Luis Suárez is no longer alone. Alexia Putellas (Barcelona, 27 years old) became this Monday the second Spanish footballer, male or female, to achieve the Ballon d’Or, a milestone with which she was crowned the best player of 2021 and with which she joins on the list of winners to the mythical Galician ex-midfielder, who prevailed in 1960. Since then, not even the World Cup achieved by the Red in 2010, with Xavi and Iniesta as banners, had crowned a Spanish footballer – that year Messi won.
Putellas, also a midfielder, like Suárez, reaches the top after winning the treble with Barcelona (League, Cup and Champions), Barça captain and also of the Spanish team. “I am a little excited, it is a very special moment, to have my colleagues here, with whom I have lived so much. Thanks to them, to all with whom I have met in my career. This is a collective success, and I am sorry. I want to dedicate this moment to someone who has been very special to me, for whom I do everything, wherever you are, I hope you are very proud. That’s for you, dad, ”said Putellas, who won with 186 points, accompanied at the Paris gala by four other Barcelona teammates: Jenni Hermoso (who was second with 84), Irene Paredes, Lieke Martens and Sandra Paños. A summit to which the winner has arrived with passion and talent since her childhood.
Barcelona marked the path of Alexia Putellas to the Ballon d’Or. However, the life of the footballer in the Barca team began in the air. “In 2006, I had to withdraw her because she didn’t have a team for her age,” recalls coach Xavi Llorens. By then, Putellas was 12 years old. “Her father was asking me to please leave her. That she was very much from Barça, that she stayed even if it was to train ”, adds the Catalan coach. Putellas went to grassroots football at Espanyol, to later consolidate at Levante. “Before a match, at a rally, I saw an advertisement for Messi on television. And I told the players: ‘Someday they will see Alexia there as Leo, “says Antonio Contreras, Putellas coach at Levante. “Moving to Valencia did him a lot of good. It helped her to mature and she was lucky to find a very professional dressing room at a time when women’s football was not. Those things make a difference and Alexia was a learning sponge ”, adds Contreras.
Putellas, then, would corner himself in a band. “He had overflow on the left wing and, with a natural footing, he was skilled in one-on-one. A characteristic that for our style of play in the Spanish team is very good ”, intervenes Jorge Vilda, today the national team coach, at that time the U-17 coach. “I sometimes even placed her on the extreme right. Before the fields were not like now. They were not this wide and were not so well cared for. So if you gave him freedom in the swapped leg band, he had the ability to sneak inside. In addition, it had a lot of completion, ”explains Contreras. Putellas scored 15 goals in his 34 games for Levante. Letter of introduction to return to Barça in 2012.
“At that time it was not like now, that there are sports directors and representatives of footballers. To sign a player, you first had to call someone who knew her to act as an intermediary. I called Ruth García to ask Alexia if she wanted to come back. And she was delighted ”, recalls Xavi Llorens. Putellas’ total football, however, was yet to flourish. “He played extreme because of his quality more than his personality. But it was already showing its ability to adapt to other functions. In a game in which I knew we were going to have the ball all the time, I placed it on the left side ”, insists Llorens, who left Barcelona in 2017, after 11 years in the team and after turning the Barça team into a totem pole. Spain and a benchmark in Europe.
Markel Zubizarreta, Barcelona’s sports director since 2016, was clear about it: Alexia had to go down to the core. The idea was for Putellas to stop being the first change for Barça to become the leader of the team. “He became a midfielder because of his understanding of the game. The more contact Alexia has with the ball, the better for the team ”, reflects Vilda. In any case, Zubizarreta was surprised by something. “The most normal thing, when a soccer player goes from extreme to interior, is that she is not positional. In our case, Aitana is our Iniesta and Alexia our Xavi ”, says the Barcelona sports director. One more step was missing: mastering self-criticism. “When I joined the team in January 2019, I was very clear that Alexia had a lot of football but lacked confidence. She is so demanding of herself that she needed to reinforce her security. And by empowering her and training more and better, she benefited. He had the head and the football, he lacked the confidence and the physique ”, points out Lluís Cortés, Barcelona coach until June 2021, winner of the last Champions League, now Ukraine coach.
“When I started working in the first team, as part of Lluís’s coaching staff, something happened that caught my attention: Alexia had between eyebrows to improve as a midfielder. He asked me about Amadine Henry [líder del Lyon multicampeón de Europa, capitana de Francia]. When a player wants to improve positioning, defensive ability, one-on-one, set pieces… You understand everything. Today it will surely be Henry who wants to look like Alexia ”, highlights Jonathan Giráldez, current Barcelona coach.
Alexia began studying Business Administration and Management. But he left it. “Why did you do it?” Llorens asked him. “I want to live by and for football,” Putellas replied. “It is very demanding and it is super competitive. For her everything has to have an order. And that’s how he makes the team play, ”Cortés intervenes. “When she speaks you have to listen to her. What he says is thoughtful and has a meaning. She receives advice well and is polite to give her opinion ”, explains Vilda,“ and she has achieved everything for the love of this sport ”.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.