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After referee strike, federation strife, Spain’s professional Liga F finally kicks off

Rafa Huerta/SPP

It has not been a summer for Spanish women’s soccer. With the prospect of a new, long-awaited professional league — now officially named Liga F — kicking off during the 2022-23 season, the rosy mood of hope and expectation soon gave way to a darker reality: a power-grabbing battle between the league and federation authorities about every little detail to be agreed, with players caught between shots.

In parallel, at Spain’s national team headquarters, it was a longstanding — but only whispered — criticism coming from the most senior internationals about coach Jorge Vilda and his backroom staff what was leaked to the general public. There were long faces everywhere, mutual accusations about who leaked what, and an uncomfortable press conference where captain Irene Paredes could hardly contain herself from crying.

Understandably, it was only on transfer window deadline day, when FC Barcelona finally broke the women’s world transfer record in their effort to secure England play-maker Keira Walsh from Manchester City, that footballers and club soccer regained the center stage. And there’s a lot to talk about.

Reigning champions Barça double down

If someone thought there could be a slim chance about getting a new Spanish champion for the first time since 2019, FC Barcelona’s front office tried hard to dissuade anyone from betting on it. With Jennifer Hermoso and Lieke Martens leaving, and Alexia Putellas recovering from an ACL injury for the coming months, the Blaugranas signed Walsh, Lucy Bronce, Geyse Ferreira, Nuria Rábano and young prospects Salma Paralluelo and Vicky López to complete a remarkable transfer window.

It will be intriguing to see how Jonatan Giráldez adapts his bulletproof system while trying to maintain their invincible status in the league. With Walsh arriving in top form, logic indicates she will be the starting No. 6 in front of the defensive line. Still, that would require displacing the best holding midfielder in town — and in the country — the silent piece that makes Barça’s engine tick: Patri Guijarro.

Nonetheless, Guijarro is naturally equipped to switch with ease to the demands of an interior midfielder as a No. 8 with more freedom to exploit her box-to-box and shooting abilities. The question mark will not be placed on the individuals but in the team’s rearranged positioning and functioning as a whole.

Barcelona, facing newcomers Levante Las Planas in their opening match, then Granadilla Tenerife and Villarreal, will presumably enjoy an easy start of the season to adjust its game plan to the new life without Alexia. Considering its roster’s depth and versatility, it’ll simply be a matter of time. Anything but finding Barça sitting at the top of the table by the time the 2021’s Ballon d’Or winner is back should be front-page news.

All eyes on the Champions League tickets race

If the fight for the championship looks settled from the very beginning, a diametrically different story comes in place when looking at the next spots in the table. That’s where one starts finding the traces of the growing influence of Spain’s women’s soccer. Its ‘middle class’ is expanding, with clubs like Real Sociedad, Real Madrid or Atlético de Madrid building rosters 20-plus deep with quality.

All of them, plus any unexpected underdog, will have in mind securing one of the two positions up for grabs (when taking Barça out of the equation) that open the door to the Champions League.

Real Madrid in 2020-21, and Real Sociedad last year, demonstrated how an almost immaculate, eight-month long campaign is required for getting the first of these golden tickets.

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The third and final spot will, in addition to the relegation landscape, prove to be the most exhilarating of battles. A case in point being the Real Madrid side that went past Manchester City two weeks ago: las Blancas couldn’t secure their third overall position until the last minute of the very last match of the season, with Atlético de Madrid giving on the glory to their great city rivals knowing an extra, solitary goal could change everything to their favor.

Atleti has had a super busy summer, renovating almost half of its roster with a clear focus on improving its defensive performance. Andrea Medina, Ainhoa Moraza, Xènia Pérez or Irene Guerrero will surely help las Colchoneras gain consistency, but this will be a team that just lost locker room leaders (Amanda Sampedro, Silvia Meseguer) and key starting 11 pieces (Laia Aleixandri, Deyna Castellanos).

With Real Sociedad taking the opposite route, one of calm consolidation after doing everything right the previous year, a fascinating head-to-head seems to be brewing.

Real Madrid expects to be first among equals from this trio. Manager Alberto Toril, starting his first full season in charge, had a clear idea of what his team was lacking and where Real should be heading during their third year in operation: upping its physical presence. While veterans Kosovare Asllani, Aurelie Kaci and Babett Peter left, in came Caroline Weir, Sandie Toletti and Freja Olofsson to reinvigorate a previously scant midfield. In addition, both Kathellen Sousa and Naomie Feller impressed from day one during preseason as center back and right winger, respectively.

The best of the rest

With a 16-team league, but only three European spots and two relegation positions, an open ocean sits in between where expecting the unexpected should be the norm.

Yes, Levante Las Planas and Alhama CF will have the one and only target will be staying up, but what about the rest? Sevilla FC, with the arrival of forward Cristina Martín-Prieto, among others, looks like the most improved side, and one to watch.

Athletic Club, Granadilla Tenerife and Levante UD all suffered painful exits during the summer but had solid foundations and will be aiming to be not too far away from the top four. Real Betis and Valencia CF have big question marks all around them, while Alavés, Villarreal, Madrid CFF and Sporting de Huelva focus on quickly amassing enough points to keep their top-flight status, which will constantly produce worthwhile clashes week in and week out.

New league, new problems

With competition and sporting levels on the rise, the leading industry actors had a couple of crazy months involved in power struggles worthy of their own “Succession” series.

Liga Profesional de Fútbol Femenino (LPFF), the newly constituted league entity, and Real Federación Española de Fútbol (RFEF), the Spanish football association, were simply incapable of agreeing on anything, to the point the Ministry of Sports was summoned to act as mediator.

Surely, the match ball of the league could never be a source of dispute, right? Well, LPFF signed a deal with Puma, but RFEF sent anyway its Adidas balls to the clubs. And what about the competition logo on kit sleeves? RFEF said LPFF can have theirs, but the RFEF one is mandatory and should always be bigger in size than the LPFF logo. Yes, really.

There is good news, though. First and foremost, a late TV deal with DAZN was agreed last week and every match will be aired, with a couple of them expected to be streamed via YouTube each week. With more cameras, improved production and better pitches being the new normal now, the women’s game in Spain may well be taking the step ahead that has been lacking for years. And there will be greater global exposure because of it.

Yes, Alexia Putellas will be secluded in the stands and Barcelona is expected to bully their rivals once again but look everywhere and you’ll find teams and players ready to compete as never before.

To top it all off, there was the last-minute delay to the season starting. On Saturday, players in Madrid, Murcia, and Villarreal emerged from the locker room tunnels on their way to get the competition going, choreographed their pre-match routines, posed for customary starting XI photographs and then waited. Waited for half an hour with no sight of the referees, and then matches got suspended all around Spain, one by one.

On paper, this may simply look like referees going on strike to improve their working conditions. And, it’s fair to note, their current emoluments should really get better if the professionalization of the women’s game in Spain goes as planned. 

But the devil’s in the details and, once again. What fans who came to the stadiums saw was the latest and most shameful episode of the never-ending conflict between the soccer authorities. And it’s one where referees — who are employed by RFEF — are being used by the federation in their push to assess its power over the new professional league. 

Real Betis forward Mari Paz Vilas, one of the most veteran players in the league, summed it all up shortly after the first two games had to be postponed. As she stated on Twitter: “Many of us fought to have a professional league. Together we achieved it. This should have been a historic and happy weekend. Enough is enough. Spanish women’s soccer deserves respect.”

With the issue resolved earlier this week, Friday will finally bring the first ever fully professional league match between women.

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