Welcome to the Real world. The first competitive game Real Madrid’s women’s team played ended with a 9-1 defeat against Barcelona in the clásico. If, that is, you could call it that, which many insisted you couldn’t and shouldn’t. If you could call them Real Madrid back then, and you couldn’t really do that yet either. Not officially, anyway. But that didn’t stop it hurting, striker Kosovare Asllani describing it as a “humiliation”, perhaps the most painful in her long, successful career.
It was September 2019, the opening game of a new first division season with a new team. The agreement had been signed, Spain’s biggest club finally arriving in the women’s game two decades after their opponents, but while they wore white kits, trained at Valdebebas and signed star players, they were still officially called Club Deportivo Tacón, their absorption by Real Madrid yet to be ratified by a members’ assembly, and wouldn’t officially become Real Madrid Femenino until July 2020.
The following week, playing their first game on Pitch 11 at Valdebebas, the embossed Real Madrid badges on the gold numbers disappeared from the players’ shirts and shorts, replaced by simple black lettering. Many saw something symbolic in that, if not something even more pointed.
“I’ll never forget that match,” Asllani admits in an HBO documentary that traces Tacón’s conversion into Real Madrid, what they hope will be the emergence of a new force in the women’s game that in turn contributes to its growth.
The result underlined a reality, a warning of how far behind they were and an illustration of how far other clubs had come without them. If there was a clásico in the women’s game, it didn’t include them, at least not yet: Atlético Madrid and Barcelona were the standout teams, regulars in the Champions League, watched by 60,738 when they had met at the Wanda Metropolitano.
A year on there was another warning for the new side, and this time you should call them Real Madrid. On the first day of the 2020-21 season, Real Madrid faced Barcelona “again”. Again, they were defeated and heavily. When, coming up to Christmas, they played Atlético in the first Madrid derby – although Madrid Club de Fútbol Femenino would be entitled to question that assertion – they were beaten. This time though it was only 1-0 and even the 4-0 loss to Barcelona on the opening day had represented progress, of which there has been plenty.
The first 18 months of Real Madrid’s existence as a women’s team can be split into two parts, both incomplete. Two years, two seasons, two projects, two names.
The first year, still officially known as Tacón and promoted the previous summer, saw them slip momentarily into the relegation zone. It hadn’t always been easy. Esther Martin suffered an anxiety attack against Madrid CFF in September, not playing again until January. But then she led her team back from 3-2 to a 4-3 win, scoring the winner with a free-kick. And by then Tacón were recovering too, led in particular by the Sweden international Sofia Jakobsson and English forward Chioma Ubogagu.
When the league was cancelled because of the pandemic last March, it was decided that none of the 16 teams would be relegated but Tacón had climbed to 10th anyway, well clear. Barcelona, unbeaten, top of the table and 26 points ahead of Real Madrid were handed the title. Tacón were handed time, an opportunity to think about how to build for the new season, their first officially as Real Madrid.
Seven months passed before they were ready to start again. The Liga Iberdrola, which is dependent on the Spanish Football Federation not La Liga, began a month late and with 18 teams as the authorities sought to finalise Covid protocols. Much had changed. For the league – which last year suffered a strike over conditions and difficulties getting some games on television – and for its newest team.
In that first summer, Tacón/Real Madrid had signed 10 players, eight of them overseas players, including the Swedes Asllani and Jakobsson, and the Brazil international Thaisa. With a budget smaller only than Barcelona’s, this had a touch of the galáctico about it.
In the second, they signed eight more, but it was different now. There was a certain stability, realism, a decision made not to chase the impossible. The manager, David Aznar, continued, despite expectations that he would be released. Coaches positioned themselves, but to everyone’s surprise the post never became available. Ana Rosell, the founder of Tacón remains the president. And 13 Tacón-era players remain, although Esther Martin is not one of them.
The signings represented a shift in approach. Eight were announced on the same day in July, and seven were Spanish. The only foreigner, the Mexican Kenti Robles, came from Atlético across the city. Five were under 25, five had been European champions with Spain at under-17 or under-19 level, and there was a focus on the defence after a season in which Tacón had conceded more goals, 48, than anyone. Three international defenders and a goalkeeper arrived. Up front, Marta Cardona’s transfer from Real Sociedad has been significant.
The target was no longer Barcelona and maybe not even Atlético yet, inferiority temporarily assimilated in a way that is rare in football and rarer at Real Madrid. But this year three teams will make it to the Champions League – and competing for that, they decided, was a realistic objective.
So it is proving. Last weekend, Atlético won the Spanish Super Cup, beating Barcelona en route and Levante in the final and providing the year’s most moving image when Virginia Torrecilla, who is overcoming cancer, joined her team in collecting the trophy. Barcelona meanwhile are top, unbeaten, a level above the rest. And yet with Asllani and Jakobsson settled and flying, the latter taking a significant step up, Real Madrid are getting closer.
Only one side other than Atlético and Barcelona have beaten them – fifth-placed Tenerife – and Aznar’s team are second, two points behind Barcelona albeit having played three games more. They meet again on Sunday and while it may not be a clásico yet, this time it should be competitive. There may be no revenge but, who knows, it could yet be the start of a familiar rivalry.