Women's soccer has experienced massive growth since the 2015 World Cup, when Spain made its first appearance in the tournament. Almost unimaginable four years earlier, the nation's domestic league now has the backing of a major corporate sponsor in energy company Iberdrola, and a total of 8 million viewers tuned in to watch the women's games during the 2018-19 season.
The quantum leap in financing and exposure has led to more fans turning out at stadiums despite competition from the men's game, which features stars like Lionel Messi and Gareth Bale. More than 60,000 people packed Atletico Madrid's Wanda Metropolitano Stadium on March 17 to watch as the home team lost 2-0 to Barcelona in what the league says was a record for the highest attendance at a women's club soccer match. Another 41,000 attended an Atletico game at Athletic Bilbao in January, while the Copa de la Reina final last month between Atletico and Real Sociedad drew 1.6 million TV viewers.
"Going out there, hearing the crowd chant your name and seeing the stadium full was incredible, it is something I will never forget," Atletico and Spain midfielder Silvia Meseguer said about that match against Barcelona.
But, she added: "That is not the reality. It only happens once in a while and we have to fight so that that becomes normal. The challenge is that each Sunday more and more people come out, and for us to do what is necessary to ensure that conditions (for players) are the same on all the teams in the league and that we all work so that the sport is truly professional."
While Atletico can hire top local talent and Barcelona lures in foreign stars like Dutch forward Lieke Martens, FIFA's player of the year in 2017, women in Spain are struggling to get a guaranteed minimum salary for all 16 first-division clubs. Male players in Spain's top division are ensured at least 155,000 euros ($176,000) a season. The numbers being discussed by the players' association and the women's clubs are less than one-fifth of the men's basic wage.
Equally as important, the women are demanding maternity leave. Negotiations between the players' association and the clubs have been dragging on for months. The players have even threatened to delay the start of next season if a deal is not reached.
"We want all women players to have similar amenities, medical services, facilities, medical insurance ... the basic things that we need. We are not asking for something out of this world," said Meseguer, who took a break from the national team last year to finish her degree in medicine.
"I hope my case serves to show others that they can have other pursuits in life. Soccer is short-lived and we have to have somewhere to go," she said. Spain forward Mariona Caldentey helped Barcelona become the first Spanish club to reach the Champions League final this year. But she also remembers how it was playing for a club that doesn't have the budget of a Barcelona.
"I have experienced the other side of this with a more modest club, having to travel by bus and not having fitness trainers," Caldentey said. There are other problems facing women's soccer in Spain. The game has been caught in the power struggle between the Spanish football federation, which officially runs the women's competition, and the men's La Liga, which has taken an important advisory role for women's clubs and includes information on the women's league on its website.
At the center is a battle over television rights. Pedro Malabia, women's soccer director for la Liga, said a group of clubs with women's teams had reached a TV deal with Mediapro worth 3 million euros per season for three years.
The federation, however, says it does not recognize that deal since it, not the club association, is the rights holder. The federation also says Atletico and Barcelona are not among the clubs that want the Mediapro deal.
The clubs aligned with the league, meanwhile, initially balked at a new plan for the women's competitions presented by the federation, which now says that all parties are trying to settle their differences.
Another missing piece is the richest club in the world. Unlike Atletico and Barcelona, which are investing in their women's teams, powerhouse Real Madrid is still one of the few top European clubs to not have one.
But Spain's players are eager to take advantage of the opportunity that the World Cup offers to win over the wider sports audience in soccer-crazed Spain. Spain won all eight of its games in qualifying, led by top scorer Jennifer Hermoso and her seven goals. Spain was scheduled to face South Africa in its World Cup opener Saturday. It will also face Germany, the world's second-ranked team, and China in Group B.
"We are the privileged ones, we are going to fight and do all we can so that this keeps growing," Caldentey said. "We want this World Cup to mark a turning point and for people to like women's football. And if they don't, then at least it's because they tuned in."
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