In many ways, the trajectory of Lieke Martens’s career has mirrored the growth of professional women’s soccer in Europe.
In the past four years alone, she has scored as the Netherlands won a European title, played in a Champions League final, been crowned the world’s best player and come within a victory of a World Cup championship.
Along the way, Martens, the Barcelona and Netherlands star, has ridden the wave in popularity for a sport that not so long ago struggled to gain attention and sponsors, fill stadiums or even provide a viable career path for many of the most talented players in the game.
The Barcelona team became professional in 2015, and in six years has grown to become the most dominant one in Spain. This season, it scored 128 goals and allowed five as it cantered to the league title, winning all 26 games it has played so far. Its dominance, and that of longtime women’s soccer powers like Olympique Lyon and Sunday’s opponent, Chelsea — not to mention more recent investments from deep-pocketed newcomers like Manchester City and Real Madrid — is reshaping the women’s club game on the continent.
At Barcelona, women’s soccer is here to stay. While the program’s budget of 4 million euros, almost $5 million, is dwarfed by its investment in the men’s roster, the team’s managers are determined to inculcate the players with the same philosophy of technical excellence and the possession-based system that is the hallmark of Barcelona soccer from the junior ranks to the pro leagues.
“To play and to compete in the way we want, in the standard we want to compete in, for that, the best players are the ones that grow with us and are perfectly adapted to that style,” said Markel Zubizarreta, the executive responsible for women’s soccer at Barcelona.
Barcelona now has 13 players on its roster who have come through its academy, but in a manner reminiscent of how a Dutch great, Johan Cruyff, led the men’s team to glory five decades ago, it is Martens who carries the star power. Days before she will lead Barcelona against Chelsea in Sunday’s Champions League final, Martens, 28, discussed the growth of women’s soccer, the changes she has seen during her decade in the sport and the power of belated (but significant) investments in the women’s game.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
What are the emotions like three days before the biggest game in women’s club soccer?
It’s a bit different. The full focus is on this one big moment for the club. In the end, we shouldn’t change anything because we have done so well this season. We have to continue what we have been doing.
Not so long ago, there were very few fully professional clubs in Europe, very few opportunities to forge a successful career, and now we are seeing unprecedented investment and interest. Can you describe this period?
I think people are really interested in watching women’s soccer now, whereas five years ago people were not really that interested. Now people are really excited to see those big games, like the final.
How have you noticed this increase in interest?
If you see the media attention, for example. This week, it’s amazing the number of requests we got. Yesterday I was busy. I’m busy today. The focus has never been as big. If I see, for example, the national team, how many people came to the stadium before the pandemic — it was always sold out. Those things are amazing. When I play here in the Johan Cruyff stadium, it is always full. People want to come and see us and support us. It is really different to a few years ago.
Sweden was once the vanguard of growing the women’s professional game, and you played there before joining Barcelona. But teams like Rosengard and Kopparbergs, which shut down in December, can no longer compete with the world’s wealthiest clubs. Is the changing dynamic a bittersweet one?
Kopparbergs, Rosengard, those clubs were needed. They really put the effort in, really supported the women’s game. But of course at the end we have been really waiting for the big clubs to believe in women’s football. And it’s progress. We’ve had to wait for it, but it also helps us to reach a better level, to make women’s football more interesting.
What is the difference in environment you encountered at Barcelona?
Rosengard had a really good staff, and things around us were really good, but it was only a women’s club. But I think it’s impossible to compare with the big clubs. It’s a really good thing that we finally have all those big clubs in it. I’m really happy that Real Madrid is also joining now. That’s what we need in the women’s game.
Can you see a qualitative impact of all this investment on performance?
I’m so happy to play against really good players. That’s what we need. Before, those players were amazing, but now we have so many more really good players, and that’s so cool. I think in the future it’s going to be even better because all those girls that are at the highest level now didn’t have the best training when they were a little girl. Little girls now are getting the same practice boys do at the same age.
How important is the Barcelona style, the values the club instills in its players, to the performance we see on the field? Some people say not sacrificing the style in the 2019 final led to Barcelona being overrun by Lyon that day.
I think that’s why they are really specific with who they bring in. They want people who will fit into the Barça style, and, like you said, in the final in 2019 it was already 3-0 after 50 minutes, but it had been a really good experience for us. We take that into this Sunday as well. I think it will be a totally different situation.
How have you coped personally with the sudden fame your success with the Netherlands and Barcelona has brought you?
After winning the Euros in 2017, I got recognized everywhere in the Netherlands and even overseas. Off the field my life has changed, but I have to deal with it. It’s part of it, and that’s what men’s football has, and that’s what we wanted. I always said it would be nice to get the recognition. And now we have it.
Do you think you will use that higher profile to lead on issues beyond the field, in the manner of, say, Megan Rapinoe?
Actually, I haven’t used it that much. I should use my voice a bit more. I will do that in the future.
Barcelona went unbeaten in the league this season. Do you, perhaps, wish the other teams were better, and the league more competitive?
By doing well in the Champions League, we are showing Spain really invests in women’s football. I think it will also help the Spanish league to get better, but we have to be patient. It just needs a bit more time. We are moving in the right direction, if you see what we have done, in a couple of years in Barcelona. And I’m really happy with what Real Madrid is doing. The level is getting higher, but you can’t go from zero to 100.
This season’s final — Chelsea-Barcelona — is a marked change from when Lyon was the only show in town. (Lyon had won the Champions League five years in succession before losing in the quarterfinals this year.)
Lyon has a really good team, but it’s really good that other teams are in the final. It’s really exciting to see other teams have also improved a lot. They have invested in women’s football, and it’s paying off.