Spain’s Aitana Bonmatí: ‘We want the ball. Our objective is always to play’

“I was born to play football,” Aitana Bonmatí says, as much a declaration of intent as a statement of fact. There is something about her, not just the talent – although she is perhaps this European Championship tournament’s most technically gifted, elegant player, the essence of the style that defines the seleccion – but the temperament, as swiftly apparent off the pitch as on it. “I’ve got quite a bit of character,” the Spain midfielder says, laughing, and it shows. There’s a directness, a conviction, a single-mindedness that helps to explain how she got here and why she will not stop here, a determination to be who she is.

She might not have been Aitana Bonmatí at all, which may partly explain it too. Aitana’s parents, Rosa and Vicent, are teachers of Catalan language and literature whose fight to give their daughter Rosa’s surname first forced a change in law following her birth in 1998 – a gesture of equality that opened opportunity for others and symbolises how they shaped her.

“I see myself reflected in them. They’re an example: my human values are theirs,” she says. “A lot of what I am today is thanks to them.” Not quite all of it, though. “I’m the only child and it wasn’t a footballing family.”

If their influence includes a clear social conscience and a fascination with reading and history – Aitana talks about Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl and Heather Dune Macadam’s The Nine Hundred, about visiting Sachsenhausen concentration camp – it did not include football, not at first.

There was piano, guitar, English lessons but Aitana wanted to play football. She had to fight – sometimes quite literally, she says – but started at school in Sant Pere de Ribas. Her idol was Xavi Hernández, the influence visible. At 24 now, she joined Barcelona at six and is not just a footballer but a defender of a footballing faith, a Cruyffist. “I’ve always felt very connected to Barcelona. We have a style that’s unique in the world. I feel I was born to play this kind of football.”

Bonmatí is the embodiment of it: 1m 61cm tall but tough too, a World Cup runner-up at under-17 and under‑19 level, a European runner-up at under-17 and under-20. As she describes her role, it could be a manifesto. “The best players are intelligent, able to read the game, anticipate things,” she says. “With Spain and Barcelona, the midfielders try to occupy the right space at the right time, get the ball to where we want it. It’s not just about receiving but about our teammates [then] receiving it in better conditions. It’s a role I love.”

Bonmatí was the MVP when Barcelona won the Champions League and has been named MVP twice in Spain’s three games here, the best portrait coming against Finland – that combination of character and quality, taking responsibility, and the ball, when Spain went behind after 49 seconds and playing them into the game. A kind of “give it to me, I’ll sort this” which to borrow Juanma Lillo’s description of Andrés Iniesta seemed to speak of some implicit awareness of her superiority, embracing risks on behalf of everyone else. For all the tension, she seemed to be enjoying it.

“I’m young but I’ve played lots of games in the elite, I’ve seen what my level is and I trust myself to take responsibility, to think: ‘I can do that.’ It comes from inside. When you are who you are, you flow. And when I flow, I enjoy it. I came into this world to play football.

“I like to be in contact with the ball, change the pace, take the game to where we want it to be, show leadership. That’s my personality too, going back a long way.” She laughs. “I talk a lot. In training, too. And what you see on the pitch is what I am off it. I’m pretty clear, direct, not slow to come forward. I follow my ideas to the end of the world, defend them to the last.” That includes football, and by full-time against Finland Spain had four.

Although defeat followed against Germany and it took a late goal to beat Denmark, the identity is non-negotiable. Make no mistake, though: this is about competing, something Bonmatí suggests is sometimes lost.

“The demands on us are win and play well and I’m not sure that’s the case with other teams. I think about Germany and they didn’t produce a great game. They scored two, shut up deep and didn’t do anything more. We were more imprecise than normal against Denmark, we lacked the speed moving the ball. You analyse everything, and we’re a team that’s defined by our play, so we’re self-critical. But I think coldly and our opponents don’t open up, hardly attack us at all. And then we’re the ones asked to play.

“We dominated Denmark and won in the end. We demand more, too, but maybe we have to relativise. At a tournament, you have to appreciate the victory. Sometimes you go into a press conference and they ask: ‘What happened today?’ And I think: ‘Well, we did win 1-0, we’re in the quarters.’ From the hardest group at the Euros. But no worries: that’s part of progress, too, the journey, the development of women’s football.”

When it is suggested that kids might look up to her as she did Xavi and Iniesta at a time when, as she notes, there was no women’s football on TV, Bonmatí points at that they already do. She wants that to include boys, too.

But she knows not it can’t all be positive. “Criticism comes with attention. And we’ll have to learn to live with that too.”

Bonmatí talks of the demands made on herself, the risk of those becoming overwhelming, of the edge that comes with ambition, finding ways of disconnecting: jigsaw puzzles, apps, support. “People think being an elite sportsperson is easy but I can tell you it’s not. Meeting expectation, having that relentlessness to never let up, but managing it: it’s very much a mental thing. I work with psychologists. Not just because of the pressure but everything: to find balance, stability day to day, to be ready for adversity. That psychological work and support is fundamental.

“I try to ignore social media; it was too much time and I don’t go in to see what people are saying because there’s no one in the world more critical of me than me. And I have the coaching staff there to tell me that too, to help me get better all the time.”

Anyway, she says again, no pasa nada: “The expectations are good, a product of how well we have been playing.” So, too, is the approach from opponents, a little contextualisation helpfully offered by the coaches of both Germany and Denmark, changing their entire approach because of their opponents, Lars Sondergaard admitting the hardest thing is preparing good players to not having the ball against Spain.

“That speaks very highly of our team,” Bonmatí says. “That never used to happen; teams didn’t used to adapt to us; we adapted to them. It was like we were always trying to catch up, never getting there. Now other teams say: ‘Well, we’re not going to have the ball all game, we’ll have to suffer and make the most of whatever chances we do get.’ It’s like they respect us now, look at us differently, and that’s good. Something’s changed, right? I feel proud of how we far we have come. We’re talking about Germany. And Denmark, who were runners-up last Euros.”

And now England. Might this be different? “I’m not in their coach’s skin and I don’t want to speak for her, but they like to have the ball. I don’t know if they will adapt to us as well, but I don’t look at their midfield and see players who are purely defensive or all about physique. They’ll want the ball. When they haven’t had it, they’ve suffered. Against Austria, for example. And we want the ball: our objective will always to be to play. So while there tactical tweaks, that won’t change.”

There’s a pause and Bonmatí starts laughing again. “Although, I tell you something: if England have the ball for 90 minutes and we win 1-0, I’ll take that, eh.”