‘The email said: ‘You’ve been chosen for Messi10’ and I started to cry,” Catalina Vega says. “I looked at it again: ‘Wow.’” Sitting alongside her, Vicky Losada asks: “Had you ever done anything as big as this?”
The circus is empty now but for the occasional stagehand wondering through. On the way in, a woman from wardrobe passes carrying a tiny jacket in lurid colours with huge shoulder pads and a No 10 on the back. It’s quiet, late morning, 10 hours until the circus starts, but this place is still imposing. A huge marquee, a blue stage, 3,000 seats rising around it, spotlight on, nowhere to hide. It is big.
“No, never,” Vega says.
Vega is a Chilean footballer who was once approached by Atlético Madrid but is now a freestyler in Cirque du Soleil’s show dedicated to Leo Messi. Born in Catalonia, Losada – like Messi – is captain of FC Barcelona, the club where she began and to which she returned three times, having played in the US and at Arsenal. She’ll be sitting in these seats again soon, a spectator. Vega will be down there, a performer with ball at her feet. At her feet, head, thigh, shoulder, chest. Ear, too. The lights will be on her, pressure too.
“This is the first contract I’ve had out of university. So, it was … ” Vega blows out her cheeks. “The first three shows, I felt nerves, here,” she says, pointing at her stomach. “But I’m lucky: because it’s a football theme, you can jump and shout, which gets it all out. I don’t hold back, then I’m better. Now, 12 shows in, I feel more in control, more empowered.”
Empowered. Maybe that’s the word, somewhere to start a football conversation between these two women who have lived for it and made a living from it. The excuse is Messi, who has inspired them both, although Losada had posters of Pep Guardiola as a kid and Vega, a full-back before, watched Dani Alves – a “fighter” she admired and “aspired to be like” – and talks of the impact of the USA women’s team.
Losada’s first coach in the first team, Xavi Llorens, was Messi’s first too, aged 13. And Vega notes that when she visited the Camp Nou, Losada’s picture was there alongside the Argentinian’s. “And that changes things,” she says.
Vega’s aim in Barcelona, where the show runs until 4 January, is to express Messi’s career through performance. “In fact,” she says, “there are things we can’t do because we have to project his values: you can’t be boasting.” Losada grins, and names another player for whom it might be different. “The show’s called Messi, so we’re careful,” Vega says. “To do a show about him, a portrait, was hard. We wanted to project our art and his art, what he means to people. At the end, his name’s chanted, the audience join in. It’s powerful.”
It goes beyond Messi, of course. If it’s about inspiration, it shouldn’t be about imitation, they argue. “Football’s a way of life,” Losada says. “All the more so now I’m a professional, which I never thought possible.” Vega takes up the theme: “When I started, it was enjoyment, not an income. I also knew any opportunities would be outside Chile. There, even now, only one or two teams pay salaries. But we women do it for love, passion, because we love football.”
On the way in, Losada hears that Spain’s female footballers have voted to strike over salaries. Now she adds: “It wasn’t so different in Spain until a few years ago. When I went to the US and England, then came back here, I realised things had changed. It was ‘just’ a passion before, now it’s a profession too. But there are still many teams where girls don’t earn salaries proportionate to their work. It’s still sobrevivir, no vivir: a salary to survive on, not to live on.”
Is it still fun, being professional? “It’s very different, but yes,” Losada says. “Very different,” Vega laughs. “I’m the only Chilean to have the chance to get where I am [financially]. And this is different to football itself: more visual, more artistic.” More circus than football? “No, more football. That someone pays you for [freestyling], when many players pay their own way and clubs can’t generate money, makes me feel fortunate. But women’s football is growing. We’re fighters, warriors, so of course it is …”
“You have to be,” Losada says. “But people are supporting us now. If you put a game on the telly and no one watches it, they won’t put it on again, but now people are watching. In Spain, we have so many female sportswomen who are the best – water polo, gymnastics, basketball – who’ve been world champions and no one knows them, they’re not making half the money we are, because we’re a country that’s football, football, football … we’re lucky. So, we have to be grateful.”
Not that it reaches the levels of the men’s game. “Ultimately, that’s an aspiration, but honestly: [in the men’s game], anyone costs €100m and no one’s looking at their real quality; very few are worth that, but that’s the market,” Vega says. Losada adds: “It’s a business and you see amounts that are embarrassing, almost shocking. The market is what it is, though. I wouldn’t like to compare myself with them; of course, we’d like to earn more but I’d like sportswomen [from other sports] to earn a quarter what we do. They deserve it, probably more than us, given their history.”
“[Male] idols get projected on to kids,” Vega says. “But it’s better to take the values that inspire Messi [than Messi himself] to inspire the kid to be their best version. They can’t be a Michael Phelps, a Usain Bolt. No, be the person you are, fight for your own dreams. Of course, inspiration is there, motivation, but it doesn’t need to carry a player’s name. Simone Biles said it: people put other gymnasts’ names on her but it’s her, Simone Biles, who does it.”
“Fans look to project a Messi on to a [female] player,” Vega continues. “There’s a desire to project male qualities on to women players too, instead of identifying them with their own playing style. People talk about physique but we have as much fight. My dad never projected on to me, he just watched me play. My brother’s terrible; he can barely kick it. I swear. He went in goal because he was bad.”
Slowly, things change. The World Cup played an important role, with the women’s game broadcast on television and the increased presence it gives players as role models – which sees them challenge attitudes.
“I run my own football camps and it tends to be 50, 60 kids, just four boys,” Losada says. “One year, two boys cancelled last minute because there were so many girls. We have to change education, culture, and sport is the best way. Last year, it was mostly girls again. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I called the parents and warned them. This time, they said, ‘no problem, the boys know.’ And the boys had the same relationship with girls as I saw in the US. A few years ago, that was unthinkable here. Being on the telly changes things; kids follow us now. We’re starting to be well known. I don’t like the word, but: famous.”
Do you get stopped in the street? “Yeah, sometimes,” Losada says. “I do now. The other day I was eating and someone asked for a photo. And it wasn’t a kid, it was a man. If you’re exposed to the public and the public responds, it’s good: that will bring sponsors, investment, better conditions. It’s a responsibility but it secures a future. Although, truth is, sometimes I don’t feel like going out locally because I feel watched. And that’s tiny compared to what the men experience.”
Vega says: “I don’t know if I would like that part of Messi’s life.” Losada adds: “Me neither.”
But people want to be like Messi, even if they wouldn’t like some of what being Messi brings. There’s inspiration there. There is inspiration here too, in these two footballers, sitting chatting in an empty circus marquee, and those that follow them.
“That’s already happening,” Losada says, and Vega adds: “The other day, I saw a little girl jumping and clapping and that fulfils you, really touches you. At the end of the show, your hairs stand on end; the applause is amazing. And for a little girl or little boy to say the next morning: ‘Daddy, I want to do what I saw last night’ is lovely. There’s a message: ‘Help me, guide me.’”
“It’s like that after a game,” Losada says. “You stop, sign autographs, take pictures. There are kids there who want to be like you, girls who are starting to say: ‘I want to be like Vicky.’”