Ballon d'Or winner Bonmatí helped get a win over sexism in Spain. Now it's time to 'focus on soccer'

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SANT JOAN DESPÍ, Spain (AP) — It's been a whirlwind last few months for Aitana Bonmatí, the newly crowned Ballon d’Or winner, with memorable victories on and off the field.

Far from the days of being the only girl playing on her village’s soccer team, Bonmati led Spain to Women’s World Cup glory in August after helping Barcelona win the Champions League for a second time, while being named the best player at both competitions.

The 25-year-old midfielder was also named the best player in the world along with Lionel Messi.

Amid all the huge successes, it has also been a fraught time for Bonmatí after she and her fellow Spain teammates decided they would not be silent when the now-former president of the Spanish soccer federation Luis Rubiales kissed forward Jenni Hermoso on the lips without her consent during the World Cup awards ceremony, drawing attention away from their greatest achievement.

While Bonmatí says that taking a stand was a source of pride and strength for the players in their struggle for equality, it has taken its toll – even if Spain has been crushing its opponents in the Nations League in the aftermath of the worst of the crisis caused by Rubiales.

“Right now both Barça and Spain are playing great, so perhaps the fight for social causes and equality have brought us together even more, but this is also a question of just being professionals,” Bonmatí told The Associated Press on Thursday at Barcelona’s training grounds in an interview conducted both in English and Spanish.

Bonmatí and her teammates for Spain had to rebel against their own federation and refuse to play not once, but twice, over the past year to denounce what they considered to be discriminatory attitudes and practices inside the governing body of Spanish soccer. Leveraging their new status as world champions, they were able to finally force the ousting of Rubiales, and their coach, along with securing improvements in staff, travel and assistance for players with young children. That has also coincided with a strike by players for Spain's women's league to get a higher minimum wage.

“It has all gone so fast, and what all we are thinking about is the time when we can only focus on soccer and leave other issues behind us,” she said. “We have enough to think about just with training and winning games for on top of that to have to pay attention to other things that sap our energy, generate stress and are not good for our health. So we are all ready to get back to soccer.”

Part of the overhaul of the federation has included the removal of the term “women's" from its national soccer team. Both the men's and women's teams are now called officially Spain's national football teams.

“If you talk about ‘soccer’ and ‘women’s soccer’ you are differentiating between them and giving more importance to men’s soccer by calling it 'soccer'," she said. “Soccer is soccer, no matter who plays it.”

Bonmatí, who was also named the UEFA player of the year, won the Ballon d’Or award after her Spain and Barcelona teammate Alexia Putellas had prevailed the previous two years. Only one Spanish man has won the award: Luis Suárez in 1960.

With Alexia playing limited minutes at the World Cup after missing most of Barcelona’s season due to a long injury layoff, Bonmatí took on a key role for both teams as their top playmaker and an improved scoring threat. At the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, she scored three goals and provided two assists while driving Spain’s attack that beat England 1-0 in the Aug. 20 final.

Her light frame, combined with great vision, ball handling and passing ability, has drawn comparisons to the great Barcelona midfielders Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández she admired as a child. Former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola has said that he is “completely in love” with Bonmatí’s playing style.

For Bonmatí, she is cast in the Barcelona mold because from a young age she based her game on Barcelona’s mantra that having the ball is a prerequisite of the best attack, and also the best defense.

“Everyone says that we have a similitude with Guardiola’s teams and especially when he was the coach of Barça,” Bonmatí said. "I don’t want to compare (because) we are different players, but we have the same style. We understand the same style of football.”

An avid reader as well as a student of English, Bonmatí is dealing with her transformation into a star who has her image shown everywhere, including on a mural in her home town of Sant Pere de Ribes, where she still lives just south of Barcelona.

Long gone are the days when she can meet up in public with friends and go unnoticed, but, she said, “people treat me well and I have to give something back for all the support they have shown me.”

She now faces the challenge of all elite athletes who have won absolutely everything. How to stay at the pinnacle of her game?

To do so, Bonmatí believes she can still get better as she is entering the prime of her career.

“I clearly have room to improve,” she said. “For example, my finishing — I sometimes have chances I don’t put in, I am not a ‘killer’ in the box. I also need to shoot more with my strong foot, my right, because recently I am shooting only with my left, which is odd.”

For the time being, though, the avalanche of trophies and accolades has made her reflect on how far she has come.

“It has been a long time (since) I started to play football when I was 7 years old,” she said. “(There have) been a lot of good moments, but also bad moments, and now I think that these bad moments gave me the opportunity to keep working, keep pushing and fight for everything I have won.”

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AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer