Lieke Martens played soccer with boys until she was 16 years old. Some opposing players would maliciously kick out at her because she was a girl. Some would pull her ponytail because she was a girl. Some opposing team parents would even berate her from the sidelines because she was a girl.
Despite all of this, Martens would always play with a smile on her face, emulating her idol Ronaldinho.
Today, the Dutch dynamo is using her journey and platform with the Netherlands women’s national team and FC Barcelona Femení to inspire the next generation of female soccer players.
“When I was young I had men who were my role models,” Martens said. “I really feel I have that role now and I want to show girls what they can achieve. I think we all want to be role models for them. My dream didn’t exist when I was young, but now little girls are starting to play football and they have their dream of wanting to play professionally and that’s amazing.”
The opportunities for girls and women to play soccer continue to expand, led by clubs including FC Barcelona, Olympique Lyonnais and FFC Frankfurt and organizations like FIFA, UEFA and the NWSL.
Originally founded as CF Barcelona in 1988, the women’s team was incorporated and rebranded as FC Barcelona Femení in 2002, though it didn’t turn professional until 2015. Having FC Barcelona Femení, which has won 21 trophies since its inception, emulate the storied men’s side on and off the field is a major priority for the club.
“This is important to us because we’re the best club in the world and we have to lead,” said Board of Directors Secretary Maria Teixidor, who is responsible for promoting the club’s women’s team and initiatives. “We feel it’s our responsibility in a time where women are fighting to be treated equal. Being one of the biggest brands in the world in sports, we have to lead this evolution of women’s football.”
Accomplishing this is no easy feat, but FC Barcelona is making major headway already both on and off the field. The club announced Stanley Black & Decker as the first main jersey sponsor of FC Barcelona Femení in July 2018 and Catalan-based Naulover as the first team’s first official street clothing partner in January 2020.
From a sporting side, FC Barcelona Femení is trying to mirror the men’s side with a combination of local grassroots stars who have honed their craft at the famed La Masia academy including Andrea Falcón, Vicky Losada and Aitana Bonamatí, and internationals like Caroline Graham Hansen (Norway), Ana-Maria Crnogorčević (Switzerland) and Martens.
“The quality of the players is increasing every year because there are more girls playing, there are more local leagues, and there are more girls coming to our matches,” said Markel Zubizarreta, FC Barcelona sports manager for women’s football. “From our standpoint we’re trying to keep this development as a focus so these girls can have role models and say, ‘I can be a professional football player.’ This is our job and our responsibility and it’s what we have to work to increase.”
Currently there are four girls teams at the club’s academy. There is also a proposal to permit female athletes to live on location for a fully immersive experience that not only promotes the club’s creative, attack-minded playing tactics based on possession, but also the club’s ethos of HEART: humility, effort, ambition, respect and teamwork.
On the field, FC Barcelona has seen success with its women’s teams from the first team all the way to its youth squads. Undefeated FC Barcelona Femení leads the Primera División Femenina by nine points with a whopping plus-80 goal differential. The club faces Sevilla in the Copa de la Reina semifinals on March 18 and plays against Atlético Madrid in the two-legged quarterfinals of the UEFA Women’s Champions League on March 25 and April 1.
At the youth level, FC Barcelona won the 2019 International Champions Cup Futures girls tournament in December with a team primarily compiled of players younger than the event’s Under-15 age group.
“It shows we’re in a good position because first, we played in our style, and second, because we can compete against the best teams in the world,” Zubizarreta said. “It means the talent we have, our way of training and everything we’re doing in the program is yielding positive results. The message to the whole world is: the Barça women’s team is coming.”
While the growth of women’s soccer, particularly at FC Barcelona, and its on-field success can be celebrated, it still has a long way to go and doesn’t come without its complications and challenges.
Sponsors and broadcasters are still wary of the risk involved with the women’s game, instead preferring the already-proven men’s side for more significant investment. Coupled with other factors, this is why, for example, contracts in the American-based NWSL—often referred to as the top women’s soccer league in the world—are only between $20,000 and $50,000 (excluding the newly introduced allocation money or allocated players who are paid by their respective national teams).
“The challenge is to make this a sustainable side of football,” Teixidor said. “That means we have to make it attractive for more sponsors to join and convince them there’s a return in investing in women’s football. … Sometimes there is this fear that maybe it will not work or will not be interesting enough or grow fast enough.
“We need people really wanting to take the risk because this is going to happen. We know it.”
The potential risk isn’t preventing some clubs and organizations from investing and prioritizing the women’s game because the interest is certainly there. UEFA announced its investment in women’s soccer in May 2019 with a goal to double the number of female players in Europe to 2.5 million by 2024.
FIFA announced 1.12 billion viewers tuned in for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, with a tournament-record 82.12 million live viewers and 263.62 million unique viewers watching the final between the United States and Netherlands.
Nike president and CEO Mark Parker announced the USWNT home jersey was the top-selling soccer jersey—men’s or women’s—on the company’s website in a single season, saying so even before the United States secured its record fourth World Cup.
“Playing in the World Cup in front of a sold-out stadium every single time was amazing,” said Martens, the 2017 Best FIFA Women’s Player. “That’s what we need and I think it’s also what we deserve. I think the level of women’s football has increased a lot; it’s really nice to watch now and I still think we can do better. It needs time.”
Martens and her colleagues will continue to do their part promoting the game while becoming role models for the next generation. In fact, it’s one of the major reasons she signed for FC Barcelona Femení in July 2017 before going on to win the UEFA Women’s Euros later that summer.
“It’s really nice to be part of this club because they really believe in women’s football,” she said, “and they want to push women’s football forward.”