority of players from Pep Guardiola’s conquering Barcelona.

Eight players – it was nine before Putellas’ injury – from Barcelona’s current women’s squad have been called up to the 23-man squad for Euro 2022, and six have started the team’s opener .

Like Barça de Guardiola and the Spain team of the time, the style of this national team is heavily influenced by the Catalan giants.

“Barcelona is the one with the singing voice,” Fra explained. “Spain play basically the same way as Barça; tiki taka, touch and verticality in attack. So it’s an honor that Barça put in so much because it made the national team grow.

“The styles are very similar. Also, the players who weigh in on the national team – who are the three Aitana midfielders [Bonmatí]Alexia [Putellas] and Patri Guijarro – they have the essence of Barça, they are from the academy.

“Their references when they were little were Xavi and [Andrés] Iniesta. They admired these players, they created this style at Barça, they play like that and they are the ones who have the dominant weight and they are the ones who make this team work. Basically, I would say it’s exactly the same as Barca in 2010.”

Barcelona’s pulsating and passing style of football recently led club legend and current men’s head coach Xavi to label the team an “inspiration”.

Barcelona have a strong presence in the Spain national team.

Mitigating expectations

Vilda took over after former head coach Ignacio Quereda was ousted after 27 years at the helm in Spain’s disappointing performance at the 2015 World Cup in Canada.

It was the first time the women’s national team had qualified for a World Cup, but after finishing last in their group, the players later came forward and denounced a lack of professionalism within the roster.

Since failing to reach the 2011 World Cup, La Roja have qualified for every major international tournament and have already secured their place at next year’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

This record stands in stark contrast to the previous 26 years, when he managed to qualify for just one major tournament – Euro 1997 – between 1987 and 2013.

Vilda was appointed after guiding the Under-17s and Under-19s to several European Championship titles and many of the players who were key to those teams’ success are now an integral part of the squad senior.

Jorge Vilda has been appointed head coach of the senior women's team following their success in the youth system.

In Euro 2022 qualifying, Spain won seven and drew, scoring 48 goals and conceding just once, but Fra urged caution.

“Reaching the semi-finals, of course, would be a success,” Fra said. “We must not lose sight of the fact that Spain have never reached a final, not even a semi-final. They don’t have that experience that other teams have, like Germany, the England, France, Sweden or Norway.

“It’s true that the journey of this team in recent years has made [fans] believe and invited them to dream, but Jorge Vilda toned down the expectation a bit because he finds it negative that people arrive with such high expectations, that there is too much belief in something that we don’t have never done.

“If they don’t reach the semi-finals it won’t be a failure. A failure would be, for example, not going through the group stage because I think Spain have that capacity and have to go through , but it’s something else that we already demand the team to be at Wembley on July 31.”

It will no doubt be difficult to compete with some of the best teams in the world without its two star players, but this team still boasts a plethora of talent that few teams will enjoy taking on.

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