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Alexia Putellas’s Documentary Finds Truth In Disaster

1:22 PM EST on January 6, 2023

Alexia Putellas
Harry Langer/vi/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

About 10 minutes before the end of the first episode of Alexia: Labor Omnia Vincit ("Work conquers all"), a recently released three-part Amazon documentary about Barcelona Femeni star Alexia Putellas, the Ballon d’Or winner is asked a simple question by her physiotherapist.

“What do you do to disconnect?”

Putellas responds: If I have a day off, and I think it’s best for the next match to disconnect from football that day, I do things that have nothing to do with football.

The physiotherapist pushes back: If your sentence is: ‘I do things so the next match…’ that’s not disconnecting.”

Putellas then hits Martínez with a question of her own: Do you consider your profession to be the best in the world? It’s one thing if you like to do it. That’s different from thinking that your job is the best … If you do, you can practice your profession 24/7.”

The physiotherapist backtracks, “I love what I do, but…” 

Putellas puts the issue to bed: “Well, I do.”

It’s the type of scene that’s to be expected from an athlete-specific sports documentary, a genre that mostly exists to inflate egos, burnish reputations, and demonstrate for all to see how differently the athlete in question is built. It’s a scene that fits perfectly with other moments in the first episode, be they tales of a tireless work ethic, or of young Alexia picking both teams in pickup soccer games because “things should be done properly.” There’s Putellas’s teammate, Mapi León, explaining that “Alexia lives the game very intensely” and is “a football nerd … a huge nerd.” There’s Putellas herself, explaining that soccer “gives me life,” and then there’s the physiotherapist, appearing again to really lay it on thick, invoking Michael Jordan in describing Putellas’s drive to be great, and adding that “predators need prey.”

You’ve seen all this before from similar projects, but you can’t really blame Labor Omnia Vincit for starting out this way given how peerless Putellas is within the women’s game. It’s hard not to focus on her singular greatness, because very few athletes have ever reached the heights that she has. But it doesn’t take long for Labor Omnia Vincit to deviate from the cliché narrative that was laid out for it to follow. For as tightly managed as these documentaries tend to be, they are by their very nature hostages to a certain degree of uncertainty. Putellas was initially approached about participating in the documentary in November 2021, following her first Ballon d'Or win. She at first refused, before eventually accepting and allowing cameras to follow her through the spring and summer of 2022. What those cameras ended up capturing were moments far more vulnerable and revealing than anyone involved in the project could have anticipated seeing.

Surely, when this project was conceived, the vision was of a dual coronation. This first spectacular chapter would concern Putellas leading her team to a second Champions League title while getting revenge against Lyon, the only team to decisively defeat Barça in three years (4-1 in the 2019 final), along the way. Then we would jet off to the Euros, where Putellas would be perfectly set up to help crown Spain champions of Europe. 

The documentary first serves up an appetizer in the form of Barcelona’s historic Champions League second-leg quarter-final victory over Real Madrid in March 2022. It was a match that set a world attendance record for a women’s soccer match—91,553 fans packed into the Camp Nou—that had stood for over 20 years. As an attendee, I can tell you that watching Putellas and her teammates smash Madrid 5-2 in front of that many fans was a borderline religious experience. It felt like a real turning point for the women’s game, and it was fitting that Putellas, the sport’s biggest star, was at the center of it.

In the documentary, the aftermath of that game is the last time we see Putellas feeling a sense of triumph as she speaks about how far the women’s game has come over the course of her lifetime.“When they interview me, they ask: ‘Did you dream about becoming a footballer?’ I say, ‘no,’ because there was no such thing. I only saw men. No women. Now we have a choice.”

Soon after that, things start to go sideways. On May 21, 2022, at Juventus’s Allianz Stadium, Barça Femení squared off against Lyon in the Champions League final. From the team, to the more than 10,000 fans watching on massive outdoor screens in Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya, to the 15,000 who traveled from Barcelona to northern Italy, optimism was high, not only about claiming a second straight Champions League triumph that would all but ensure a second straight treble, but about getting revenge against the side that ran them off the pitch in Budapest two years prior. That optimism was short-lived.

The Blaugrana ran into the same buzzsaw they encountered in Budapest. Within half an hour, Lyon were up 3-0, and the likelihood of Barça comeback looked remote. Putellas pulled a goal back before halftime, but once Patri Guijarro’s miracle shot just missed, the writing was on the wall. As Putellas described it after the fact, it was as though the most crushing defeat of her career had come back to haunt her.

That Putellas was devastated by the loss isn’t surprising, but the extent to which the documentary depicts her pain after the 3-1 loss is jarring. Putellas recalls being unable to look at the Barça fans in the stands, out of shame, and the unshakable feeling that “we had failed a lot of people.” It’s as though Putellas decided that the fame and adulation she received during the preceding weeks was undeserved in the first place. In the lobby of the team hotel, a ghostly and completely gutted Putellas, bereft and sobbing, confessed to her mother and sister that she was torn between playing in Barça’s last two Copa de la Reina games and walking away from the sport altogether. 

Maybe this is the type of thing that athletes say all the time in the wake of crushing defeat. Rarely, though, is that raw, unprocessed devastation documented, let alone for mass consumption. More than any other in the entire doc, this felt like a moment to which we’re not entitled. And yet Putellas offered up her heartbreak, exactly as it happened.

Of course, Putellas doesn't walk away. Though she continued to misguidedly blame herself for Turin, she returned to Spain and helped Barça win those next two matches by a combined score of 10-1. Then it was time for Putellas to report to the national team, jet off to England, and become a champion of Europe.

On July 5, in a training session two days before the start of the Euros, Putellas felt a “crack” in her left knee. The diagnosis confirmed the worst fears: a torn ACL, 10-12 months on the shelf, a whole lotta rehab, and one hell of a slog back to the top. Like the Champions League loss, the injury left Putellas, still just 28, once again contemplating her professional mortality. It also threw into question the completion and release of this very documentary. 

Neither the documentary nor media reports go into exhaustive detail but, in the wake of the injury, filming was temporarily halted so that the project’s fate could be considered. As Joanna Pardos, the Catalan director behind the documentary, said:

The injury changed everything. We had to stop filming and propose another approach… At the same time, it allowed us to show the reality of the elite athlete. It has also given us the opportunity to add an extra chapter in the future.

(A couple of days after the release of Labor Omnia Vincit, Mundo Deportivo reported that a second season is in the works)

That the project wasn’t shelved (altogether or until a happy ending was ensured) created the conditions for a much more illuminating look at an elite athlete than we are used to seeing from these types of documentaries. Putellas, forced to watch in real time as her personal fairy tale is swapped out for a one-two punch of disappointment and devastation, doesn’t hide from the cameras, nor do the documentary’s creators attempt to pack the last episode with unearned positivity and motivational platitudes. Instead, we are treated to quieter, more somber scenes of Putellas gutting her way through rehab and thinking existentially about the state of her career. At one point she even begins to consider ending her playing career and moving into coaching, and throughout the last episode she mourns the loss of the player she used to be, whom she refers to as “that Alexia.” We see her learn to accept that “that Alexia” is gone forever. “However I come back, I’m going to be different,” she says.

Even before the injury, the documentary made space for these less-than-glossy moments. Many scenes allow us to watch the demands of global fame muscling in on a life purely dedicated to the game, and it's a bit of a bummer. Fame's negative effects become increasingly clear throughout the middle portions of the doc, never more so than during a montage of road trip for various obligations, during which Putellas both laments the fact that the “fad” of her winning her first Ballon d’Or simply won’t pass, and wishes that the Champions League final were already over, simply so the attention would recede.

There’s also a scene about halfway through the doc, when the fun, boisterous mood of a family dinner at Putellas’s mother’s house is punctured by a question about Spain’s chances at the Euros. After a pause and a shrug, Putellas says that there’s almost no point in going, as the lack of resources dedicated to the team—even relative to other women’s teams—take them out of any meaningful contention. This, of course, all came to a head in late September, when 15 Spanish players sent a letter asking not to be called up for the national team, citing poor management and treatment.

The triumphant version of this documentary that probably once existed on a drawing board somewhere would have surely been entertaining to watch. As a Barcelona fan, it’s the one I wish existed. But I can also appreciate that this documentary was allowed to tell the much sadder story it was handed, because in doing so it treats Putellas and the sport she plays as more than a novelty. There's a tendency among people who care about women’s sports to be overly protective of them, an understandable urge to shy away from the darker side of the games that can nevertheless work against those sports being taken seriously. Labor Omnia Vincit avoids falling into this trap simply by following the story, and the athlete at the center of it, where it led. Putellas and Amazon may not have gotten the coronation and the feel-good story they hoped for, but they ultimately got something more honest.

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