On Thursday the winners of the Champions League final in football for ladies are decided. Tyresö’s Vero Boquete will then be playing the biggest game of her career to date. Despite having several previous final losses playing on her mind, there is one memory stronger than any other. A memory that ensures nothing will make her stop running until time runs out. A fantastic memory that created her belief that luck can only be earned through hard work. Nothing is impossible for those who know how to wait.
It was hard work that made Veronica Boquete one of the best female football players in the world. The journey from being a football-playing girl among boys in Santiago de Compostela, to become a superstar in Europe, has been characterized by a lot of hard work. She’s had to face hardships both on and off the pitch. A constant has been her struggle against inequality and the inveterate antiquated view of women who are in football. On Thursday, she will not only play a final for her own sake, or for her own team’s sake. On Thursday, she will play a final for all the thousands of young boys and girls who look up to their brilliant idol. An idol admired by so many because she stands up against all the powerful men who look down on girls who love to play football. The game is the penultimate in the Tyresö jersey before she takes on a new challenge in Portland Thorns, United States. Tyresö has had a turbulent season and an exodus among the players is expected. In addition to Vero, it is already confirmed that the club loses the American trio Press, Klingenberg and Engen, all of them leaving after the Champions League game. Furthermore, Marta da Silva and Caroline Seger will join new clubs after the season. Only the future can tell what happens to Tyresö FF. But it is clear that there will be absolutely nothing but a complete focus on winning on Vero Boquete’s mind when she walks on to the pitch on Thursday for the most important 90 minutes of her career. Here you get the full story about the Princess in the King of sports.
When the bell tolls
Time reaches 120 minutes, and ever since the European Championship qualifiers started a year earlier, the Spanish women’s national team has, through ten matches of hard work, succeeded to reach the play-off against Scotland. Despite missing their biggest star, Vero Boquete, in the first leg, the Spanish ladies manage to reach 1-1 in Glasgow. At home, in Madrid, they quickly fall behind by a goal, but equalizes later on in the second half. The match goes into extra-time. Once there, Scotland takes the lead in the first quarter, and it looks like it’s game over. Spain needs – with just eight minutes remaining of the qualifier for the greatest European Championship tournament ever in women’s football – to score two goals. The previous week, Vero had been part of Tyresö losing the final of the Swedish Cup during extra-time, which also appeared to pre-empt a league-win. With a loss against Scotland, Vero’s worst nightmare would be realized. Then, suddenly, comes the equalizer: Silvia Meseguer scores 2-2 and hopes are once again raised within the team. One more goal is needed or Scotland wins the qualifier with the advantage of more away-goals. In the very last minute, the 120th, goal-scorer Meseguer is brought down and Spain is rewarded a penalty and a last chance to complete the turnaround. A goal would mean that Spain is in its first European Championship tournament in 16 years. A goal and women’s football in Spain goes from an unnoticed game to being a sport that needs to be taken seriously. The ball goes to no 9, Vero Boquete, the girl who always stood up against the old men’s empire in her national federation and who always fought for girls right to play football. When she steps up to the penalty spot, an entire city is cheering in the Galician Santiago de Compostela as their greatest sporting-icon will take on her most important penalty ever. Back in Sweden, her Tyreso teammates are in O’Leary’s, standing in front of the TV screen, nervously jumping back and forth. Now, the dream might finally become true. The referee gives the go-ahead and Vero strikes the penalty, the ball goes to the left… and … the goalkeeper saves it.
A superstar with setbacks
This could very well have been the end of Vero Boquete’s success story. Here, perhaps, one of the main symbols of equality in football could have given up and retired. After so many final losses, a further blow was not something that would be particularly welcome. In the 2011 final against Marta da Silva’s former club Wester New York Flash, she saw her team Philadelphia Independence lose on penalties. The previous season she had lost the series final in the Spanish league. Despite scoring a somewhat incredible 41 goals in 29 matches, her last match in Espanyol really wasn’t going her way, playing the whole game with a severe calf injury. The season before that, she also played the last game injured. On that occasion she was ordered a six-week rest because of an injured shoulder with just a week until the series final. Seven days later, she played the final firmly wrapped with bandages, but it did not help much, and she had to experience yet another final loss. Needless to say, the penalty-miss against Scotland in the 120th minute could prove to be yet another debacle, one that would hurt more than all others.
Just before the national gathering, prior to the Scotland-game, the thoughts were there. That a loss in the European Championship qualifier against Scotland would mean that she would most likely lose out on her three goals for the season: to win the national women’s league, to win the Swedish Cup, and to qualify for the European Championships in Sweden. The first goal appeared lost at the time as Tyresö was in a really bad position to win the league. Malmö appeared to have it made with just two rounds remaining. Furthermore, Tyresö had just the previous week lost the final of the Swedish Cup against Gothenburg after extra time. To miss out on the European Championship would mean a total failure, not only for herself. When I talked to Vero about this before her national gathering she said: “These two matches against Scotland mean everything. It would mean so much for all the girls in Spain who play football and for everyone there who are fighting for women’s football. If I miss out on this as well, then I do not know… I think I will pack my bags and go home.” Right after Vero missed the penalty that Scotland’s goalkeeper Gemma Fey saved, there were many who thought: ‘ Not her, anyone but her.’ It just couldn’t end that way. However, things took a completely different turn, which we’ll get to shortly.
As well as on the field, it has at times been tough socially, being a professional football player in foreign countries. In Spain, she has her hometown Santiago de Compostela that she always speaks warmly about. There she has her family and the best of friends. Just as much as she loves meeting them, she hates having to leave them. A price that has to be paid to fulfill one’s dreams. When Vero left RCD Espanyol to play for Energiya Voronezh in Russia, it was a must in order to keep improving and also to enable her to make a living on her sport. At the time, in Spain, the quality of women’s football was too low to provide either, and the country didn’t have a team with a chance to reach the Champions League. Not only was it a very emotional farewell to family and friends in Spain when she left, the new life in Russia was hardly a bed of roses, “It was so hard to leave Spain, but I knew I had to take this step sooner or later. By then I already knew a bit about the foreign life when I played in the U.S. between the residences of the Spanish league. When I went to the States I didn’t know a single word of English, which was tough, but Russia, well, that was another matter altogether. It was a much tougher climate. The coach was crazy – it felt like we were in the army. Not to talk about life off the pitch! Since it was too risky for us to stay in our own homes, we had to stay in a residence at the training facility. On practice we got the toughest physical training I have ever been through: we crawled through sand, climbed over wooden trestles, and trained in a pure military way. The actual matches were also very tough. The game was rock hard with a very crude mentality. I liked nothing about it, so when we lost the quarter-final in the Champions League that year, I decided to switch club straight away. Tyresö seemed like the perfect choice, as it also turned out to be.”
Daddy tought her everything
At home in Galicia Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, Vero Boquete quickly found her favorite pastime: to play football. Just a stones throw away from the world famous cathedral where the pilgrims’ patron saint – the apostle James – (Santiago in Spanish) is now revered, Vero is playing ball against a stone wall. But not only there, everywhere in Santiago where you could find a ball to practice with, she would play. Daddy Nica, who was a children’s football coach in the city, quickly saw the real talent Vero possessed. Together they practiced as often as they could and Nica taught Vero everything there was to know about football: how to dribble, how to head the ball, and how to shoot. He taught her what tactics are, how important it is to always give 100 percent, and to be respectful to others: “Dad taught me everything; he still does. He has supported me since I was a little girl, followed me to practice, driven me to games, taught me how I could think and do things differently. He has trained me and I have him to thank for everything.”
When Vero was six years old the rules that prohibited mixed teams were changed, which meant that she was finally allowed to start playing football with boys. While she developed her physical and mental game with the boys, she trained technique with the girls in the futsal team. And when it was not possible to play with a real soccer team, she went down to her daddy´s training facilities and practiced with him. Vero got better and better and never wanted to stop playing: “I played all the time, with the teams, with Dad, with my brother. Whenever I didn’t have anyone to play with, I practiced myself, against a stone wall or just doing some tricks with the ball.” And the love of the game has hardly subsided: “I love playing football., I always want to play. There is nothing more difficult than the long breaks between seasons. I mean, two months without a game? Come on! It’s too much! :)” Few players want to play as often and as much as Vero. In men’s football her counterparts can maybe be found, just about, in Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez. Players that, no matter how badly injured, or how worn out they are, always want to be on a football ground playing. So that talk about retiring, well, it’s of course just talk. Vero Boquete will, no matter how many bangs and scrapes she gets, and how much other adversity she has to face, never give up what she loves the most – playing football.
Standing strong alone
While Vero determinedly worked on improving her game while growing up, she constantly had to do so while fighting a battle where the odds were stacked against her. This was the battle against the contempt and hatred from parents and opponents who thought she had nothing to do on a football ground. In Spain, the old working-class values are still there: a woman has her place at home and not out among gainfully employed men. Throughout history, even trade unions and radical socialists in Spain have worked against, rather than for, women’s rights to equal work and wage. This could clearly be seen at the football games where a little girl among a pack of guys was repeatedly heckled: “The parents were the worst, they really hated me. They screamed awful things, especially the mothers. Meanwhile, guys on the opposing team did everything they could to put me down and when someone put in a tackle on me, the parents cheered.” So how was it like to play with only guys? “It was very hard; I always had to get dressed by myself, in the car, at home or in my own locker room. It never felt like I was on the team for real. The guys were pretty cold to me at first, but when they saw that I was good at playing, they started to respect me. They always defended me during games, so it got better as time went on.”
Of course Vero was not always met with disdain when she wanted to play football with guys, but almost all of them were surprised. Like that time at the beach when daddy Nica thought it was time for a game:“My dad thought he, my brother and I should play a game down at the beach against three guys there. He went up and asked them if they wanted to play and got the answer – but there are only two of you? – That’s how it was, always. No one thought I could play. Afterwards it was the other way around, then they were impressed and wanted to play again.” Today, Verónica Boquete has become 27 years old and it is now a very different story when she returns home to Santiago de Compostela. The contempt has been replaced by admiration and no one looks down on the Galicias’ biggest sports star anymore. In Spain, she has received several major awards and in the U.S., she became acknowledged when she was chosen as the league’s best player in 2011, in front of the likes of Marta da Silva, Caroline Seger and Abby Wambach.
Slow changes for the better, but there is still no room for women’s football in the homeland of macho culture
Her Camp VeroBoquete has now been carried out for three consecutive years in Santiago. There, Vero gets hundreds of boys and girls to play together. During the week long camp, the children, often up to 150 participants per year, has the opportunity to develop themselves with professional coaches and to play real games against each other. The kids, with their ages ranging from sex to eighteen years old, are training with the coaches in different groups. Vero goes around in the groups and do different exercises together with them and correct them during practice. In the country there are now more girls teams than when Vero herself started playing, and there are more opportunities for girls and boys who want to play football, regardless of gender. The major league has also developed, and the quality is now better. A lot of this is due to Vero becoming the face of football in Spain, inspiring others to follow her footsteps.
But even though much has improved, women’s football is still a marginal sport in Spain. Men are macho and the mentality of the country is still that women can’t play football, something that Vero openly criticized her own Football Association for: “The federation doesn’t give us resources to succeed. Our youth national teams do well but as an adult, there is hardly anyone who can support himself by playing football. Unless we get to play full time we can’t develop and then it’s difficult to succeed in the major tournaments, while the quality of the game deteriorates. Many of the girls can’t even afford to play. We receive 25 euros per day when we are in the national team, it’s a joke.”
The journey towards the European Championship did not start well during the playoffs. Vero hurt her knee during the final training session of the national gathering in Madrid, which meant she couldn’t play the first game in Scotland. The story of injuries ahead of key matches seemed once again to repeat itself. To lose the best player of the squad, just before an important game, is nothing that raises the morale in a team. But the Spanish girls pulled themselves together and walked away with 1-1 draw before the final clash in Madrid. There the number 9 shirt was about to play the main character in an unbelievable football drama. Vero Boquete has always lived by the motto that luck is not something you are given; it must be earned through hard work. And before each game the tune of Tu opurtunidad(= your opportunity) with Taxi is played: “No hay nada imposible para quien sabe esperar…” (meaning “nothing is impossible for one who knows how to wait”). And before the second match against Scotland, Vero thought she had waited long enough. The Tyresö coach Tony Gustavsson was also keen to reassure Vero, before she left for the Scotland matches, that everything would turn around in the end. Tony has always praised his favorite player and says that she is the female equivalent of Xavi. She is the “little” great player in Tyresö, the game genius with the unique touch. He wanted to instill confidence in her for the European Championship qualifiers: “Tony took me aside after the game against Kristianstad, three days after we lost the cup and said – ‘Vero, it will turn around. You always fight the hardest, and you possess a tremendous talent. Eventually your luck will turn. Just keep believing in yourself.’ That filled me with confidence, and even after missing the penalty in the 120th minute, I somewhat felt that there will be one more opportunity, we will get another chance”
So when the cross comes, just a minute later after the missed penalty in that fateful Scotland game, and the ball touches another player and arrives just in front of her, then she knew – it will go in: “I knew it when the ball was coming that I would somehow get it. It just tumbled down at me and I hit on pure instinct. Seeing it go into the net, wow! I just exploded in happiness, it was absolutely incredible. I ran and I understood what it meant – we were in the Championship with the last kick of the game. I have never been so happy in my entire life. I will probably never feel anything like it on a football field again, but it doesn’t matter, I can live on that goal my whole life :)” In the video below you can see the goal that took Spain to their first European Championship in 16 years, and listen to Vero’s thoughts on the gender issue in football (some parts of the video are in Swedish).
And I guess when luck turns, it turns. In the penultimate league match against Jitex directly after returning home from the qualifiers, Vero clinched the game with two goals. The day after, LDB Malmo, the favorite team to win the league, drops points with a 1-1 draw against Umeå. Tyreso’s hope of becoming league champions suddenly rekindles with just one last round remaining. The result in Umeå meant that Tyreso FF would get the chance to finish top of the league if they secured a win in the last game against Malmö. Once there, Madelaine Edlund secured the win for Tyreso with a distinct header in the 82th minute with a carefully delivered ball from Caroline Seger. After ten dramatic final minutes, where Malmö for instance got a goal disallowed, it was eventually over: Vero and Tyreso FF were Swedish champions for the first time in history.
After the season ended Vero was nominated the season’s best player and the season’s best midfielder in the league. At The Swedish Football Awards she received fantastic recognition when she won the prize for best midfielder, once again in competition with Caroline Seger and Marta.
In the European Championship, Spain surpassed most people’s expectations. The team reached the quarterfinals, where Norway went through after a 3-1 victory. Vero herself had a successful championship with two goals and secured a place in the selection of the UEFA European Championship Team. In conjunction with the European Championship she released, as the first female football player ever in Spain, her autobiography Vero Boquete – La Princesa del Deporte Rey (= The Princess of the King of Sports) written by Marca journalist David Menayo. The book has already sold over 3000 copies in Spain. She also started a petition to get EA Sports to include women in their football video game FIFA. The petition had received over 50 000 signatures in just a few days, including the likes of Iker Casillas and Andres Iniesta. Vero herself thinks that the European Championship was a big step for Spain: “It was the biggest event for me and for our national team. It was incredibly important for the sport and even better that we did so well. I of course dreamed of a final at Friends, but still, reaching the quarter-finals was over everyone’s expectations and received a lot of attention at home in Spain. With the book and the EA petition we received even more attention, which was really good.”
A club playing for survival, a team playing for a dream
So on Thursday it’s on. Last year’s champions Wolfsburg are waiting in the women’s 2014 Champions League final. The entire Tyreso FF team has complete focus on the game, but beneath the surface the problems are piling up for the big club. Despite having received approval to proceed with its reorganization, the team needs to win the Champions League to have an opportunity to be competitive next year. Several of the stars will leave the team right after the game and some more will follow. Vero, among others, will finish her contract during the summer break at the end of May. The club plays for survival, but the players for a dream – the dream to win the biggest achievement in club football, the Champions League trophy.
For Verónica Boquete this match is an acknowledgment of all the work she has put in, for everything she has sacrificed, and for everything she has fought for all of her life: to play in the greatest finals against the very best football has to offfer. As for me, I know she will perform at her absolute best, as always. This is not a coincidence. For me, she is the “little” girl who taught me that all the great things in life are possible. You can always change things for the better: with hard work, a positive attitude, and by believing in yourself. So whatever happens during the game on Thursday, however dark and hopeless it may seem, there is one player on that field who knows that nothing is impossible, you just need to know how to wait.
Despite Vero scoring one goal and making two assists, Wolfsburg won the final with a total of 4-3. After just two month in her new club Portland Thorns, Vero was awarded player of the year. One year later, 2015, Vero´s new club Frankfurt went all the way and won the final against Paris SG (2-1). Vero was in the same season nominated for Ballon d´or – The best player in the world.