Lionel Messi did it again at the weekend in La Liga. He scored his 51st career hat-trick, which included a delicate lob over Real Betis goalkeeper Pau Lopez to round it off. Real Betis fans in the Benito Villamarin stadium serenaded his name in awe. He was so good that the Spanish sports newspaper Diario AS awarded him four stars out of three in its match summary. Still, though, he didn't make the cover image on its Monday morning edition.
It took something special to shove Messi off the front cover: a new world record. A few hours before he was wreaking havoc in Seville on Sunday, the women's football league in Spain, Liga Femenina Iberdrola, broke the record for attendance at a club game.
Some 60,739 fans turned up at Atletico Madrid's stadium, the Wanda Metropolitano, to watch a top-of-the-table clash between Atletico and Barcelona. Barca prevailed, winning 2-0 thanks to goals from Asisat Oshoala, who's scored five goals in five games, and England international Toni Duggan.
The win for Barca has cut the gap between the two sides to three points with six games to play in the league title race. The game aroused so much interest that it had to be moved from the 3,376-seater Cerro del Espino stadium—which Atletico's women's team shares with second-tier men's side Rayo Majadahonda—to the Wanda, which will host the men's UEFA Champions League final in June.
The attendance at the Wanda smashed the previous record held for a women's club game—an encounter last year between Mexican clubs Tigres and Monterrey which was watched in front of 51,211 people. The surge in interest isn't an isolated occurrence, though. In January, for example, 48,121 packed into Athletic Bilbao's San Mames for a Spanish women's cup game between Athletic and Atletico Madrid.
Women's football is catching fire in Spain.
"Well, it's true that Spain is a football-obsessed country—where [men's] football is the most popular sport, and has become very strong internationally. And now fortunately for us we've seen tremendous growth in the women's game as well over the last three to four years," says Amparo Gutierrez, who heads up women's football at one of the country's most famous clubs, Sevilla FC.
It has been an extraordinary rise. The country's national women's professional league dates back to 1988, when nine teams—including Barcelona, Espanyol and several smaller clubs—inaugurated a competition overseen by the Royal Football Federation of Spain. For many years, it treaded water. In 2015, La Liga took over the reigns, and it was the start of a sea change.
"When in 2015 the clubs asked us to come on board, what we found was a competition without visibility, without a commercial strategy or a stable presence on television," says Pedro Malabia, head of women's football at La Liga.
"Our great challenge was to start a series of initiatives that would help to create a quality product—one that would attract the attention of fans, sponsors and media. Our goal was to increase the appeal of women's football—and to professionalise its league.
"The creation of the Association of Women's Football Clubs—which currently includes 70 women's football clubs across the premier and second divisions—has allowed the clubs to carry out promotion strategies and work together for the growth of the sector. The entry of Iberdrola, too, as the main sponsor was a key moment. It has been a main driver of the competition."
Basque utilities firm Iberdrola came on board as a sponsor in 2016. In early March, Mediapro extended its TV deal with the league until 2022, which guarantees €9 million for the league's coffers over three seasons. It's not all about money and business acumen, though. Social change has also played its part in the explosion of interest. Over the last 15 years, the number of women playing football in Spain has increased fourfold.
"There have been a lot of changes in society in that time," says Gutierrez, 36, who retired a few years ago as a player, having spent the bulk of her career as a defender with Sevilla as well as representing Spain. "People have changed their mentality about the role of women in sports and in other areas of life.
"I lived through a complicated era, because when I started to have a passion for football, I couldn't play with boys. Girls who played football were kind of seen as weirdos. It wasn't normal. The social scene for women then was different. Your options were limited. For me, I had to leave home to follow my dream of becoming a footballer.
"Now it's normal to see mixed teams from a very young age. Everything has changed completely from my time. Back then, it was a fight. You always had the sensation you were swimming against the tide, but I chased my dream. I managed to enjoy a full career. We had to break down a lot of barriers for the girls who play now."
Even those women coming a decade after Gutierrez—the stars of today's Liga Iberdrola—had to fight their own battles. Alba Mellado, 27, is captain of Madrid CFF, Atletico's big city rival. When she was growing up, she had no female role models in the game because women's football wasn't televised in Spain.
"I didn't have female references in the world of football," says Mellado. "Messi, Ronaldinho, players like this, were the ones I followed. I used to play with boys on my school futsal team until I was 15 years old—even though I was playing with girls from the age of 12 when I joined the youth academy at Atletico Madrid."
Mellado also trains girls' teams in Madrid CFF's youth academy—eight- and nine-year-olds as well as the 12- to 13-year-olds, a team that competes in a league featuring predominantly boys' teams and has been obliterating its opponents—the team has scored more than 300 goals while only conceding about a dozen this season. The heavy defeats it has been doling out haven't passed without comment.
"You do hear comments from parents on the sidelines," says Mellado about her all-conquering charges. "It's not strictly machista [sexist] stuff, but when my girls win against boys' teams, you hear the boys' parents say to them: 'You lost today because you didn't run enough.' They never admit that their boys lost because the girls were better footballers than them."
Vero Boquete, 31, is Spain's all-time top-scorer. The stadium in her Galician hometown, Santiago de Compostela, is named after her, which is quite an accolade for a player who is still active. Aged 31, she's part of the Utah Royals FC roster in the United States' NWSL.
In 2013, she set up a petition pressuring EA Sports to include female footballers in the FIFA games. The campaign snowballed. She gathered 20,000 signatures within 24 hours, and by 2015, the company caved in, including Boquete, her Spain teammates and 11 other national teams as part of its FIFA 16 release.
A lot done. More to do. Although Liga Iberdrola is on the up, it still isn't generating enough money to ensure all the players from the 16 teams in its premier division can make a living from the game. Salaries vary from €300 a month to €7,800. Many players have to find supplementary work to make ends meet. Logrono, who beat Mellado's Madrid CFF 2-1 on Sunday, pays some of its players €4,500 a season. Its annual budget is €550,000, while Barca's is €3 million.
Real Madrid have yet to enter a team in the league. "At La Liga, we do not believe in enforcement but in working to develop the best possible environment so that everyone wants to be a part of it," says Malabia.
It will be interesting to see how much longer the world's most famous football club will opt out of a burgeoning enterprise.
Mellado also attributes part of the rise in popularity of women's football to the recent exploits of its girls on the international stage: "The big turning point was when Spain's under-age teams achieved success—when they started reaching finals and winning tournaments. This caused a growth in interest."
In December 2018, for instance, Spain won the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup, defeating Mexico 2-1 in the final in Uruguay. This victory came only a few months after the country lost to Japan in the final of the U-20 Women's World Cup in France.
The French are also set to host the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup, which kicks off in June. If Spain fares well, it could cause another spike in popularity in a sport that is starting to transfix both men and women in the country.
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz