“Talent is never lost. Especially not in the best player in the world,” Spain forward Jennifer Hermoso said after her side’s 5-0 win against Zambia.
That victory guided Spain through to the Women’s World Cup knockout stages, but there was another reason this mattered so much to them: the return to the starting line-up of Alexia Putellas.
This time a year ago, Putellas suffered an ACL injury on the eve of the European Championship which ruled her out until this April. On Wednesday, the 29-year-old Barcelona midfielder made her first competitive start for Spain in more than a year.
It has been a difficult journey: Putellas is a football obsessive, but this past year it has hurt her to think about the game. In October, she burst into tears as she collected her second Ballon d’Or. Not just because she had won the award for the second year in a row, but because it reminded her how hard it was not to be in her natural habitat, with the ball at her feet for club and country.
Alexia Putellas on her return from injury back to the Champions League final
This is what she had been waiting for. It is why she tried to keep a cool head during her recovery, even though she was only able to play a small part for Barcelona towards the end of last season. It is why she trained away from the rest of the Spain squad until two days before their opening World Cup match against Costa Rica. The aim was to recover well and not have to start all over again.
“We are trying to optimise her training to get the best Alexia,” Spain head coach Jorge Vilda said before that game last week. “We are treating her very gently so that she is in the best condition to be able to play.”
Putellas came on in the 77th minute against Costa Rica, but against Zambia she was finally able to listen to her country’s anthem with her team-mates on the pitch, looking up at the stands. The sound of the referee’s first whistle must have been like music to Putellas’ ears.
Her quality soon shone through. In the third minute, she made her first foray into the Zambian box. Then she began to combine with Hermoso, just like in the old days at Barca.
Hermoso — who played as a winger again instead of through the middle — had also missed her. And it showed in the opening minutes.
So much so that in the 13th minute, Putellas set up Hermoso for Spain’s second goal with a perfectly shaped cross. Alexia was back.
In Putellas’ Amazon Prime documentary, Labor Omnia Vincit, you can hear how upset she was in her first call to her agent following the ACL injury. Putellas said she did not know if she would be able to come back and even suggested she was considering quitting and switching her focus to coaching.
Barca and Spain’s star playmaker overcame those tough early moments and the operation on her knee went well. According to sources around Putellas who asked to remain anonymous to protect their relationship with her, she quickly understood that respecting the stages of her recovery was key to returning as soon as possible. And she managed to cut down on her expected recovery time, even playing in the second leg of Barca’s Champions League semi-final tie against Chelsea at the Camp Nou.
But it had still been a long time since she had started for Spain with something at stake. She had last done so in the World Cup qualifiers against Scotland back in April last year, when she helped her country seal their progress to the finals in Australia and New Zealand.
Her return had been eagerly anticipated by Spain fans, who were still asking reporters how she was minutes before the match against Zambia at Eden Park. It had been the most repeated question in the build-up to this match and Putellas continued to be the centre of attention afterwards — despite being replaced at the start of the second half and Spain scoring three more goals after that.
“After such a long process, everyone is expectant,” her Barcelona team-mate and friend Irene Paredes said, urging caution. “We have to leave her alone, let her find her feet.
“She’s at a very good level, but she’s used to a Ballon d’Or level. She’s fine, we’ve been able to see her and she’s comfortable.”
“Alexia brings you everything that a Ballon d’Or can bring you on the pitch,” left-back Olga Carmona said in the mixed zone.
Salma Paralluelo, another of Putellas’ team-mates at Barca who suffered an ACL injury herself last year, said she could empathise with her. “It’s a joy to see her playing,” the 19-year-old winger said. “We want Alexia to the maximum.”
It was not just about the assist for Hermoso — Alba Redondo, the forward who came on and scored a brace in the second half, pointed out the “little things” such as Putellas’ back-heels and her dribbling.
“Little by little we are going to see more of her but we are very happy for her and because she is giving us her game,” Redondo said. “Alexia has a lot to give.”
It made sense to replace Putellas at the break with Spain comfortable and leading Zambia 2-0. On the bench, she took a breath of fresh air and pulled up her blanket to protect her cold legs from the New Zealand winter.
The best player in the world has arrived at the best competition in the world. Welcome back, Alexia — Spain missed you.
(Top photo: Ulrik Pedersen/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)