Aitana Bonmatí is a worthy winner of the Ballon d’Or – watching her play is a privilege | Moving the Goalposts

It was never in doubt, was it? As Aitana Bonmatí’s name was read out in Paris on Monday night, there was a collective sigh of relief that the Spanish midfielder, arguably the world’s best player by some distance in the last 12 months, had been crowned the 2023 Women’s Ballon d’Or winner. It is yet another accolade to add to her growing collection as the 25-year-old became the youngest recipient of the award. It means she has picked up almost every prize available for both club and country, collectively and individually, over the 2022-23 season.

Being part of an era that has been able to enjoy Bonmatí play football is a privilege. Whether watching Barcelona or Spain and despite being surrounded by indisputable stars, one’s eye is automatically drawn to the diminutive figure at the heart of midfield. She has received praise from her peers, male and female, while Pep Guardiola, one of her idols, has lauded her achievements. “Aitana Bonmatí is a football player who has me completely in love with her for the way she plays,” he remarked. “I would say she is like the women’s [Andrés] Iniesta playing for Barcelona.”

Aitana Bonmatí runs to celebrate Spain’s victory
Bonmatí celebrates after the final whistle in the Women’s World Cup final. Photograph: Elsa/Fifa/Getty Images

Whether sitting deep or pushed higher up, as she was at Barcelona last season, Bonmatí links defence to attack with effortless elegance. She commands the pitch with understated authority and energy. Her vision, versatility and ball-possessing skills are second to none while her ability to break an opponent’s press are crucial to her teams’ success. One only needs to look at how she adapted to a more advanced role over the last year, registering 13 goal contributions in the Champions League and 19 in Liga F.

Born in Catalonia’s Vilanova i la Geltrú, Bonmatí is a product of Barcelona’s famous youth system, rising through the ranks to make her debut for the seniors in 2016. She was used sparingly in her first two seasons but established herself as a first team player in the 2018-2019 season and has never looked back. Now a quadruple Spanish league champion and two-time Champions League winner, she is the current Uefa Player of the Year and UWCL Player of the Season. Her star has shone equally brightly for Spain. Having featured at all age groups, she was integral to her side’s historic World Cup win this summer, picking up the tournament’s Golden Ball award in the process.

She is also a player who is finding her voice away from the pitch, unafraid to use her platform to speak up. Her speech after picking up the Uefa Player of the Year award in the aftermath of the Luis Rubiales controversy received high praise and she echoed similar thoughts on Monday. “As role models we have a responsibility on and off the pitch,” she said. “We should be more than athletes and keep leading by example and fighting together for a better, peaceful and equal world.”

Aitana Bonmatí smiles a she lifts the Women’s Champions League trophy
Bonmatí lifts the Women’s Champions League trophy for Barcelona in June. Photograph: Catherine Ivill/Uefa/Getty Images

Bonmatí’s win was a high point of the Ballon d’Or, as was the naming of Barcelona as the Women’s Club of the Year. Both have shone a light on the excellence present in the women’s game, the beacons which others can aspire to. In addition, England’s Mary Earps, who came fifth, became the highest-ever ranked female goalkeeper.

Once again, however, controversy surrounded the ceremony and France Footballhas questions to answer. One would have thought that after the infamous Martin Solveig-Ada Hegerberg twerking affair of 2018, lessons would have been learned but numerous incidents on Monday evening called the Ballon d’Or’s treatment of women’s football into question. Why are there only two awards available for women to win? Why did musician Rema seem so more interested in shaking the hands of all the male nominees during his performance than the female contenders? Why was it held in the middle of a women’s international break meaning many were unable to attend?

And why was Novak Djokovic, a tennis player known for past questionable comments about equal pay for his female peers and several controversial views, given the accolade of handing Bonmatí the trophy? It may have seemed an innocuous decision to organisers, his fame glossing over potential negatives, but was jarring to those attuned to women’s sport. All these issues only enhance the feeling that the celebration of women in the event is treated as an afterthought rather than valuing the sport and its athletes on the same level as their counterparts.

The debate will drag on. Thankfully, however, there is no dispute surrounding the winner. There is always the fear in the women’s game that these awards can be decided on being well-known rather than form, but in Bonmatí they have a star worthy of all the accolades thrown at her. It may be her first time lifting the trophy, but with her prime years still to come, Spain’s magician in the middle has the potential to dominate in the coming years.

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Talking points

JFF agree to pay players: The Jamaican Football Federation announced that they had finally paid their players after the 2023 World Cup squad announced a boycott of this week’s Concacaf W Gold Cup Qualification games. Delay in payment for their World Cup performances and qualifying bonuses formed part of the decision to not play for their country this month. It is a first step in a long-running dispute between the players and their federation with problems also arising prior to this summer’s tournament.

Rubiales ban: This week, Fifa announced that Luis Rubiales has been banned from all football-related activities for three years. The decision follows the former president of the Spanish Football Federations behaviour on the World Cup podium, including kissing striker Jenni Hermoso. Fifa found he had violated Article 13 of their disciplinary code that covers “offensive behaviour and violations of the principles of fair play”. Rubiales announced later that he would appeal.

Australia return home: The Matildas returned to home soil for the first time since the World Cup, welcomed home by over 100,000 across their first two Olympic qualifiers in Perth. In their 2-0 victory over Iran, Perth-born Sam Kerr delighted her fans as she added her name to the scoresheet as a second-half substitute. Tony Gustavsson’ side then ran wild with an 8-0 win against the Philippines. Kerr notched a hat-trick; Caitlin Foord did the same while also registering four assists; and there were goals for Mary Fowler and Clare Wheeler.

Sam Kerr scores a goal
Sam Kerr finds the net against the Philippines. Photograph: Noe Llamas/SPP/Shutterstock

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