SPANISH SUPERSTAR Verónica Boquete has only been in Asia, more specifically Hong Kong, for 24 hours when we sit down to speak about a career that has previously taken her to France, Germany, USA and Russia. After agreeing to join Beijing BG Phoenix in the ever-growing Chinese Super League, the 30-year-old had previously met up with her new teammates for a pre-season camp in Barcelona before flying to China to obtain her working visa.
“I’ve never been to China before,” she laughs. “I’m in Hong Kong now which is a really international city but I’ll be in Beijing soon and I’m really looking forward to seeing how it goes.”
The CSL has begun to attract a number of big names from the women’s game in recent months, both on the pitch and off it. Boquete will be working with Kim Björkegren, the manager who most recently led Linköpings to the Swedish Damallsvenkan in 2017.
Lyon’s treble-winning boss Gérard Prêcheur has just taken charge of rivals Jiangsu Suning and signed Malawi sensation Tabitha Chawinga, while champions Dalian Quanjian can call on Africa’s best player in Asisat Oshoala. Other stars such as Brazil’s Cristiane are also playing in the league and Boquete believes China is a league and a country on the up again. “China have realised that in women’s football they are not a top team anymore,” she says. “Fifteen years ago they had a top national team but the rest of the countries have caught up, now they know they have to change things and for that they realised there was a need for the league to get better.”
Over 25 years ago, Boquete began playing football as a young girl in her hometown Santiago de Compostela in the Spanish autonomous region of Galicia. Like many, the forward credits older family members for helping her pursue her dream of playing football for a living. “I started to play because my dad was a coach and I had an older brother who played. They were always playing football so I was always playing football. When I was six I was the only girl in my city to play with the boys. The first year there was a rule that girls can’t play with the boys so for a year I went to train with the team but I couldn’t play.
“The rule then changed and I played with boys until I was 15. After that I played with girls and I had the chance to go with the Spain under-19 team. Then I moved to Zaragoza and Barcelona and my career went from there.”
Boquete admits it was difficult growing up in Spain as a girl wanting to play football and has previously spoken about the feeling of discrimination against her in a “macho” country, as she describes it. “When I was a child it was really hard and it was even harder for girls before me,” she says. “To understand you can’t play when you’re that age is hard and I really appreciate how my parents handled everything. My dad fought to get that rule changed.
“It was not easy because you hear a lot of things and nothing is really prepared for you as a girl. I didn’t have a changing room, sometimes I’d just get back in the car without showering. It was not easy at all but it made me want to speak more in the future to try to change things.”
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Boquete’s career began to take off when she was a 17-year-old in 2004. She made her debut for the under-19 national team and, after a year as a youth player, she joined Prainsa Zaragoza, scoring a goal every two games over a three-year period before moving to Espanyol. During this time Boquete also made her national team debut as a teenager under the guidance of head coach Ignacio Quereda, and she admits it was at this point she began to dream about making a career for herself out of football.
“I grew up not knowing being a professional footballer was possible for me,” Boquete says. “In Spain there was no information about women’s football, I didn’t know there was a national team or it was possible to play at a World Cup – I didn’t know anything. When I moved to the USA in 2010 I realised it was my chance. I went to Buffalo for a month during my summer holiday and then Chicago saw me play there and signed me for the rest of the season.”
After winning two national cups and scoring 39 goals in a single season with Espanyol, Boquete’s talent had been noticed and her brief spell with Buffalo Flash was enough for the Chicago Red Stars to sign her for the rest of their Women’s Professional Soccer season.
Future Chelsea manager Emma Hayes had just been replaced as head coach and Boquete returned to Espanyol a few months later, another impressive scoring record seeing her soon return to the USA with Philadelphia before an opportunity came to play in Russia with Energiya Voronezh.
Through the late 1990s and early 2000s, Energiya had been the powerhouse of Russian women’s football and were regulars in the latter stages of the Women’s Champions League. The team disappeared briefly in 2005 but returned to have another go at the Champions League when Boquete joined the side in 2011, but the club would fold for good due to financial difficulties just a year later.
“The word for Russia is different,” Boquete laughs. “It was not what I expected, I expected something more professional and more serious. I have no regrets, it was a life experience and for sure I don’t want to go back but it was fine to see the situation there and I now understand it better. I lived in some situations that were unreal and there were things I didn’t like. I don’t think my experiences were as bad as some other players.”
Then approaching 25, Boquete’s career hadn’t quite settled down and the now-established international hadn’t found what she was looking for: the Champions League. In 2012 she got her opportunity with Swedish side Tyresö FF. A side that had spent most of the previous decade outside the top tier but previously been a home for women’s football legends such as Kristine Lilly and Michelle Akers, they were back at the top and ready to topple great rivals Umeå IK and LdB Malmö.
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Boquete joined a side that included Brazilian Marta, ranked at the time as the greatest women’s player in the world. Everything was in place for an assault on the biggest title of them all in Europe.
At the first time of asking, Tyresö won the Damallsvenskan by beating Malmö on the final day of the season and qualifying for the Champions League for the first time. Over the course of their European campaign, the team swept aside Paris Saint-Germain, Fortuna Hjørring, Neulengbach and Birmingham City to set up a final against German giants Wolfsburg in Lisbon.
Wolfsburg housed most of the top German players but Tyresö now had a team that just not included Boquete and Marta, but USA internationals Meghan Klingenberg, Whitney Engen and Christen Press, as well as Sweden’s own stars in Caroline Seger and Lisa Dahlkvist, plus a top coach in Tony Gustavsson.
“The three years I had with Tyresö I enjoyed every one of them, every game,” recalls Boquete. “I was lucky enough to play with some of the best in the world. Marta was, and still is, my idol, she was my first role model because I never knew about other players. We had her, Seger, Press and the coach Tony was my best coach ever. As a team we had a connection between everything, the players connected and we connected with the philosophy of Tony.”
Possibly the greatest Champions League final seen in the women’s game, goals from Marta and Boquete herself put Tyresö into a comfortable looking 2-0 lead at half-time. Within 10 minutes of the restart, however, it was 2-2 before Marta soon put the Swedish side back in the ascendency. An equaliser, followed by Martina Müller’s second goal with 10 minutes to go, ensured the trophy went back to Germany. Boquete was still searching for a Champions League medal.
“That final, we were not supposed to win, that’s how I feel,” she admits. “We did things that had never happened to us before. We made mistakes or some players had physical problems that had never happened before. It was so many small things that made us lose. The first half was great and many people say we thought we thought the game was done but against a German team nobody thinks a game is done. I never saw the game again, I think it’s the only match I’ve played where I never watched it again after.”
While things on the pitch were still looking good despite the heart-breaking loss, off it things weren’t going quite so well. Players hadn’t been paid for a number of months and it had already been announced a month before the final that Boquete, along with Marta, Seger, Klingenberg, Engen and Press, would leave the club at the end of the season.
Come the summer, as the Damallsvenskan was set to resume the club had racked up a debt of almost 10 million krona and, at the start of June, the club withdrew from the following season’s Champions League, before withdrawing from the league and dropping into the second tier. By the end of June, the club ceased to exist at all. “It was so sad to leave and to finish the team in that way,” recalls Boquete. “If we had to leave and we’d at least put in a good final then at least it would have been a good ending, so it was hard, but all my memories are good ones.”
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After announcing she would leave Sweden, Boquete agreed a deal to return to the USA in the new NWSL with Portland Thorns. Her impact was instant and deadly, scoring four goals and assisting six more in just 15 games as the Thorns reached the end of season play-offs. A semi-final defeat to Kansas City thwarted Boquete’s hopes of a happy end to 2014, but with the season ending in August, she was ready to begin a new journey back in Europe in order to make amends for a disappointing end to the season with Tyresö.
FFC Frankfurt were runners-up in the Bundesliga and had won the Champions League twice before, in 2002 and 2006. While they were competing with Wolfsburg, the side that had denied Boquete glory with Tyresö, they had players capable of winning the major competitions and Englishman Colin Bell at the helm.
“I knew before the final I was going to Portland but watching those players lift the trophy in front of me I knew I had to come back. The US league was too short for me – it’s six months so I made my decision to come back and go to a team where I could win the Champions League. I wanted a challenge, not to go a team that had won it recently. Frankfurt were a historical club but not in the best moment at that time. It was a challenge to see if I could help them to the highest level again.”
With players such as Dzsenifer Marozsán, Saskia Bartusiak and Célia Šašić, Boquete and her teammates reached what was a second successive final for the Spaniard, this time facing French side PSG in Berlin. With the game poised at 1-1 going into the final minutes, substitute Mandy Islacker headed home in the 92nd minute to win Frankfurt the trophy in dramatic fashion and allow Boquete to finally realise her dream. “The final was the best moment of my career and still is because it’s so hard to win. For so many years I was finding my way, trying to find my way to this moment. When I won the title, I was like, ‘It’s done’.”
Frankfurt, however, had slipped in the German pecking order, finishing third in the Bundesliga behind Wolfsburg and champions Bayern Munich. After a year with Bell’s side, Boquete joined the champions with the view of defending her title.
As it turned out, Bayern didn’t even make it past the last 32 in Europe, losing on away goals to Dutch side Twente, while former club FFC Frankfurt lost in the semi-finals to Wolfsburg. “My time in Germany was two years but feels like two very different parts to my career,” says Boquete. “I went to win the Champions League and did that and then I won the Bundesliga with Bayern, but everything started to go wrong because I got injured in pre-season just after signing.
“It took longer than I thought to come back. It was almost five months and when I did come back the team was already playing in a way that didn’t suit my style. I spoke to Tom [Thomas Wörle] the coach and I said if we continue like this it makes no sense for me to stay and no sense for you to keep me.”
Bayern did win the Bundesliga, giving Boquete another trophy to add to her collection, but a season stalled by injury meant Boquete didn’t even reach double figures in appearances and didn’t find the net at all during the season.
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Despite having a year left on her contract, Boquete took on another challenge with PSG in France. With rivals Lyon now the dominant European side and having just won the treble, it was a challenge similar to Frankfurt for Boquete. “I chose PSG because it suited my style. I played there with Cristiane, with Shirley Cruz, with Irene Paredes. I played every game and we had a good season, I enjoyed being there but maybe we changed a little to become more physical to compete with Lyon and I didn’t play as much anymore.”
Despite her time on the pitch dwindling, PSG reached the French Cup and the Champions League finals; both times they would face rivals Lyon. A tense penalty shootout defeat gave Lyon first blood in their domestic cup final before the duo did battle once again in front of 22,000 fans at the Cardiff City Stadium last May.
Boquete had to make do with a spot on the bench, subbed on with half an hour to go as the game once again went all the way to a penalty shootout after a tense 0-0 draw. “We were nervous, of course,” she recalls. “There’s so much tension with every penalty, you just want them to miss and for you to score. You know you are so close to winning but so close to losing, you’re just afraid.”
It wasn’t a shootout for the faint-hearted. Eugénie Le Sommer’s miss gave PSG the advantage after two kicks each, but Grace Geyoro’s subsequent miss meant it was 4-4 after the first five penalties. Boquete was next up and scored her penalty, as did everyone else until PSG’s goalkeeper, Katarzyna Kiedrzynek, scuffed her penalty wide, allowing her opposite number, Sarah Bouhaddi, to slot home the winner and see Lyon record historic back-to-back trebles. “You know you can lose in penalties and we were so, so close, as close as Lyon. It was heart-breaking and it will be in my mind forever. If you lose a final because you are the worst team you can take it, but when you play a final and you fight against the best and you’re that close, it’s so hard.”
Boquete was left in a similar situation to that she found herself in with Bayern – a top player who no longer suited the needs of the team or the manager, leading her eventually to make the move to China with Beijing BG Phoenix. Now Boquete is aiming for more glory in Asia, but many supporters will be wondering if she will be recalled to the Spanish national team.
The star and former captain of the side was controversially dropped ahead of their Euro 2017 campaign by new head coach Jorge Vilda, a campaign which would include group games against England and Scotland. Boquete, however, wasn’t overly surprised by the decision. “It was a huge disappointment,” she admits. “All my career has been about enjoying these big moments and to find out you won’t be there is sad, but it was not a surprise. In the months before, I could see it could happen and it was being prepared.
“I’m not stupid, I’ve done all I can for my sport during my time in the national team and if I’m not there now because of things that have happened in the past then it’s ok. It’s disappointing, but it’s ok. The national team doesn’t worry me now, I don’t take time or waste time to worry about it – I did all I could to defend my country for 14 years. To not have any explanation, though, is disappointing. We are adults and I think things can be handled better.”
What went before included a very public standoff against previous head coach Ignacio Quereda. At the time of the 2015 World Cup in Canada, the 65-year-old had been in charge of the team for an incredible 27 years. But from 1997 onwards, the team didn’t reach the European Championships until 2013 and were embarking on their first World Cup campaign in 2015, although everything behind the scenes wasn’t as positive as it should have been.
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Spain bowed out of the group stage with just one point from their three games and the players decided it was time for a change. “For 27 years the coach was the same,” says Boquete. “We didn’t grow as we could and we thought he was one of the reasons. The players at one point were much better than the staff and the people in charge of women’s football.
“We had bad preparation for the tournament, we just felt and we knew it was the moment to do something if we wanted our game to grow. After Canada we spoke to the coach and told him we really believe your time is over. Of course, he didn’t take it that well and we had to go public with the media. We had to fight because we really believed we needed to do it for the sport.”
After 139 matches in charge, Quereda finally resigned at the end of July and was replaced by Vilda. Under his guidance, Spain announced themselves as some people’s dark horses by winning the Algarve Cup, a warm-up tournament in the months leading up to Euro 2017. The tournament ultimately ended in disappointment after group defeats to both England and Scotland left them second, meaning a quarter-final defeat against Austria sent Spain home. Yet Boquete is optimistic about the team’s future, even if she may not play a part in it.
“We won tournaments at under-17 and under-19 level so we have very talented players coming through. The national team is growing so much and before we weren’t making major tournaments, unlike 2015, which was our first World Cup. I think our time is coming. We had a lot of expectation for the Euros and it didn’t go as well as everyone wanted, but I think we’re getting closer. We are behind many of the other countries – it’s a semi-professional league in Spain so a lot of players still don’t get what you would in other countries. At 18 you have to decide if you want to play football or if you want to work.”
Whatever Spain’s future holds, it will happen with their former star earning her living thousands of miles away in the Chinese capital. Whilst many players who go to China quickly earn a reputation for seeking out a large wage, Boquete simply admits she “needed a new start” after a couple of spells where it didn’t work out for her. “In the last months in Paris I was not enjoying it and the situation there didn’t depend on me or my work. I felt staying on my contract for another six months wouldn’t do any good, I didn’t want to spend more time feeling frustrated as it would be no good for me or the club at that time.
“It’s not easy to find another good club in Europe in the middle of the season, so I knew I had to go somewhere else where a transfer was possible. The offer from Beijing came and I always had it in my mind to play in Asia, I just didn’t know where or when.”
Like in the USA, the Chinese season is a short one and will be finished by the end of the year, leaving Boquete with the option of remaining in China or once again pursuing a new challenge elsewhere.
One of the few major leagues the 30-year-old hasn’t tested herself in is England’s FA Women’s Super League and she admits that option, plus many others, are open to her. “All options are open. I would love to play in England, it’s the biggest league I haven’t played in and it would be a good option for my career. I could go back to the USA because I love the country or I could go back to Spain because it’s my home. It’s not a long season, I could be out of China by October. We will see what happens in the future.”
By Rich Laverty @RichJLaverty