Sam Marsden, Barcelona correspondentJul 25, 2023, 06:00 AM ET

WELLINGTON, New Zealand – If it has been a difficult year for Aitana Bonmati’s relationship with the Spain national team, it did not show in her performance against Costa Rica. The Barcelona midfielder scored the second goal and helped create the first with a clever flick as La Roja opened their Women’s World Cup campaign with a 3-0 win at Wellington Regional Stadium on Friday.

Bonmati was one of 15 players who sent an email to the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) last September, declaring themselves unavailable for selection. They felt changes were needed to professionalise the setup and better equip the national team to compete for silverware. Despite having the back-to-back Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas in their ranks and the spine of a Barca side that have won two Champions Leagues in three years, Spain have never won a knockout game at a major tournament.

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Until the very last moment, Bonmati, voted fifth in this year’s Ballon d’Or and second in ESPN’s best players at the World Cup, did not know if she would be in Australia and New Zealand this summer. Eventually, following meetings with the RFEF throughout the season, the 25-year-old was one of three from the 15 to be named in Spain’s squad for the finals, along with club teammates Ona Batlle and Mariona Caldentey. The other 12 either did not make themselves available or were not selected by coach Jorge Vilda.

“[It has been] soooo difficult,” she told The Players’ Tribune this week. “You miss out on matches, money, sponsors, everything. You get killed in the press. But I wanted to be part of [the strike]. I felt that the [RFEF] needed to invest more in us. Certain changes needed to be made if we were to win big tournaments. Which is what we want to do, otherwise what’s the point?”

With the likes of Barca duo Mapi Leon and Patri Guijarro refusing to come back, the debate will not end here, but Bonmati doesn’t want to “dwell” on the subject anymore, asking for the focus to be on a World Cup where she looks set to be one of the standout performers.

In fact, for all the focus on Putellas before the tournament, she is the player who carries Spain’s hopes Down Under. In part because Putellas has only recently returned from an anterior cruciate ligament injury in her knee and has not yet completed 90 minutes, but also because Bonmati has a skillset which is perhaps unrivalled at the finals.

In Putellas’ absence last season, Bonmati led Barca to a Liga F-Champions League double. She was named the best player in the Champions League after providing a tournament-high seven assists in addition to five goals, putting her joint second in the scoring chart.

However, she is not a player who can be characterised solely by assists and goals. Speak with Bonmati and she will tell you that her idols are Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. Watch her and you will see elements of both. When Putellas was fit, she played a deeper midfield role, controlling the game with quick, short one-touch passing. With Putellas missing, she has stepped into a more attacking role, gliding forward with the ball like Iniesta and creating opportunities. She told ESPN before June’s Champions League final that she prefers to be more offensive. She likes being close to the box. Against Costa Rica, she did a bit of everything. She carried the ball with a focus, passed with perfect weight and timing, and pressed quickly to win the ball back when it was lost.

After the opening round of fixtures at the World Cup, she ranked first for passes attempted in the final third with 41, clear of Spain teammate Jenni Hermoso (32) and United States midfielder Lindsey Horan (28). That is where she excels, but she also features highly in other areas. She is third when it comes to winning back possession in the final third (five times) behind only England’s Alessia Russo (six) and the USWNT’s Sophia Smith (seven), who are both forwards. She is 13th for ball carries (72) and ninth for carry distance (386 yards), but first for midfielders. The eight players ahead of her are all centre-backs or full-backs. She is also 26th for take-ons (five), 29th for touches (88) and had seven of Spain’s 46 shots in their opener.

Effectively, she created like a No.10, pressed like a centre-forward, carried the ball like a full-back, took players on like a winger, got as many touches as a deep-lying midfielder and shot like a No.9.

None of that happens by chance, of course. Bonmati is a football obsessive who sources describe as “single-minded” in her desire to improve herself for the benefit of the team. Even her downtime in North Palmerston, where Spain are based, is football-filled. She is reading Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch.” In her June interview with ESPN, after spotting an image of Burnley’s Turf Moor stadium, she hung around for five minutes asking questions about the Premier League side. She leaves no stone unturned in her preparation. That is why, even though she did not know if she would play for Spain this summer, she has been preparing for the World Cup all year.

“The World Cup has been in my head this year and obviously I prepare myself to be ready any big event,” she told ESPN in June, before knowing for sure what the outcome of the strike would be.

After Barca won the Champions League final on June 3, Bonmati began work with her personal trainer to remain in shape. Every inch of her flexitarian diet has also been shaped to ensure she was ready for the World Cup, the second of her career but the first as a key player. She did not start a game in 2019 as Spain lost to the U.S. in the round of 16.

“Of all the years I’ve been playing football, this has probably been my best year,” she said after the Costa Rica game. “Experience helps me to make better decisions, to know how to control the tempo of the game better and to know where the spaces are. Physically, I also feel very good. I don’t focus on what I can achieve individually, but on focusing my performance to help the team.”

Next up for Spain is Zambia on Wednesday, followed by Japan on Monday. Providing there are no surprises, the aim will then be to win a first-ever knockout game at a major tournament, although Bonmati’s aspirations do not end there. She wants to be in the final in Sydney on Aug. 20 – because, she says, “otherwise what’s the point?”