“Now it’s time to celebrate, right?” a journalist asked after Spain had qualified for their first-ever Women’s World Cup final, against England on Sunday.

“We have to celebrate, but with our heads — we have the final just around the corner,” Aitana Bonmati replied.

That response provoked some laughter among the press, who had just seen her team-mates screaming and parading through the mixed zone at Eden Park, promising that the night was going to be a long one. “There is always a rational person in the group,” one reporter said.

“Obviously, I celebrated and had a good time,” Bonmati tells The Athletic in an exclusive interview two days before the World Cup final. “But my goal wasn’t to get to the final, it had always been to win it. And it hadn’t been won yet.

“We are elite athletes with a very physical and emotional wear and tear and have to take care of ourselves. I don’t think I said anything foolish.”

Proof, if you needed it, of how ambitious Bonmati really is. The midfielder is a born competitor and knows how big Sunday is after a season in which she confirmed she is one of the best players in world football.

She won the Champions League with her club side, Barcelona, and was named the competition’s best player. For Spain, she sets the tempo for the most talented squad her country has ever had.

She helped Spain stay in the competition with her fine performance against Switzerland in the round of 16 — providing two goals and two assists for the five her side scored. And she is still just 25 years old.

This is Bonmati’s big chance. It could even seal a first Ballon d’Or at the end of the year.



After winning in every way possible, Spain have just one step left

“I don’t know if it will be my year or not but it’s the year where I’ve had the most complete season,” she says.

“You have seen a more mature Aitana, with more growth. I’m 25 years old and I hope I have many years left. I hope this is not my ceiling.”

This has been the season in which Bonmati has fully matured. She has won four league titles, two Champions League trophies and five Copas de la Reina with Barca, but this was the year she found her ideal position on the pitch.

With star midfielder Alexia Putellas injured, Patri Guijarro moved up to cover her position and England international Keira Walsh played as a defensive pivot. Bonmati was moved further forward, closer to the opposition box — and closer to goal.

She has always been a great creator, while also proving excellent at recovering balls when her team needs help defensively. But this year she has been more of a goalscorer than ever before — especially in the Champions League, where she scored five times (only Wolfsburg’s Ewa Pajor scored more).

(Photo by Tullio Puglia – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

“I have the skills to create near the box, to assist, to score, to make the team play,” Bonmatí says.

“If necessary, I will also defend or play (with) the team in construction. But I think I bring out my potential playing closer to the box.”

Behind her success for Barca and Spain, there is a self-demanding mentality that means she is rarely satisfied. It means she improves with each passing day, but also does not know how to savour the success she achieves.

“I am very ambitious, I have character and a very strong and winning mentality,” she says. “I think that’s important and that you have to have to come on strong in the world of football. I’m very nonconformist and self-demanding.

“That self-demanding (aspect) sometimes has made me suffer too much but it has also made me get this far because I don’t give anything up. I’m never happy with what I do because I always want more.

“This mentality is what brings me to these positions. You can have the talent but the change of mentality is what makes you improve every day. And it’s what takes the team to the top.”

According to Bonmati’s father, Vicent Conca, she has always been like that. In primary school, she took her studies extremely seriously and always wanted to get good grades.

“I don’t know where she got that competitiveness from,” her father says with a laugh.

Bonmati started off by playing basketball. Then she started to play football with boys in the playground and decided it was her sport.

“She had to fight since she was little,” Conca says. “One day she came in very angry when she was seven years old, saying that a classmate took the ball and changed the rules halfway through the game. She argued with him because she didn’t understand and she was mad.

“She always aspires to the maximum. I worry that she doesn’t enjoy the process, the moment. Sometimes she is not satisfied with what she is achieving, it seems that she is always missing something more. She has had to work for it.”

That same girl who complained about a classmate changing the rules of football halfway through a game is the same one who still comes home complaining her team have not played well, despite winning by a landslide.

Bonmati with Barcelona team-mate Fridolina Rolfo after Spain and Sweden’s semi-final (Photo by Maja Hitij – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images).

As she has become more professional, Bonmati has taken more care of many aspects: physical preparation, nutrition — she became a flexitarian a year ago and put greater control over what she ate — and her rest. She is highly meticulous when it comes to anything that could make her a better athlete.

On team trips, she always brings her cushion with her. It is almost as big as she is but Bonmati knows rest is vital and has been able to sleep well in the build-up to the biggest game of her life.

“I’m calm. I’m not having trouble sleeping at the moment,” Bonmati says. “The night before will be something else. It will be a special day, a day of tension, of many emotions and uncertainty.

“The good part is that I’ve experienced similar moments in other competitions like the Champions League and I’ve handled it well.”

If on the pitch she has been one of Spain’s best performers, she has also shown her personality off it by giving explanations when things have not gone well.

Against Japan, Spain suffered their worst defeat in 11 years. After conceding the third goal, it was Bonmati who retrieved the ball from the back of the net and tried to rally her team-mates. Afterwards, she was one of the few who spoke to the media.

“I like to come out when things are going good and when things are going bad,” she says. “You have to show your face. There’s no hiding. It’s what comes naturally to me. It’s my personality.”

Spain’s run to the final came after a turbulent build-up to the World Cup. Bonmati was one of the 15 players who sent a letter to the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) asking not to be called up until changes were made to the national set-up. And she is one of the few who returned for this tournament.



Protest, peace talks and now an uneasy truce: Inside Spain’s turbulent WWC build-up

“I’m not going to hide that it’s been a complicated year,” Bonmati says. “At club level, it’s been an incredible year. But at national team level, it’s been tough. I’ve seen both sides of the same coin.

“I’ve suffered a lot, but now I’m focused on what’s happening. We can’t stay stuck in the past, we have to move forward. Everyone has been at the top of their game and if we’re in the final it’s for a reason.

“We are in the final because we are professional footballers who know what we do, what we work for and we know what our objectives are.

“This mentality has been there since the first day of preparation for the World Cup. Without this mentality, we wouldn’t have made it this far.”

(Rico Brouwer/Soccrates/Getty Images)

There will be a sense of full circle if they beat England in the final; the same team knocked them out of the European Championship quarter-finals as hosts last summer.

“England are a very vertical team with differential players up top,” Bonmati says. “Even if they play a neutral game or a game in which they are not feeling good, they are capable of scoring a goal at any moment.

“They don’t need to have the ball to create chances. They have verticality and a talent that can generate dangerous chances out of nothing.”

Bonmati will be expected to play a leading role again, just as she did in Spain’s victories against Costa Rica and Switzerland. But she has not stood out as much in her side’s other matches.

“Touching or not touching the ball doesn’t depend 100 per cent on me,” she explains. “There are times when I move around waiting to look for my position to see if I get the ball, and it depends a lot on the team’s sensations.

“It doesn’t have to do with people or who plays next to me but more on the dynamics of the team in each game. There are times when the game happens more on the left flank than on the right and those of us who play there have less prominence.

(Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

“It depends on how the team is, the opponent, their marking and how they approach the game. There are many factors and I wouldn’t like to focus on just one.”

One of the players no longer by Bonmati’s side for Spain is Guijarro, her Barcelona team-mate who decided not to go to the World Cup after the protest by ‘Las 15’. She has been replaced by Teresa Abelleira, the Real Madrid midfielder who has been a revelation as a defensive pivot.

“I have played with Patri for many years — she is an exceptional player, one of the best pivots in the world without a doubt,” Bonmati says.

“Tere has been a great surprise, she has given a spectacular level both offensively and defensively. I had never seen her at this level. She is playing without any pressure, with confidence and is contributing a lot to the team.”

Abelleira is not the only player who has surprised the world with her performances at the World Cup. Bonmati’s Barca team-mate Salma Paralluelo sent Spain through to the semi-finals with her goal against the Netherlands and opened the scoring against Sweden earlier this week. When Paralluelo scored that 81st-minute goal, Bonmati ran over to kiss her right boot and created one of the defining images of Spain’s tournament.

✅ Goal in the Quarter-Final.
✅ Goal in the Semi-Final.@AitanaBonmati will cherish @SalmaParalluelo’s boots forever!@SEFutbolFem | #FIFAWWC pic.twitter.com/4LIpvduU1q

— FIFA Women’s World Cup (@FIFAWWC) August 15, 2023

“Salma shoots a lot with her left foot because she has a brutal left foot but I always tell her that she should shoot more with her right foot because she would be an even more complete player,” Bonmati explains.

“She was practising in some previous training (sessions) shooting with her right foot and when she scored with her right foot she came running to tell me. I didn’t even realise it. It was such an important moment, with so much excitement… When she told me, I spontaneously gave her a kiss on her right boot.”



Salma Paralluelo: ‘If she had chosen athletics, she’d have been on the Olympics podium’

Players from Barcelona form the backbone of this Spain team. Eight of those who featured against Sweden play for the Catalan side. There will be two more on the pitch playing for England on Sunday: Walsh and Lucy Bronze.

Enhorabona, finalistes 💙❤️#FIFAWWC pic.twitter.com/ASZs8tg6X8

— FC Barcelona Femení (@FCBfemeni) August 16, 2023

“Barca has helped a lot in the process of improving Spanish football and the national team,” Bonmati says. “It’s a club that takes great care of us as professional footballers. We have grown a lot there in recent years.

“If we are more complete players it is partly thanks to the work we do day to day at Barca. Here we play a lot of Barca players together and that helps, sure. But players from other teams are also doing things very well and they are showing it in this World Cup.

“I wouldn’t want to belittle anyone — I think we’ve all done our part and this is something that has been achieved as a team. But yes, I like to give value to what the club does because I have always felt very well looked after at Barca. You always have to thank those who have made you grow.”



‘We’ve struggled a lot’: History-making Spain continue to break barriers after turbulent year

Bonmati’s worst game was undoubtedly Japan — although that 4-0 group-stage defeat now looks very different. But she has learnt the most from her defeats, such as in Champions League finals in Budapest in 2019 and Turin in 2022.

“The defeat to Japan was key,” she says. “The most important thing is that it was in the group stage when we were already qualified and it did not affect us sportingly. It affected us mentally for a few days, but it was an important day to hit us in the head and see that we had to improve.

“We had to face the games differently if we wanted to go far in the World Cup. Possibly thanks to that we are in the final. The matches we played afterwards were very complete. The bad games help the team and us to play better later on.”

That will be put to the test again on Sunday. Whatever happens, you can be sure Bonmati will approach it with a cool head.

(Top photo: Ulrik Pedersen/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)