Aitana Bonmati talks 'Barcelona DNA,' pressure of winning and UWCL final

BARCELONA, Spain -- Everything has happened so quickly for Aitana Bonmati that the Barcelona midfielder, voted the fifth best player in the world in this year's Ballon d'Or, has hardly had a moment to take in the scale of the success she has had.

On Saturday, she will play in her fourth Champions League final in five years. Last season, en route to the final which they lost to Lyon, Barca twice broke the attendance record in women's football. A crowd of 91,553 attended their quarterfinal win against Real Madrid at Camp Nou, with 91,648 present for their semifinal victory over Wolfsburg, who they meet again in this weekend's showpiece in Eindhoven.

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Domestically, the only way to describe this Barca side is "all-conquering." They have won four consecutive Liga F titles, two under previous coach Lluis Cortes and two more with his successor, Jonatan Giraldez, and, during that time, embarked on a 62-game winning run. Though, after wrapping up this year's title, that streak ended with a draw at Sevilla and they then lost their unbeaten run against Madrid CFF last week, clocking out at 64 games.

That success has had a knock-on effect. Players like Bonmati and two-time Ballon d'Or winner Alexia Putellas have become idols for a new generation of fans. Bonmati is one of six players whose face adorns the ginormous facade outside Camp Nou's main stand. She can no longer pass through the streets of Barcelona unnoticed, while commercial and media commitments have surged.

"I almost haven't realised, but thinking about it now, I realise [my life] has changed, but it has happened so quickly that you don't take it in," Bonmati tells ESPN ahead of Saturday's final.

Bonmati, 25, was never prepared for this level of attention. An only child from what she describes as "not a footballing family," she originally played basketball. At 5-foot-3, her talent was always likely to be better placed elsewhere and, after a kick about on the school playground around the age of six, she felt an instant connection to football.

She played on local boys' teams until she was 14, when she joined Barca. Even then, the 50km bus trips from her hometown outside Barcelona to the club's training complex were a world away from Camp Nou. Her mum, the only driver in the family, has fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue, so public transport was the only option. Eating her dinner on the go, it would be past midnight when she got back from training after a day at school.

There was no relationship with the first team and no real pathway to a professional career. Even making her senior bow, as a false No. 9 in the Copa de la Reina in 2016, feels a long way from where she is now.

"When I made my debut, I never would have imagined a Champions League final, the amazing fans we have filling Camp Nou and becoming idols," she says. "Before, this simply did not happen. In my early years in the team, it didn't happen, either.

"I think the click, or the moment I started to realise things were changing, was when we won the first Champions League [in 2021]. That was an important moment. When you win, you're recognised more. That brought a lot of people on board. From that moment, everything began to progress quicker."

The progress at Barca, while aided by investment, feels organic. There is a defined style shared by the men's team and the youth teams that has been easily implemented in the women's team. There is a prototype of player -- think Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta from the men's team -- that the club develops and Bonmati, graceful on the ball, all touch and technique, fits that mould.

"I am certainly one of the examples," she acknowledges. "I have been at the club for 11 years, I have grown here since I was young. I have not left and come back. I have been through the whole process.

"My idols were men, Xavi, Iniesta and, when I was older, Pep Guardiola because the years he was the [Barca] coach were so enjoyable. It's not just about girls, either, but boys as well. That's important. If I had male idols, why can they not have female idols? I think that's positive because from a young age they are seeing equality.

"I have been playing in the same [Barca] way for many years. I am a player that plays in a key position. In any Barca team, the midfielders are so important, so I feel a like a benchmark in that sense, carrying the [club's] DNA in me."

The phrase "Barca DNA" is banded about a lot. But what does it actually mean for Bonmati's role in the team?

"A lot of things are needed really," she adds. "It seems easy, but understanding football is not that easy. It requires having that pausa, that management of space, knowing where your teammates and your opponents are. It's important to be constantly aware what is going on behind you and around you. It's about knowing how to manage moments during a game: what does the team need? When do you need to accelerate or slow down the rhythm? Should we switch play? It's a combination of things. It's understanding football and it's obviously having that technique and those resources to help as a team player."

Watch Bonmati, who can be as tenacious as she is talented, and you will see she has all those qualities. In the absence of the injured Putellas this season, the team has revolved around her. She has responded with 19 goals in 36 appearances, including five in the Champions League, in addition to a competition-leading seven assists.

Happier playing in a more advanced midfield position -- "I like to create and be close to the box," she admits -- the individual prizes may follow if Barca win a second European trophy this weekend.

"I think everyone would like to win the Ballon d'Or," she says. "But it depends on your performances. I focus on myself, what I can do better and how I can help the team. My objective is to keep improving in areas where I need to and to be better than the year before. From there, I am sure good things will come."

But getting into a position to be regularly winning Champions Leagues and Ballons d'Or naturally increases the pressure on any player, and that has been the challenging aspect of Barca and Bonmati's success. The demands are now sky high. Was she prepared mentally?

"In elite [sport], you have tough times," she says. "All elite players have been through difficult moments because the pressure is so high, the demands you place on yourself are supreme and you are always in the spotlight. You want to play well every match, but you're a person at the end of the day and you have bad days. You suffer because you want to be at your best, but I don't think it has ever been too much for me. I always say that the worst pressure is the pressure I put on myself. I am a very self-demanding person.

"It's true there is a lot of focus on us and being at the club we are and having done what we have done, we are obliged to win and to play well. The day we lose or draw is a disaster. You have to learn to live with that, but it's normal in this profession and I accept that responsibility." Barca did lose last week, as their two-year unbeaten streak in Liga F ended, but with the title sewn up, it was not a catastrophe.

"Losing always hurts, because we are not used to it," Bonmati adds. "But if you think about it with a cool head, you have already won the league and, without a fixed objective, without meaning to, your body and mind disconnect. It's more mental than anything. You have to allow yourself to lose every now and then. We are not robots."

Defeats are more common in Europe. Barca have lost two of their previous three finals, to Lyon in 2019 and 2022, and have been beaten away against Wolfsburg and Bayern Munich in the last 14 months. The level of competition across the continent means matching Lyon's run of six Champions Leagues in the last seven years will be difficult, even if that is Barca's ambition.

"Before, Lyon were the queens of women's football, but now it's more even," Bonmati says. "There's us, the German teams, Chelsea, Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain ... it keeps changing. We are lucky to have been in finals in recent years but who knows next year, maybe we won't be. You have to give value [to four finals in five years].

"We are accustomed to [reaching finals] and the day we don't make it will be a failure, but that's not the case. It takes a lot to reach the final. I hope we reach more, but it's more even now and that is positive for women's football.

"[Staying on top] is about reinventing yourself every year. There is a lot of tactical work now. The level is always improving in that sense, so [the teams] know each other well. Depending on the players you have, you can do one thing or another. I think this year, with the players we have, we are more direct in moments than we have been in previous seasons.

"Our style will always be the same but there are facets, movements, tactical concepts that change, which is what helps you to improve and keep progressing so teams don't find a way to stop you."