A new era begins in women's football in Spain this weekend, but Barcelona remain the team with the target on their backs.
The Primera Division, previously organised by the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), is now in the hands of the newly formed Professional Women's Football League (LPFF) and has become the first female competition in the country to obtain professional status. The 16-team league officially launched at an event in Madrid on Tuesday, and has been named Liga F (F for "Femenina") as the search for a sponsor continues.
Barca may have to seek motivation in becoming the inaugural winners of Liga F because they are running out of challenges domestically. They have won the past three league titles, losing just one game across those three seasons. They were unbeaten through 21 matches when the campaign was curtailed due to the pandemic in 2019-20, lost just once in 2020-21 and then won all 30 games last season, scoring 159 goals and conceding just 11.
So, Barcelona will win it again?
It is almost impossible to see a scenario in which they don't. Barca didn't drop a single point last season, finishing 24 points clear of second-placed Real Sociedad. Never mind asking if they could lose their crown; first, they have to lose a game.
There have been some changes over the summer at Barca, though, and they will be without their captain and star player, Ballon d'Or winner Alexia Putellas, for most of the season after she tore an ACL before Euro 2022 while on duty with Spain. The club's record scorer, Jenni Hermoso, has also moved on, joining Mexican side Pachuca on a free transfer, while Dutch winger Lieke Martens, a previous winner of FIFA's The Best, has joined Paris Saint-Germain.
However, to keep winning, most great sides evolve gradually each year and Barca will hope that is true for them this season. England right-back Lucy Bronze has joined from Manchester City and midfielder Keira Walsh followed for a €400,000 world record transfer fee for women's football. Brazilian striker Geyse, the joint-top scorer in last season's Primera Division, has also signed from Madrid CFF, while Real Sociedad left-back Nuria Rabano has arrived to add depth on defense.
A clutch of talented youngsters have come in, too, including Salma Paralluelo, who has given up a career in track and field to focus on football, but the old guard will continue to provide the platform for success. Goalkeeper Sandra Panos has Mapi Leon and Irene Paredes defending in front of her, while midfielders Patri Guijarro and Aitana Bonmati look primed to step up in Putellas' absence. Mariona Caldentey, Caroline Graham Hansen and Fridolina Rolfo will all have important roles to play as well.
The Champions League will pose the real challenge for Jonatan Giraldez's squad. Barca twice broke the attendance record in women's football last season as over 90,000 fans filled Camp Nou for wins over Real Madrid and Wolfsburg in Europe. They eventually came up short in the final, relinquishing the crown they won in 2021 to Lyon, leaving them eager to go one better this season.
Who could challenge them?
Real Madrid are likely to be Barca's biggest challengers. They released Marta Cardona, who joined Atletico Madrid, and Sweden striker Kosovare Asllani, but have added Scotland midfielder Caroline Weir, who joined from Manchester City on a free transfer.
Madrid ended third last season, behind Sociedad, but that was mainly down to a poor start. They were 10th at the end of November when David Aznar was sacked, rapidly rising up the league following the appointment of Alberto Toril. They have already knocked Man City out of the Champions League this season and now face a two-legged tie against Rosenborg for a place in the group stage for the second season running.
Meanwhile Atletico, who won three titles in a row themselves before Barca usurped them in 2020, have had a busy summer as well. Signing Spain winger Cardona after her Madrid contract expired is a coup, while Irene Guerrero and Eva Navarro have both joined from Levante. Young defender Andrea Medina is one to watch as well.
If they click, Atletico could surprise a few, but there is an element of the unknown about Oscar Fernandez's side because there have been so many changes. While they have signed well, they have also lost Laia Aleixandri to Man City, while the experienced duo of Amanda Sampedro and Silvia Meseguer have both moved to Sevilla.
Anyone else to watch out for?
Sociedad had a remarkable season last time out under up-and-coming coach Natalia Arroyo as they finished ahead of both big clubs from Madrid. Arroyo's task becomes more difficult now the bar has been set so high.
La Real have lost both their full-backs to Barcelona -- Rabano and Emma Ramirez, who was only on loan -- but the signing of Portugal midfielder Andreia Jacinto from Sporting Lisbon is an interesting one. A lot may also depend on how they progress in the Champions League, although a two-legged qualifier against Bayern Munich later in September will not be easy.
Levante and Granadilla Tenerife have also done well in recent seasons, but Sevilla could be the surprise package this time. With Monchi's involvement growing -- he is the men's director of football but also works with the women's team -- they have recruited well. In addition to Sampedro and Meseguer from Atletico, they have signed Cristina Martin-Prieto, who netted 13 times for Granadilla last season, and also have talented youngster Inma Gabarro coming through. Gabarro was the top scorer at this summer's U20 World Cup, which Spain won.
When does the season start?
Barca kick off their title defence against newly promoted Levante Las Planas on Sunday, a small team from Barcelona, but the season begins Saturday with four games and Atletico vs. Sociedad is the pick of the bunch. It's a while until any of the big teams meet: the first Clasico between Madrid and Barca is at the start of November, with Barca playing Atletico a couple of weeks later. December brings the Madrid derby and Sociedad's visit to Barcelona, last season's runners-up against the reigning champions.
Some problems still for the league to address
The league does still have issues to resolve, starting with the status of the referees. Match officials, who are provided by the RFEF, Spanish soccer's ruling body, have not yet been afforded professional status and are even threatening to strike if their conditions are not improved. Meanwhile, there is still no collective agreement in place between the league and the players.
Barca winger Graham Hansen explained to ESPN earlier this year why this agreement will be crucial for improving the competitiveness of the competition. "We need to ensure that [every team] plays on [real] grass," she said. "There must be certain standards related to stadiums. There must be certain standards related to the contracts players are given and the amount of time they are training. All these small things make a huge difference.
"If you can add that all the games will be televised, it will be a great product to sell because there are a lot of good players in Spain who are not seen. They are reckoned to be bad because Barca win [big], but it's not because they are bad -- it's just because we are very good. It's so important that we professionalize so everyone gets the recognition they deserve."
A television deal has, at least, been agreed, with DAZN paying €35 million for the global rights to the league for the next five years. It will broadcast every game, with one fixture each weekend to be on free-to-air television in Spain. Puma will supply the match ball and further sponsors are being sought, including one to take on the naming rights for the league.
However, the other issues on Graham Hansen's list are still pending. League president Beatriz Alvarez confirmed this week a decree to play on grass will likely come, although it's not been introduced yet. Negotiations are ongoing over the standards of contracts and training time, but there is hope the collective agreement will be in place sooner than later.
One area where there is clarity involves the status of non-EU players. In the men's LaLiga, clubs are only allowed three players from outside the Union, but that number will be as high as nine for women's teams this season, then declining to five next year before settling at three in 2024-25. Barca's Bronze doesn't need to worry, despite reports she could not be registered due to her non-EU status. She has a Portuguese passport. Record signing Walsh, though, will occupy a non-EU spot following the United Kingdom's exit from the common market.