Photograph: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images
Aitana Bonmatí looked distraught and you could be forgiven for thinking she was on the losing side. Hands on the side of her head, eyes closed, face screwed up. But then you look at her movement and energy and it gives the real story away; together with the depleted players in blue she is running away from. As the mercurial Spanish midfielder races towards her teammate Mariona Caldentey, England’s Millie Bright stands with hands on hips, Georgia Stanway leans forward, hands on her knees, and Alex Greenwood adjusts her hair above the heavy bandage from the injury she has picked up mid-match.
They are the vanquished of Spain’s World Cup winners, of a team of fighters that cruised towards becoming the best on the pitch despite draining and lengthy battles off it, and they are the vanquished of Bonmatí herself, the unplayable engine of Spain and Barcelona who this year moved past her club and country teammate Alexia Putellas and into the spotlight as the world’s best.
That Bonmatí sits at No 1 on the Guardian’s list of the 100 best female footballers is no surprise. The only minor shock is that 10 of the 112 judges, made up of former players, managers and journalists from around the world, did not have her as their No 1. Such was her dominance that she finished more than 500 points clear of second-placed Sam Kerr.
Going back to the summer of 2022 it was, in fact, the cruel misfortune of Putellas being struck down by an ACL injury on the eve of the Euros that helped push Bonmatí to the fore, though many have long thought of her as the unsung hero of Barcelona and Spain. Without Putellas, though, the Catalan magician was forced to help plug the gap – as well as adding leadership and goals to increase her threat.
While Bonmatí had been operating in the shadow of the two-time Ballon d’Or winner Putellas, she had not been ignored. After the intelligent midfielder was sent off in the semi-final of the Under-20 World Cup, while wearing the captain’s armband, meaning she missed Spain’s defeat by Japan in the final, the former Barcelona and Spain international Xavi, now manager of Barcelona’s men’s team, told Fifa: “She reminds me of me, because we understand football the same way. Football’s about using your brain. If you put talent up against physicality, talent will always win, because that’s the essence of football.”
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Her idol, the player she has modelled her game on to such thrilling effect, also wrote the prologue to her autobiography and said that watching her play “excites me, it gets me off my seat”. He then prophetically declared: She’s got all the ingredients to become the best player in the world because, on top of everything, she’s a real perfectionist. The mental strength that she has will determine how far she can go.”
Every time Bonmatí has stepped on the pitch, from when she was the only girl of 400 playing for her local side CD Ribes, to the World Cup final, she has captured attentions and imaginations.
In the 2022-23 season the 25-year-old scored nine league goals and provided 10 assists as Barcelona won Liga F and, in the Champions League, added five goals as they cantered towards a second European title, although they were given a scare in the final by Wolfsburg. This season she has already scored six goals and provided five assists in Liga F and has netted three times in the Champions League.
But goals and assists do not tell the full story of Bonmatí’s influence: she controls games with an intelligent ferocity, toying with the tempo of matches, picking out the most unpredictable of passes with an unrivalled awareness of the spaces that open and close around her.
All of her success in 2023 has been set against the backdrop of turmoil. For much of the year Bonmatí did not play for her country, one of “Las 15”, the 15 players who wrote to the Spanish football federation saying the environment around the national team was affecting their health. She was dropped from the side alongside her 14 compatriots. The midfielder was one of only three to return to the squad for the World Cup.
The manager, Jorge Vilda, had been backed by the Spanish FA and was still in place in Australia and New Zealand but with each win on the way to the final he cut a more and more isolated figure. After the win the players celebrated separately from staff.
Bonmatí was brought up understanding what it means to fight back by her parents, Rosa Bonmatí Guidonet and Vicent Conca i Ferràs, who were both teachers. Her father was a campaigner for the Movement for the Defence of the Land, a coalition of socialist organisations pushing for Catalonian independence, and both were leading members of the movement demanding a change to the law that stated children must take their father’s name first and mother’s second.
Such was their anger at the law that, after they had been told they were not allowed to put Bonmatí first, they agreed her mother would register her as single parent, leaving baby Aitana with one surname. Bonmatí was two when the law was changed, thanks to her parents’ fight, and the young Catalan was one of the first people in Spain to have their mother’s surname precede their father’s.
In her Ballon d’Or speech, delivered in a mixture of Spanish, Catalan and English, she thanked her parents for instilling a commitment to struggle in her. “You fought for change, and you succeeded,” she said. “I carry that fight and resilience in my blood.”
She also spoke of the broader role women footballers play, adding, in English, at the end of her speech: “As role models, we have a responsibility on and off the pitch. We should be more than athletes. We should lead by example and keep fighting together for a better, peaceful and equal world.”
Yes, Bonmatí is a generational talent on the pitch, but she is also an increasingly influential leader off it, one who will be winning awards in both those arenas for many years to come.