BARCELONA (Reuters) - Women's soccer is on the rise in Spain after years of stagnation and Barcelona midfielder Vicky Losada believes she and her team-mates can give it an extra boost with a strong showing at the European Championship this month in the Netherlands.
Barcelona's progress under new coach Jorge Vilda has mirrored the rapid recent growth of the women's game in Spain in the last year, and Losada says they badly needed the change.
The day after their elimination from the FIFA Women's World Cup in 2015, where they finished bottom of their group, all 23 members of the squad signed an open letter calling for the resignation of their coach of 27 years, Ignacio Quereda.
"We left the World Cup with a bittersweet taste as we felt we could have done more. We needed to change direction," Barcelona midfielder Losada told Reuters in an interview.
"We arrived in Canada only four days before the tournament began, so you can imagine the jet lag. We had hardly any warm up games and the few we had were against sides that weren't competitive enough to give us adequate preparation."
Quereda, who had long been criticised for outdated training methods, quit and the team have thrived under Vilda, winning all eight games in their qualifying campaign, scoring 39 goals.
"We needed a change and now the team is improving every day," said Losada, who scored Spain's first ever goal in a World Cup in a opening 1-1 draw with Costa Rica.
Losada's Barcelona became the first Spanish team to reach the semi-finals of the Women's Champions League, while the biggest women's games attract crowds of over 10,000.
Three games in the Liga Femenina Iberdrola, the women's top flight, are also broadcast live on television, while Spain's under-19 and under-17 sides each finished runners up in the last European Championships.
It is a far cry from the environment Losada grew up in, when a lack of girls' teams forced her to play with boys until she was 11.
The low level of the women's game in Spain led Losada to move to Western New York Flash in 2014 and to Arsenal a year later, but after Barcelona turned professional and other teams followed suit, she returned in November.
"I left because I wanted to compete more in professional leagues. Before I left there were no professional teams, we trained late at night, we had no medical services and we had to make all our away trips by coach," she said.
"When I was growing up girls playing football was seen as strange but when I came back I was surprised to see how many clubs had women's teams."
Last December, Losada took part in the first women's game to be played at Atletico Madrid's Vicente Calderon stadium, where almost 14,000 supporters turned out to see Atletico beat Barcelona 2-1.
"We may have lost the game but everything we lived that day, the atmosphere, the fans, our first time in such a big stadium, was very important for us. It was a day to remember," she said.
Real Madrid may soon join Barcelona, Atletico, Valencia and Athletic Bilbao in starting a women's team, which Real has said the club are working on, and Losada is excited at the prospect playing against arch rivals Madrid in a women's "Clasico".
But, for now, her thoughts are firmly on the European Championship, where she believes a strong display from Spain can help entrench the rise of the women's sport.
"All the players have a big responsibility," she said.
"We have to make sure we have a big role in the tournament so we can take advantage of the great state of women's football in Spain and ensure it keeps developing."
(Editing by Louise Ireland)