Spain's qualification for the UEFA Women's EURO 2013, which will be played in Sweden from 10-28 July next year, was both historic and spectacular. It is 15 years since the Iberians reached the finals of the continental showdown, an accomplishment made all the sweeter by the manner in which it was achieved. Spain's agonising play-off victory over Scotland was sealed at the end of extra time, just seconds after missing a penalty.
It was the reward for the consistent hard work of a dedicated team, both on the pitch and off it, intent on helping ensure La Roja is about more than just the men's game. Now their efforts have borne fruit and the women have added to the wave of euphoria Spanish football currently enjoys.
"It's a dream come true," a delighted Adriana Martin told FIFA.com. "It was a nail-biting game. It was tough and nerve-jangling, but in the end we've achieved the goal we've had for a long time: reaching the EURO," the striker said.
In the last few years, women's football has been steadily improving in Spain. The Superliga is well established with 16 teams, while the national sides at junior level are flourishing. Back-to-back triumphs at the UEFA European Women's U-17 Championship as well as taking third place at the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup Trinidad & Tobago 2010 are testament to the quality coming through the ranks.
"What we've achieved is a miracle, because in Spain we have around 25,000 licensed players in women's football. We're fighting and holding our own against countries where the sport is much more deeply-rooted," Spain coach Ignacio Quereda told FIFA.com.
"There have been a lot of changes in the last 15 years," Martin added. "Before, there were hardly any women's teams where you could start out, but now the girls have more options. The coaches are more professional and now know more about training women. Apart from that, there's more institutional help," continued the 26-year-old, who has experienced the developments first-hand.
Furthermore, attitudes are changing in a country where the game has traditionally been viewed as male-only terrain. "You can definitely sense it," Quereda said. "There's a greater sensitivity towards and acceptance of women's football. It's breaking down certain cultural barriers."
Martin, who leads the line for Atletico de Madrid, agreed: "Women's football is becoming something normal. You still hear inappropriate comments, but we're changing that. I believe it would help if the press supported us even more than they already do and if our league games were televised. That way we'd have more visibility and it would become the norm."
The fact that several Spanish players have joined foreign clubs is another factor that has contributed to the improvement, as they provide the national team with greater maturity and professionalism.
"The experience of going abroad makes you grow up and also improve. You can then pass on your knowledge to your team-mates, it's a very positive thing," said Martin, who has played in England and the USA. Moreover, the organisational structure in Spain has developed, meaning the national set-up's coaches have growing numbers of players of ever-increasing quality to choose from.
Nevertheless, that is not to say there are no more obstacles to overcome. "Sometimes we have difficulties with parents of the younger players, when it comes to lengthy training camps," said Quereda. "Apart from that, given that the adults are not professionals, we also have to have shorter get-togethers so as not to interfere with their jobs or club commitments."
The next important step is for all the big Spanish clubs to create women's teams. Atletico, Barcelona, Espanyol and Real Sociedad among others have already established such sides, and fortunately other clubs are becoming increasingly aware and involved in the women's game's development. The one overriding fear at present is that the economic crisis which has affected numerous medium-sized clubs in Spain will lead to them dispensing with the newest and most vulnerable members.
Fortunately, the national team's success has helped the sport's popularity grow and the nerve-wracking play-off also had a role in that. "It had a huge audience and without doubt that kind of game creates a fan base," said Martin. "Now that we've qualified there's more talk about women's football. When the European Championship comes around we'll have to give everything to make sure it gets as much publicity as possible."
Quereda echoed his striker's sentiments: "Our qualification has generated a sense of expectation and the dramatic way it was achieved helped to win us more fans. At the EURO we want to enjoy the tournament which has eluded us for so long. It will be an extremely important channel for this sport to embed itself in this country."
In Sweden, La Roja will be in Group C alongside France, England and Russia. The players are well aware of the size of the challenge they face to reach the knockout rounds. "We're being realistic," Martin said. "Of course we want to go as far as we possibly can, but the main thing is to work hard in each match, enjoy the tournament and fight to show the world our football and to do well."
"Our qualification was the result of a great deal of effort and work well done. It bodes well for women's football consolidating itself in Spain," concluded Quereda.