Doubts were raised about Spain’s ability to go far at the Women’s World Cup without a fully fit Alexia Putellas, but Aitana Bonmati’s starring role in their 5-1 demolition of Switzerland showed that they are not over-reliant on the current Ballon d’Or.
By the time Putellas came off the bench in the 77th minute on Saturday, the last-16 tie at Eden Park in Auckland was already over, Bonmati having scored two goals and set up two more in a masterful display.
Spain are in a Women’s World Cup quarter-final for the first time in their history despite the fact Putellas has so far been used sparingly in New Zealand.
Not long back after a long spell out with a ruptured ACL, the current holder of the Ballon d’Or and FIFA’s Best Women’s Player awards did start the last two group games.
However, she did not last more than an hour in those matches and on Saturday was relegated to the bench.
Bonmati, meanwhile, was so good as Spain bounced back from a 4-0 hiding by Japan that her coach Jorge Vilda was asked after the game if the 25-year-old Barcelona midfielder might be the best player in the world right now.
Her two goals against Switzerland both came after delightful first touches to set herself up, similar to the goal she scored in Spain’s opening 3-0 win over Costa Rica.
Bonmati might not be as big a star as Putellas and might not wear the captain’s armband, but the slight number six is just as much a leader in Vilda’s team as she is supremely gifted on the ball.
“I think for me it is innate. I like to communicate, I like to talk and I like to transmit that character to the whole team,” she said after being named player of the match.
“When I have the ball, when I don’t have the ball, when things are going badly, I always try to help my team.”
A key cog in the Barcelona side that dominates Spanish women’s football, she was named the best player in last season’s UEFA Champions League, which the Catalans won for the second time in three years.
Bonmati idolised Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta growing up and plays like those marvellous midfielders now.
– Rebel with a cause –
But she doesn’t just play with grace, she is a fighter, something passed down from her parents –- both teachers of Catalan literature, they fought to change a law in Spain which obliged parents to give children the father’s surname first, followed by that of the mother.
They won, and their daughter now carries her mother’s surname.
Bonmati fights for others off the pitch — she gives up her spare time when not playing to do work for a UN Refugee Agency in Spain and sported a t-shirt with the message ‘Welcome Refugees’ on the pitch after Barcelona’s Champions League final win in June.
She fights for her teammates off the field too — Bonmati was one of the 15 Spain rebels who announced last September that they did not want to be selected for their country in a protest against the Spanish federation and against Vilda.
“I wanted to be part of it,” she told The Players’ Tribune website recently.
“I felt that the Spanish football federation needed to invest more in us. Certain changes needed to be made if we were to win big tournaments. Which is what we want to do, otherwise what’s the point?”
Yet she accepted to come back into the fold and was one of three rebels recalled by Vilda for the World Cup, providing a huge boost to Spain’s chances.
“She does things that very few people know how to do. She can play the ball with her right foot, with her left and she reads the game so well,” said the Real Madrid forward Athenea del Castillo.
“It is a privilege to play with her in this team.”