FC Barcelona Femeni are in the midst of another dominant season in La Liga Iberdrola, Spain's top-flight for women's soccer, stringing together 12 wins in 12 with an astonishing +67 goal differential. Barcelona's recent 7-0 win against Rayo Vallecano has Lluis Cortes' team sitting five points clear of recently Real Madrid, who recently formed a women's team in July.
As Barca continue preparations for Athletic Club on Thursday and their rival Real Madrid on Jan. 31, they have the opportunity to close a historic undefeated January in league play that featured a barrier-breaking match at the legendary Camp Nou pitch where Lionel Messi, Johan Cruyff, Ronaldinho, Diego Maradona and plenty of other all-time Barca greats have graced their presence in the 100,000-seat venue.
We can now add Netherlands international Lieke Martens to that list, who scored the fourth goal in Barcelona's 5-0 drubbing over city rivals Espanyol on Jan. 6, marking the first time the women's team played a competitive game at Camp Nou in 50 years. Seleccio Ciutat de Barcelona, unofficial former women's side, played an exhibition game on Christmas day in 1970 and are considered pioneers of Barcelona Femeni.
Martens has been with the club since 2017, the same year where she led Netherlands to the UEFA Women's Euro championship and was crowned The Best FIFA Women's Player and UEFA Women's Player of the Year. The winger has helped the team stay dominant in the Spanish league and become contenders in UEFA Women's Champions League over her time with the club.
Despite the circumstances of having to play the match without fans due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Martens explains why the entire experience was significant for Barca:
"That was amazing. I mean, that experience playing in one of the most beautiful -- for me, the most beautiful -- stadium in Europe, in the world," Martens said. "So many people can fit in that stadium.
"If you are on the pitch, it's so huge. It was so nice, a good experience for the whole team. And unfortunately, without any spectators. So hopefully in the future, we will play in [games] also with people who can cheer for us and support us."
Bringing Barca Femeni to Camp Nou
Sporting manager Markel Zubizarreta revealed to CBS Sports that making history at Camp Nou was one of the goals he wanted to bring to life once Barcelona become major players in the first division. The recent success of the club over the last decade has led to an engaged following, in which the club wants to continue to build off that through meaningful matches in Camp Nou should the opportunity present itself.
"We always had dreams to play in Camp Nou," Zubizarreta said. "We have had some good stuff in the last two, three years, some games with 15,000 spectators, 12,000 spectators. What we're looking for always is to play with fans. So we hope that we can do it again and that can be something that can mean more than what we have done until now."
The team currently plays in Estadi Johan Cruyff, sharing facilities with the men's Barcelona B team. With the pandemic and plans for a 50th anniversary event for the pioneer game, the opportunity finally presented itself. The moment looked different than originally expected without fans, but Zubizarreta says he feels like this is just the first step for potential future fixtures at the sacred grounds of Camp Nou. Future matches -- potentially Champions League, rivalries, or just matches that have championship implications -- are part of the blueprint.
Striving for Champions League success
While Barcelona are taking care of business in Liga Iberdrola week to week, they're also focused on producing another deep run in the Women's Champions League.
"We have a really strong group, not only 11 players, we have a really big squad with a lot of different qualities," Martens said.
"We challenge each other every day in practice. I think the level is so high that we are improving so much as a team and you always have to be sharp every practice. And that makes the team so much better. And, yeah, of course, you need also a bit luck with the draw and everything, we will see. But I really feel the confidence and feel, I really believe that we can do really well this season."
The round of 16 draw for UEFA women's Champions League will take place on Feb. 16, with the ties scheduled for March 3-4 and March 10-11. Although Barcelona were eliminated in the semifinal last season, Martens believes they have what it takes to make it back to the final as they did in 2018.
"There's a good opportunity to reach our goals. It would be nice, taking that cup one time with Barcelona here. Like that's a dream of all of us, and we're working really hard for it."
Building legacies with Barcelona
Martens has won seven trophies with Barca, including her first league title last season after the club finished four consecutive seasons in second place. She's been with the club long enough to be considered one of the savvy veterans. For a club that carries deep Dutch roots, it's a connection she carries with pride.
"The Netherlands and Barcelona is always something special," Martens said. "I mean, so many people in the Netherlands would say 'I support Barcelona.' So formerly as a little kid, I always supported Barcelona as well.
"When Barcelona called me, it was quite easy to say yes. So many big players have played here and now for the first female [side]. So yeah, there's something between the Netherlands and Barcelona, and I really like being here."
Having a team composed of so many players from different parts of the globe has allowed the team to capitalize on those different elements of the game to develop the style that they are now most comfortable playing.
"I just think it's also a progress. I mean, as a foreign player, you always add something to the team. And I have learned also a lot from Spanish players. So I think we have a really good balance now on the team with like, the real Barca style, having the possession, control the game, that is our thing. But now, we've added for example, that we [Netherlands] have speed up front, that we can play fast, that we also have different game plans."
Her ability to connect with teammates like Caroline Graham Hansen or Asisat Oshoala has provided different looks in the attack if Barcelona need to adjust during games.
"You can see, like with some individual players, you add things to the team, where Barca was already a really good team. But like, if you want to progress and get better, you need players who are doing the right things on the pitch and adding things to the team."
"I think now we're at a really good moment [and] everyone knows what's the quality of every play we have, and we should be using it more. And I really like [it], we understand each other really good on the pitch, and that's most important thing."