Record 91,553 fans watch Barcelona women oust Real Madrid from Champions League (video)

·4 min read

The epicenter of worldwide women's soccer right now is Spain. More specifically, it's Barcelona.

Long one of the planet's most heralded men's sides, the women have now become juggernauts of the sport, and Wednesday's 5-2 victory (and 8-3 on aggregate) over rivals Real Madrid in the UEFA Women's Champions League quarterfinals was a culmination of sorts.

A deafening culmination. An official total of 91,553 fans turned out at Barcelona's famed Camp Nou stadium, which topped the modern era record of 90,185 at the 1999 Women's World Cup final and nearly doubled the previous record for a UWCL match. As for the world record, there are accounts of 110,000 attending an unofficial match between Mexico and Denmark in Mexico City in 1971, and this didn't quite hit that mark.

Either way, there were a lot of people there Wednesday. Just listen to the crowd reaction when Barca center back María Pilar León opened the scoring in the eighth minute:

Real Madrid drew level with a penalty in the 16th minute, and in the second half, the golazos started pouring in. First, Real Madrid's Claudia Zornoza beat Barca keeper Sandra Paños with a napalm chip from 40 yards out:

After Barca equalized through Aitana Bonmatí a few minutes later, Clàudia Pina stuck this frozen dagger far post to give Barca the lead:

Reigning Ballon d'Or winner Alexia Putellas and Caroline Graham Hansen scored the last two goals for Barcelona, which won the Champions League for the first time last season and will face either Arsenal or VFL Wolfsburg in the semifinals in late April.

A record 91,553 fans attended Barcelona's win over Real Madrid in the UEFA Women's Champions League quarterfinal second leg on Wednesday at the Nou Camp. (Photo by Eric Alonso/Getty Images)
A record 91,553 fans attended Barcelona's win over Real Madrid in the UEFA Women's Champions League quarterfinal second leg on Wednesday at the Nou Camp. (Photo by Eric Alonso/Getty Images)

How did the Barcelona women get so good?

As The Guardian's Sid Lowe detailed in-depth, the catalyst for Barca's recent evolution was a loss in the 2019 Champions League final to Lyon. The single dominant European club in the women's game the past decade, Lyon won seven UWCL titles from 2011-2020, not to mention every French league title from 2007-2020. They beat Barca 4-1, having gone up 4-0 inside 30 minutes.

Barcelona knew it wasn't on that level yet. And while a couple big signings arrived, including Graham Hansen and Fridolina Rolfö, both from Wolfsburg, the investment really matured with patience and smart allocation of resources. Barcelona became fully professional in 2015, operating with an annual budget of around $5 million, which is a lot for the women's game. All but a handful of their first-team players are Spanish, having either graduated from the academy or signed from elsewhere in Spain and spent years in Barcelona's system.

Former manager Lluís Cortés drove them hard to reach the highest level, so much so that a handful of players reportedly requested his dismissal last summer after they beat Chelsea to finally win the Champions League. But it was more about burnout and resistance to stagnation than anything else, and his top assistant, Jonatan Giráldez, was named the new manager a few days later.

Such consistency is integral to the collective force Barcelona has become. They're composed. They shift seamlessly in and out of formation depending on possession. Players understand their roles. It's as efficient an operation as there is in women's club soccer.

This summer's European Championship (and next summer's World Cup) may be breakout tournaments for the Spanish women because of it. In a way, it's not totally different from the rise of the Spanish men around the turn of the last decade, as many of their core players spent each week playing together with Barcelona.

The world is taking notice. The conditions of Wednesday's UWCL match against Real Madrid, the women's version of the most famous rivalry in the sport, are perhaps not replicable in the short term.

But it's clear women's soccer is growing exponentially. People are paying attention: 91,553 of them, to be exact.

Aitana Bonmati (on the ball) scored one of Barcelona's goals in their 5-2 win over Real Madrid in front of a record crowd at the Nou Camp. (Photo by Pedro Salado/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)
Aitana Bonmati (on the ball) scored one of Barcelona's goals in their 5-2 win over Real Madrid in front of a record crowd at the Nou Camp. (Photo by Pedro Salado/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)