In the early 1990s, in the shadow of Santiago de Compostela's imposing, gothic cathedral in deepest, darkest north-western Spain, Veronica (Vero) Boquete was a soccer-obsessed girl who took her ball everywhere. She went to practice with the local team. Her father was a coach and her older brother played, too.
But there was a catch. Vero wasn't allowed to play with the boys. That was the rule. She wasn't as big as them, they said. She'd probably get hurt, they said. So, even though she took part in every training session, even though she worked as hard as everyone else, she was forced to sit on the bench whenever there was a game. But, as well as being the only girl in Santiago who played soccer, she was also gifted. And her talent ensured things began to change.
The rule was modified and Vero could finally run onto a pitch with her teammates and play in competitive matches. But despite the change, she remained isolated. Before a game, she had to get changed at home or in her dad's car. And then there was the abuse. Parents jeered a little girl for playing with boys. It was a freak show, they thought. She shouldn't be there. It didn't make sense. So they made fun of a child.
Things are better now but women's soccer remains misunderstood in Spain. It's an afterthought. As the men's team has enjoyed a remarkable and historic run between 2008 and 2012 (they became the first side to ever win the European Championship and a World Cup back-to-back), the women have struggled to be heard. In 1997, they qualified for the Euros, making it to the semifinals, but it proved a bizarre detour on a relentlessly bumpy road.
There has been plenty of recent European success at the under-17 level which bodes well for the future but the senior setup has bounced from one traumatic experience to the next.
Through it all, there has been Boquete. A driving force, she's been an integral part of the team for the last decade. But it says much about the profile and the underachievement of the Spanish women's side that in a 10-year span, she's still to break the 50-cap mark. To put in in context, Megan Rapinoe made her debut for the United States in 2006 and has racked up over a century of appearances so far. For a very long time, Spain just didn't get the games. They didn't qualify for major tournaments. They didn't really do much at all. That is, until 2012, when Boquete intervened again to make another firm statement for women's soccer in the country.
It was the second leg of a playoff game against Scotland. The winner would qualify for the following year’s European Championship. The first clash was a 1-1 draw in Glasgow, played in front of 4,000 at the city's iconic Hampden Park – a record attendance for the Scottish team. The return fixture was at the back of the Spanish FA's headquarters in Madrid, on a pitch normally used for youth soccer. It drew 800 people. No one was expecting much.
But those that attended were treated to a thriller. It was to-and-fro with the game tied at 1-1 after 90 minutes. In extra time, the teams shared two more goals but a 2-2 result was good enough to send Scotland through on the away goals rule. Spain needed something. And in the last minute, they were awarded a penalty. Boquete, the captain, obviously, stepped up to take. And Gemma Fay saved it.
Boquete buried her head in her hands and struggled to comprehend what had happened. She could've qualified Spain for the finals. She could've made a stand for the women's game again. And she missed.
The game continued. Spain attacked once more. A cross came in from the right. There was a little knockdown from a teammate and the ball dropped from the skies. Boquete arched her body, swiveling to take on the immensely difficult left-foot volley. It was unerring. A motionless Fay was rooted to the spot as it nestled inside the near post. It was the last kick of the game. And Boquete had done it. She had pushed her team to the promised land.
Ever since, there has been significant progress. At the Euros, Spain made it to the quarter-finals, beating England along the way. Boquete scored three times at the tournament, leading by example. They qualified for their very first World Cup without losing a game. In Canada, playing in Group E with Brazil, South Korea and Costa Rica, Boquete is realistic about her team’s chances, saying recently:
"There is still a big gulf between us and the main powers due to conditions in the professional game but not due to quality.
I think about all the effort we have put in, how many have tried and not managed. And of course I think about everything we will feel when we are there, when we take to the pitch, when we hear the national anthem. It's going to be very special."
When there's a cause, Boquete is usually front and centre. Playing in Sweden in 2013, she came across an online petition from a 13-year-old girl in Maryland who wanted female soccer players included in the iconic FIFA computer games, produced by Electronic Arts. Boquete set up a Spanish petition and it drew support from the country's high-profile male soccer figures like Iker Casillas and Andres Iniesta. It rapidly gathered momentum and eventually, though unsurprisingly given Boquete's involvement, it had 50,000 signatures.
On the eve of this Women’s World Cup, there came an announcement from EA Sports. The company's FIFA 16 game will feature 12 women's soccer teams, including Boquete's Spain.
When needed, she has delivered. And this tournament is so much better for her presence.