The culture in Spain, the girls couldn’t play football, the federation didn’t give anything to women’s football either.Laura del Rio
“It was a very exciting moment,” said Lis Franco Iglesias, one of the few fortunate enough to say they played in the first official match of the Spanish women’s national team.
Franco, who at just 11 years old debuted for her club, Karbo, and the Galicia national team, made her official Spain debut in 1983 as an 18-year-old in a 0–1 loss to Portugal, and would have become their first scorer had she not missed a penalty in their second game against Switzerland.
It was a very different time for women’s football in Spain, though, compared to the all-star squad of today, as Franco recalls.
“Until then, there were practically no regular championships in which to participate. When the first Copa de la Reina was organized, it was great for us at Karbo, a team that would eventually be champions. For years, Karbo was the best team in Spain and suddenly the Spanish national team is created and we had five players in it. It was an unthinkable dream for a long time.
“I remember with great affection the first match of the national team because it was in Galicia, the autonomous community in which I lived. We lost, but that was secondary; putting on a Spain shirt was a historic moment for all of us.”
Franco was actually born in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas where her dad, Rafael, was head coach of the national team. A former player of major South American clubs such as Newell’s Old Boys, River Plate, and Montevideo, Franco admits she was born “with the ball stuck to my foot” and used to play with her dad in the hallway at home and any park close to their family home.
When Rafael took up a job in Spain where he had previously played for Deportivo La Coruña, it set daughter Lis on a trajectory that would lead to her career as a footballer.
“I always made my little group of friends play soccer,” Franco laughed. “At home, they always made things very easy because if me and my father played in the hallway, my mother would remove all the vases and figurines so that we wouldn’t break them!
“It was difficult for me to be a footballer, finding a team and playing matches, being able to develop my passion. What the others said, the insults and the harassment from the public, did not matter to me or my colleagues.”
Not only was women’s football in Spain not taken seriously at the time by members of the public, it wasn’t particularly supported the by Spanish football federation, the RFEF, either, despite the creation of a national team.
“At the time, there was little awareness of women’s football across the board. The federation handed the baton to a coach who had never seen a women’s game in his life,” said Franco.
Amazingly, the two games Franco featured in as an 18-year-old were her last, as a fear of flying stopped her participating in future matches, meaning despite always going down in history in Spain as one of the first national team players, her international career ended at two caps.
“It’s totally true. I spoke with the coach and explained the situation to him. The funny thing is a year later they called me again but I said no. I still have that terrible phobia to this day!”
Franco says she still holds “beautiful memories” from those two games, though, and is proud to have played a small part in the history of a team now one of the strongest anywhere in Europe, and on top of that is delighted to see the team’s progress over the decades.
“The walks before the games in the national team tracksuit,” she recalled fondly. “The people who asked us who we were, the pride of having been chosen for that and above all, the serious things were beginning to be done and this led to more games, more championships, more organization. Our effort was beginning to bear fruit. I remember, of course, the mistake I made missing that penalty, I could have been the first scorer of the team, I was quite a specialist on penalties too, but I failed and that error stayed with me for quite some time.”
Regarding the growth of the team, Franco added: “The evolution is enormous. Clubs like Espanyol, Levante, Zaragoza, Rayo Vallecano, they have laid the foundation that others have taken and improved on.
“Barcelona represents the best version of our national football. Alexia, Jenni, Mariona, Aitana, with the contributions of Martens or Graham Hansen, have become a reference to the world and raised the value of the Spanish team to the point of making it a favorite against most rivals. I couldn’t be more proud.”
With the game still not taken completely seriously, it took too long, longer than it should have, for a nation like Spain, to start reaching major tournaments.
While they now face a quarter-final for a third successive European Championships, up until 2013 the national team had only ever reached one previous tournament, going all the way to the semifinals of Euro 1997.
It should have been a springboard for future success, but Spain failed to qualify for the next three Euros and didn’t qualify for a World Cup until 2015.
One player heavily involved during the mid-2000s period of qualification frustration was former Levante, FFC Frankfurt, Boston Breakers, Bristol Academy, Washington Spirit, and Madrid CFF forward Laura del Río, who across her career scored 14 national team goals.
“When I was in the national team, things were really different, for everything,” she recalled. “The culture in Spain, the girls couldn’t play football, the federation didn’t give anything to women’s football either.
“The change has been great, the players we have are incredible, the culture has moved more towards women, not only in football, in everything. In work, in everything, there is support for us, the federation changed everything. The league has changed, the level of the players, everyone is very, very technical. Not just for us, for everyone. Now with the support of the federation a few years ago, the league and the players and the culture has changed completely.”
Ahead of Euro 2001, Spain took just four points and one win from six games in qualification, culminating in a heavy 0–7 defeat to Sweden in their final game.
Firmly in the national team setup by the time qualifiers for 2005 came around, Del Río scored the winner away at the Netherlands in their opening match, but only one more win in the subsequent seven games would follow, a 9–1 win against Belgium in which Del Río scored five goals herself.
“The clubs didn’t have big players, we weren’t professional at that time. We had another job outside football, that’s why I left the country and went to Germany, USA, and England because here I couldn’t be a professional and in other countries I could.
“The support now from the media, from sponsors, it’s all with us. Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico, they are doing great jobs with their teams, but also with their young girls in their academies. In that time, we had good players, but we had no direction to go because nobody gave us anything. The media, nothing. The sponsors, nothing, but now we have everything to play football in great conditions and this makes Spain one of the favorites for the European Championships.”
They came closer in 2009, needing to beat England in the final qualifier to make the tournament, but a 2–2 draw sent Hope Powell’s to the final tournament, but things were getting better, and Del Río credits a change at the very top in the turnaround in Spain’s fortunes over the last decade.
“It was the change of president. [Luis] Rubiales gave us everything to make it work. We have in the national team now, U-15s, U-16s, U-19s, U-20s, and U-23s and the senior team. Before, we had two national teams, the senior and the U-19s and then an U-17s. Now we have so many national teams for the younger players, which is great for the improvement of the women’s team.”
Spain would go on to reach Euro 2013, 2017, and now 2022, progressing out of the groups in all three, their success coming shortly after Del Río stopped playing for the national team, but the former striker has no regrets about her time with the national team.
“It wasn’t frustrating in that sense, because we were always almost there, but we needed one more push, we just didn’t have it. Things can be like this, it was frustrating in a way, but things are much better now and we are positive with what we have now. Finally, we have it, it’s an opportunity for women’s football in Spain. What can we do about the past now?
“To be honest, I’m happy with what I did with the national team, because what I couldn’t find here I found in England, in Germany, in the USA. I found it, I left my country to find that experience. I couldn’t make it with the national team, but it wasn’t in my hands. I was really happy because I know I did everything. I support these girls now, I’m so happy for them now, I really hope they can go far.”
One of those selected when Spain did get back to a major tournament for Euro 2013 was Levante defender Ruth García, who already had 28 caps for the national team by the time the tournament came around.
After debuting in 2005, García had also experienced the near misses of tournaments gone by, but says 2013 made her believe Spain could go to the very top.
“We beat England, one of the best teams in Europe. We competed very well against France and then we lost in the quarterfinals against Norway.
“From there on, we realized the level we were at, what we had to do to improve, the goals we wanted to target and the direction we wanted to go.”
García admits despite being a regular at youth team level, she didn’t think “that call is going to come,” when it came to a senior team call-up, but went on to amass over 50 caps during her national team career.
Coming into the team in a period where the sport was improving at all levels, she believes it has been a positive and steady progression over the years.
“The demand is increasing,” she said. “The preparation for the matches is at a higher level and the players are better prepared. Everything is growing. There are more and more people working for the players and that makes it possible to get the best out of each player. Spain has a very high technical level, in addition to their physical level.”
While young players have always been a common sight in the Spanish squad, with a 19-year-old Alexia Putellas featuring in the same Euro 2013 squad as García, the former defender believes there is an even stronger pathway now, with the likes of Athenea del Castillo and Claudia Pina in the current Euro 2022 squad, as was uncapped Salma Paralluelo before injury ruled her out.
“Yes, it is important to bet on young players. They are trained and they grow with the demands of being around more experienced players and they have everything at their disposal that they need now.
“The path that awaits the young players is exciting for them and every exciting for Spain because we have girls for the future who are already at a very high level.”
When Spain went to Euro 2017 looking better equipped than ever to challenge the bigger teams, García wasn’t in the squad, but her namesake, Olga, a Barcelona forward at the time was, having scored three goals in her first 15 caps for the national team.
Spain would once again face England, along with Scotland and neighbors Portugal, and with some key players beginning to star for the biggest teams in Europe, there was optimism that Spain could be ready to go beyond the quarterfinal stage.
But it was an underwhelming tournament. After beating Portugal in the opening game, Spain lost to both England and Scotland without scoring, but managed to reach the quarterfinals, where they once again drew a blank in a 0–0 draw with Austria and subsequently lost on penalties.
“I think that in the five years since, the level of Spain has increased more,” recalled Olga García, who is still playing now for Logroño. “The players have more experience and that makes situations or matches a bit easier because they know how to handle themselves in a better way.
“In 2017, we lost on penalties but there was already a good base of players who when adding in the girls who are there now, there’s a good mix of the veterans and the younger players.”
García says her earliest memories of women’s football in Spain are playing as a child in school, before a Barcelona scout told her to go and train at La Masia, where she eventually signed for the club and ended up in the first team.
She admits she only believed she could play for the national team after being called up for the U17 side, and is optimistic now not just for the present, but the future, of the sport in the country.
“The level of the players is increasing since the players from foreign leagues have come. The coaches and the clubs have more and more experience of winning titles and for Euro 2022 the large number of Barcelona players I think also helps because they know each other more.”
Ahead of their crunch quarterfinal with England on Wednesday that could see them reach the semifinal of a major tournament for the first time in 25 years, their former players are optimistic that whatever happens, Spanish football is on the right path, but that going all the way could change things forever.
“Oh my God, it would be crazy,” laughed Del Río. “It would be great. It would be brilliant for everything. For the youngest girls, for the national team, for the league, for the players. It would be a great movement for us and not only for the players, but for all of Spanish football. When Alexia won the best player, it was amazing, but it will be a team thing rather an individual award. With Alexia it was big, but if the team won, it will be crazy for Spain.”