Spain, via Barcelona, continues to rule women's soccer

Barcelona's team captain Alexia Putellas lifts the trophy after winning the women's Champions League final soccer match between FC Barcelona and Olympique Lyonnais at the San Mames stadium in Bilbao, Spain, Saturday, May 25, 2024. Barcelona won 2-0. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)
Barcelona won the UEFA Women's Champions League by beating Lyon 2-0 in Saturday's final. It's their third title in four years. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

The Year of Spain, and of Spanish reign atop women's soccer, continued Saturday on the same stage it began last June, in the UEFA Women's Champions League final.

Barcelona beat Lyon, the competition's now-former queen, 2-0 to claim a second consecutive European title.

And with six Spanish players in their starting 11, plus more off the bench, they proved a point that incoming U.S. women's national team coach Emma Hayes made earlier this week.

"Spain," Hayes told ESPN, "is so far ahead of everyone else.”

Three of Spain's many stars showed why in the 63rd minute of a fascinating game that became a battle between technicians and athletes, of structure and pretty passing vs. strength and set pieces.

Patri Guijarro, Mariona Caldentey and Aitana Bonmatí, three of the technicians, formed one of their vintage triangles in midfield. Bonmatí then darted forward. Caldentey clipped a clever ball into her path. Bonmatí scurried into the box. Her cross-shot took a wicked deflection past Lyon keeper Christiane Endler, and Barcelona took a deserved lead.

Then, in stoppage time, after a few scares, three more Spanish stars sent some 50,000 fans into raptures.

This time it was Ona Batlle, Claudia Pina and Alexia Putellas, all second-half substitutes. Pina, 22, who was not part of Spain's 2023 World Cup-winning squad, scampered down the left half-space, into the penalty box. Putellas, with her magic wand of a left foot, drove home the dagger.

The Estadio de San Mamés, full of Blaugrana faithful, erupted — and not just because a repeat and a quadruple were complete; because this, a Putellas goal, was a fitting conclusion.

Putellas, 30, rose to prominence when Spanish women's soccer still existed in the shadows. Even as she won Ballon d'Ors in 2021 and 2022, years of insufficient support and institutional neglect still held back the senior women's national team.

By then, Spanish clubs — most notably Barcelona — were producing an endless stream of talent. At various youth tournaments, and at every level inside the sport, coaches and developmental experts could see Spain rising.

The missing piece was a major international trophy. On the eve of Euro 2022, Putellas tore her ACL, and Spain crashed out in the quarterfinals. At the World Cup, prior to 2023, La Roja still didn't own a knockout-round win.

On the club side, meanwhile, Barcelona won its first women's Champions League in 2021 — beating Hayes' Chelsea 4-0 — but succumbed to Lyon, Europe's dominant team, in 2022, for the third time in five seasons.

So there were, at this time a year ago, still reasonable questions about the validity of Spain's player pipeline and youth success. But irrefutable evidence began to arrive last June. Barcelona came from behind to beat Wolfsburg in the 2023 Champions League final. Two-and-a-half months later, despite a year of tumult, Spain's national team lifted a maiden World Cup.

And it was clear, to those who'd seen the rise up close, that there was more of the same to come.

“This,” Maria Teixidor, the former head of women’s football at Barca, told Yahoo Sports last August, “is just the beginning."

Saturday's triumph, then, was a continuation. Next up, for many of Barca's victors, could be another one: the Olympics. They are the gold-medal favorites, and no new USWNT coach could change that.

In fact, their preeminence is something that Hayes knows all too well. Barcelona knocked her Chelsea teams out of the Champions League in 2021, 2023 and 2024.

As she exited her final Chelsea news conference last weekend, Hayes turned and cracked an optimistic joke about seeing reporters again at the Olympic gold medal match later this summer. Then she added: "I've gotta f***ing beat the Spanish at some point."