Ona Batlle exclusive: Lockdown despair, frozen lake swims and winning at Barcelona


It is warm and sunny when The Athletic meets Ona Batlle, the right-back for Barcelona and Spain’s all-conquering women’s sides.

This is the kind of climate she was used to when she grew up on the Maresme coast 20km (12 miles) north of Barcelona and she missed it when she moved to Manchester to play for United in 2020. So, one day, when there was a hint of sun, Batlle set about going to the beach.

“I went to find one in Liverpool,” she explains. “I took a book and drove there. Formby. I missed the sea and wanted a beach. I got there, got my book out and then it started raining straight away. It was really windy. I lasted 15 minutes. I went home.”

That counts as a rare failure for Batlle, who will play for Barcelona against Lyon in the Champions League final in Bilbao this evening. She has packed a lot into her football career so far. Regarded as one of the best full-backs in the women’s game, the 24-year-old has won three major trophies in the last year: the World Cup, Spanish title and, last Saturday, the Copa de la Reina after an 8-0 win against Real Sociedad in Zaragoza.

Her Barca team is dominant in Spain: they are 18 points clear of second-placed Real Madrid with two games left, boasting a near-perfect record of played 28, won 27, drawn one, scored 129, conceded nine.

That can create a problem when they meet much stronger opponents in European competition, such as Chelsea in the recent Champions League semi-finals. Emma Hayes’ side won 1-0 in Barcelona’s Estadi Olimpic in front of 36,428 fans — it was twice that last season when the Catalans were still in Camp Nou — before they squeezed through by winning the second leg 2-0 at a sold-out Stamford Bridge to progress to a fourth successive Champions League final.

Ona Batlle helped Barcelona beat Chelsea in the Champions League semi-finals (Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

“We didn’t start as we wanted against Chelsea but we always knew our potential and that we would still be able to win the tie,” explains Batlle. “That’s what we focused on and we were right. We know Chelsea are a good team, but we didn’t play well in the first leg. And if you’re not at your best in the Champions League you are not going to win. So, after the first game we said, ‘No, it’s not going to be like this again. We know we can win this’.”

Batlle hopes it will be third time lucky for the Catalans after two previous final defeats in 2019 and 2022 to the French champions. Lyon have been European champions eight times since the first trophy was awarded in 2011: these are Europe’s best two teams meeting in its biggest game.

“This is why I came back to Barca,” she says, when asked why she left Manchester United a year ago. “To play at this level and in the final of the Champions League. I’ve dreamed of this and to do it for the club I’ve grown up supporting is like a dream. The final is in Bilbao and so many of my friends and family are travelling to the game. Loads.”

She almost sounds Mancunian, but her story started long before her stint in England when she played with boys in Vilassar de Mar as a kid. She realised she was very good at football aged six and joined Barcelona aged 11, staying for seven years.

“When I left Barca, my idea was to work hard so that I could back to Barcelona in the first team and play in a team that was strong enough to compete for everything,” she says.

At 18, she couldn’t get into the first team at a club that was increasingly signing big name players. So she left. Batlle went to Madrid, then Valencia, though not to join Real Madrid and Valencia; instead, she signed with Madrid CFF aged 17 and Levante a year later in 2018. In 2020, Batlle did what few Spanish footballers did and left her home country, moving to Manchester, which was locked down because of Covid-19.

“It was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life,” she explains. “I couldn’t speak English. I couldn’t go home. I had to try and find things to fill my time, but everything was closed. The bars and restaurants were closed, our manager Casey (Stoney) was quite strict, but not in a bad way. She knew what she wanted; she was direct in what she said.

Ona Batlle enjoyed her time at Manchester United, despite the weather (Ashley Allen/Getty Images)

“Everyone was in a bubble and she didn’t let us be with our other team-mates away from training unless we lived together. There were tough moments. One day I felt that I was so far from home, that I couldn’t go home. I spoke to the psychologist in English when my English wasn’t great and was just crying to try and get it out of my system. It was difficult, but it also made me the person I am today. And at no point did I ever think of giving up and going home.”

Slowly the clouds began to lift. She recalls a trip to a lake on New Year’s Day 2021 with Damaris Egurrola, the midfielder then with Everton and who could be an opponent with Lyon today.

“It was freezing, the lake was frozen. Damaris had the idea to get into the water and video it. I’ve never been in a place as cold in my life. I just wanted to fill time and do things that I thought would be fun… that’s how we ended up in a frozen lake.”

She adds: “I was living with Ivana Fuso, she’s now at Birmingham, and we had some great times, but it was all so hard. I liked to drive to places on our day off and I drove to Liverpool for a day — not the beach this time. To York. To Chester. I even drove to Newcastle for a day once, just to see it.”

Her English improved, the Mancunian too.

“I learned from Tooney (Ella Toone) and Millie (Turner). I was saying words like ‘innit’. But I still had a translator at the club and during games. In one match, Casey Stoney was shouting instructions to me and the translator was repeating the shouts. So, I had two people shouting at me and couldn’t really understand the message.

“Casey left and was replaced by Marc Skinner, another good coach. I was with him and his assistant Martin (Ho) for two years. We had some great moments, they encouraged the way I played, to carry the ball, to use my speed. We beat Arsenal 3-2 away, that was the best moment and I felt that our team and group was formed.”

She adds: “The energy was good. The standards in the league were getting better year after year. It’s one of the best leagues in Europe, clubs are investing. Even though I’m not there, I watched Man United win the FA Cup and I was really happy for the girls.”

United wanted her to stay and offered her several increased contracts, but Manchester was not home and United was not Barcelona’s winning machine. Yet is it a good thing that they win almost every game comfortably, that the levels are higher in training than in league matches?

“Sometimes it’s hard because you don’t have the same competition in Spain that you have in the Champions League,” Batlle says. “There was tough competition every week at Man United. I’m not comparing Barca to Man United, but that competition makes you ready every game. It’s sometimes hard not to have that in the Spanish domestic league, then jump to play the best teams in Europe.”

Ona Batlle prepares for the Champions League final with Barcelona (Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP via Getty Images)

She has also excelled for her country, having tasted success for Spain’s youth teams and, since 2019, with the seniors, culminating in last year’s World Cup win in Sydney against England.

“My parents flew to Sydney for the semi-final, but they had to go back to Spain to work,” she says. “My mum said to my dad, ‘We have to be there if she has the chance of winning the World Cup’. Dad didn’t want to go back so quickly to the other side of the world, but then changed his mind and they both came.

“I’m glad they did. We played against England in the final. It was nice to see the girls I knew from England, it was the first time that I’d seen most of them since leaving England and Man United, but we were there to win the game. When we did it was the greatest thing that happened in my life. We celebrated. We came home. We went to Ibiza together.”

Batlle admits the controversy that erupted after Luis Rubiales, the Spanish FA president, grabbed Batlle’s team-mate Jenni Hermoso and kissed her on the lips as she came to receive her winner’s medal overshadowed the team’s moment of glory. “Everything changed after that for a few months,” she says, reflecting on an incident that is now going through the Spanish courts.

For Batlle, however, there is another date with destiny today. They have already won one trophy in the last week, that 8-0 win over Real Sociedad, although a victory of any kind will do in Bilbao against Lyon.

That would be another trophy for the girl who came home to win them — and wasn’t disappointed.

(Top photo: Oscar J Barroso/AFP7 via Getty Images)

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