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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A Barcelona star chases trophies and answers


By Rory Smith


Aitana Bonmatí always asks the same question. Every game Barcelona Femení plays generates a flood of performance data. The team’s fitness coaches know how far each player ran, how fast, how long. There is so much information, in fact, that they need two days to download it and tabulate it and parse it. Only then is it passed back to the squad.


Not every player pays much heed to that sort of feedback. Some disregard it entirely. Bonmatí, 25, is different. She does not just want the answer; she wants to see the work, too. More than anything, she wants to know the why.


“After some games, you feel so fatigued, so exhausted,” she said. “But the data can be low. That’s because sometimes it is not just a physical thing. It can be to do with stress, with the nerves you had. I like to talk about it with the coaches. I want to understand why these things happen.”


As far as the raw figures go, Bonmatí’s season looks like this: nine goals scored, and 10 created, from midfield as Barcelona swept, yet again, to the Spanish title; five goals scored, and seven more created, in the Champions League on the way to her — and her club’s — fourth final in five years. Only Wolfsburg’s Ewa Pajor has scored more goals than Bonmatí. Nobody has more assists.


The case that Bonmatí has been the most decisive, most valuable player in Europe this season is a compelling one. There is a strong body of evidence, too, to suggest that she should be considered the leading candidate for the Ballon d’Or, at least until the World Cup rolls around.


The easiest explanation for why is one that she rejects without a second thought. It is Bonmatí, the theory goes, who has emerged as Barcelona’s heartbeat in the injury-enforced absence of Alexia Putellas, the club’s captain. “She has taken a huge responsibility in midfield,” Fridolina Rolfo, Barcelona’s Swedish striker, said earlier this year. “She deserves all of the attention, in my opinion.”


Bonmatí has a slightly different interpretation. “The coach is the boss,” she said. This season, that coach — Jonatan Giráldez — has asked her to play a more advanced role than in previous years, not only because of the absence of Putellas but also because the presence of Patri Guijarro, Ingrid Engen and Keira Walsh means the club is well-stocked with defensive midfielders. “The role has changed,” Bonmatí said. “But not because of me.”


Replacing Putellas, she said, has been a collective effort. “The media always tries to find someone in the team to focus on, and now this year it is me,” she said. “But I have been having good seasons for the last few years. I am ambitious. I just want to be better, more complete, than last year.”


Standing out at Barcelona is more complex than it might appear. Lucy Bronze, the English defender who moved to Catalonia last summer, perhaps captured it best. At Barcelona, she said earlier this year, she has found herself surrounded by an almost industrial quantity of prodigiously gifted players, all spooling off the academy’s production line.


“There are just like clones and clones and clones of these amazing, technical, intelligent players,” she said, sounding simultaneously awestruck and possibly just a little frightened. “There are hundreds of them.”


That Bonmatí has been able to stand out from that group — even at a club that has been carefully calibrated to churn out excellence, and on a team that is packed with the world’s finest players — can be attributed to her search for completeness.


Xavi Hernández, the coach of Barcelona’s men’s team and Bonmatí’s childhood idol, described her as a “perfectionist” in the prologue to the book she published last year. She puts it a different way. “I try to understand everything,” she said. “I am a very curious person.”


Cod psychology would suggest that she inherited that trait from her parents: both academics, both lecturers in Catalan literature, both sufficiently animated by the pursuit of equality that they forced a change in the law to allow Bonmatí to take her mother’s surnames, rather than a patronymic followed by a matronymic.


It is a streak that Bonmatí has not lost, and one best illustrated not so much by her continuing education — she is studying sports management, already aware at age 25 of the need to prepare for a life after soccer — but by her approach to her career itself.


Bonmatí is — her words — “always doing things.” “Making a schedule is quite complicated,” she said. “I need to make sure to get time for myself, because otherwise I feel like I can’t breathe.” Her teammates, she believes, consider her to be “hyperactive.”


She has roles, away from the field, with the United Nations refugee agency, with the Johan Cruyff Foundation, with the Barcelona Foundation. She works with a team for female refugees.


When Walsh and Bronze arrived at Barcelona, Bonmatí immediately volunteered to act as their de facto translator. If they needed anything, she told them, they just had to tell her. The gesture was rooted in kindness, but there was a payoff, too. “It means I get to improve my English,” she said. There was no ulterior motive for that — Bonmatí wasn’t hoping to parlay it into an imminent move to England or the United States. She just wanted to be better at English.


Almost everything Bonmatí does is geared toward a process of endless improvement, of smoothing out flaws and making sure nothing has gone unconsidered. She reads, and she reads widely: Her home, she said, is full of books on nutrition, on performance, on psychology. (Even her downtime is not really downtime: The likes of Primo Levi and Viktor Frankl occupy the light reading slot.)


“The more things that I know, the more I can apply what I know,” she said. “The smarter I am about those subjects, the better it is for my performance.”


Then there is her kinesthetic learning: Away from Barcelona’s orbit, but with the club’s blessing, she employs her own fitness coach, nutritionist and psychologist. She questions them, too. “I want to know what I have to improve, and how to do it,” she said.


It is not exactly a surprise, then, that Bonmatí was hardly satisfied by Barcelona’s achievement in reaching the Champions League final yet again. It was her, and her club’s, third in a row, and their fourth overall. The stage was so familiar that Barcelona went in as the heavy favorite to beat Wolfsburg on Saturday, which it did, but not before coming back from a 0-2 deficit with three second-half goals to win, 3-2, and capture its second European trophy.


Being heavily favored was an achievement in itself, of course, testament to how far Barcelona’s women’s team has come, to the status it has attained, to the progress made by Bonmatí and her teammates. That is not what Bonmatí sees, though, when she looks at the data.


“We have only won one of the finals,” she said before Saturday’s match. “We’ve lost two. Personally, I want to win more.”

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