It is routine to hear about North and Latin American players crossing the Atlantic to try and further their careers in Europe, but when the players in question are women, the journey taken is often in the opposite direction.
The main attraction, of course, is the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) League, which features among its many international stars the likes of Brazil’s four-time FIFA World Player, Marta, and England’s prolific striker, Kelly Smith. Swelling the ranks of the WPS’s foreign legion this year were Laura del Rio and Veronica Boquete, two Spaniards who have been making their mark in one of the world’s premier women’s leagues.
“It’s been a great experience and very enriching. I’ve been able to participate in a league of the highest quality and compete with and against great players,” striker Del Rio told FIFA.com of her time with Boston Breakers.
The Madrid-born player sported the No16 jersey at the club, a far from random choice, as she explained. “The shirt number I normally wear wasn’t available, so I said to myself, if I choose the same number as Pau Gasol (LA Lakers' Spanish basketball star), that will surely bring me luck.”
It would appear to have been an inspired choice as, like her compatriot in the NBA, things have been going well of late. “Unquestionably, the highlight so far was the goal I scored against Sky Blue - it was a very exciting moment. It was selected as goal of the month too. I may have only got one this term but it was a very good one,” she laughs.
Veronica Boquete is the other Spanish player competing in America’s top flight. Earlier this year, after finishing the season with club side Espanyol, she went to play for New York-based Buffalo Flash, then in the W-League, the country’s second tier. After helping the club win the league and secure promotion, the forward joined Chicago Red Stars for the latter stages of the 2010 WPS season.
The Galician-born 23-year-old is now back Spain, where she will resume Superliga duties with Espanyol, although she plans another stint in the States next year. “The WPS is a professional league with a quality infrastructure and very high profile,” she said.
Del Rio, for her part, will decide on her future in November, but for now she is enjoying a deserved rest after a hectic couple of seasons. The 28-year-old started out with Levante, then tried her luck with Swedish outfit Umea before getting her first taste of North American football with Indiana in 2008.
The following year she spent five months at German side FCC Frankfurt, a spell she recalls with mixed emotions. “Personally, it was a very tough experience because of the language barrier, the change of culture and fierce competition for places in the team. I found it very hard to adapt, although in football terms I learned a great deal. Playing alongside Birgit Prinz and Connie Pohlers was a big help,” says the striker, who also credits veteran USA international Kristine Lilly as one of her biggest influences both on and off the pitch.
Boquete may not have as extensive an international pedigree as her compatriot, but her time in Spain has brought home to her the development of the sport. “In Spain people are still surprised to hear you are a footballer, as it’s still widely seen as a man’s game here. That said, there has been progress.
"We now have more teams, better competition and more facilities, although we still need greater support from the media,” adds the forward. “It’s down to us to improve the quality and make it more professional, though. We’re not doing badly either, as generally if someone comes along to see a match for the first time, they’ll keep coming back.”
Ambitions for La Roja
Boquete, who won the UEFA European Women’s U-19 Championship in 2004 before going on to appear at that year's edition of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Thailand, still has a lot of ambitions to fulfil in football. “I want to win the Superliga, which I’ve not been able to do yet, as well as participate in a World Cup and Olympic Games with the Spanish senior team."
Her international aspirations will have to wait a bit longer after England narrowly got the better of Spain in their qualifying group for the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011. For all that, there is reason aplenty to be optimistic about the future. “We have quality, and technically we’re very good. Perhaps we need a bit more physical preparation but that side of things is coming on well,” said Del Rio.
The final word went to Boquete, who is equally confident: “We just lacked a little bit of luck against England. I think with a bit more hard work, Spain can reach the next World Cup.”