Spain arrived in New Zealand in early July for the 2023 Women’s World Cup with one of the most talented squads in the competition, but also one of the most complex and difficult backstories which logic dictated would make bringing home the trophy a very complicated mission. They’d also only ever won one World Cup match.
Their squad was too strong and their group stage opponents too weak for that not to quickly change. Costa Rica and Zambia were brushed aside with 8 goals scored and none conceded to ensure a smooth passage into the knockout stage.
However, despite enjoying a remarkable 78% share of possession, a 4-0 mauling at the hands of Japan in their final group game appeared to highlight major flaws and resulted in a barrage of criticism heading the way of coach Jorge Vilda. Inevitably, much of that came from those who sided with the “rebel 15”, a group of Spain players who had made themselves unavailable for selection less than twelve months previously in a move that was widely interpreted as a protest against Vilda amongst other issues regarding women’s football in Spain.
Despite their excellence in the opening two games, it seemed implausible that Spain could end up walking away with the trophy after the Japan debacle. Yet, more than six weeks on from their arrival in New Zealand, they depart on the long flight home as very worthy world champions.
The best team in the competition
The Japan match would turn out to be the wake-up call that Spain perhaps needed heading into the knockout stage. Goalkeeper Misa Rodriguez and two-time Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas were dropped ahead of the Last 16 tie with Switzerland and Spain responded with an outstanding display as Barcelona midfielder Aitana Bonmati starred in a 5-1 win with two goals and two assists.
The Netherlands came next and the toughest challenge so far. It was another largely dominant display, but this time the early breakthrough eluded Spain who were ultimately taken to Extra Time as Stefanie van der Gragt’s thumping Stoppage Time strike made amends for the penalty she had conceded only ten minutes earlier allowing Mariona Caldentey to put La Roja in front.
Spain regrouped though and found a deserved winner in Extra Time through 19 year old Salma Paralluelo, one of the stars of the knockout stage, to set up a Semi-Final showdown against Sweden.
It was another game that would explode into life in the latter stages. Paralluelo fired Spain in front in the 81st minute, only for Rebecka Blomqvist to level for the Swedes on 88. There was barely time for the Scandinavians to celebrate though before left-back Olga Carmona had curled in a beauty to send Spain through to their first ever major Final.
After six games in New Zealand, the squad packed their bags for Sydney and a date with destiny against European champions England who had knocked them out at the Quarter Final stage of the previous summer’s Euros.
It was a Final that looked impossible to call with a battle-hardened England boasting a formidable record under Sarina Wiegman. This though was Spain’s time with Carmona again the hero with a cool First Half finish proving the only goal in a match that the Iberian side again had the better of and impressively saw out.
A nation united in celebration? – Not quite
The remarkable journey this Spanish women’s team has been on over the past twelve months will surely be the subject of a documentary or movie at some point in the future. Even the aftermath of the Final and what should have been a period of sheer jubilation brought with it cruel twists of fate and yet more controversy.
Match winner Olga Carmona found out only hours after the game that her father had sadly passed away in the days before the Final. Her family had decided not to tell her in order to allow her to focus on the match with the 23 year old later describing it as the “best and worst day” of her life.
Spanish football federation president Luis Rubiales, who decided to back Vilda when the coach’s position appeared untenable last year following the mass withdrawals, was also widely criticised for his behaviour on the day, most notably for kissing the country’s record scorer Jenni Hermoso on the lips during the trophy presentation. Rubiales has since apologised stating “I was completely wrong, I have to admit it”.
Vilda was also widely booed in Sydney, even after guiding his team to World Cup glory, with the perception from his doubters being that this triumph was achieved in spite of Vilda and in spite of Rubiales and the Spanish football federation, rather than because of them.
Given the events leading up to the tournament, it’s also true that many followers of female football in Spain would have had some mixed feelings about watching this coach go all the way. It was a squad that didn’t feature the likes of Barcelona stars Mapi Leon and Patri Guijarro who both boldly stuck to their initial decision to withdraw themselves from selection, resulting in them ultimately missing out on the career highlight of a World Cup winner’s medal.
Whether they now regret that decision, only they will know, but to Vilda’s backers in Spain this triumph is inevitably viewed as a vindication of him and the decision to keep faith with a coach who had delivered precious little during his previous seven years in charge.
To Vilda’s credit, he got some very big calls right at this tournament, not least changing goalkeepers ahead of the first knockout game and handing 22 year old Cata Coll her debut in a World Cup knockout game. However, even to the most distant of observers, it’s clear that cracks still exist beneath the surface in this squad and there are many Spaniards who remain desperate to see the coach leave.
He retains the support of Rubiales and the federation though, with the latter simply tweeting “Vilda In” after the Final win, in response to the widespread criticism of him on social media.
As for the reaction within Spain, a country that for a number of reasons rarely has more than a lukewarm relationship with its national teams, there have been celebrations but certainly not on the scale that might have been expected in Sydney, Stockholm or London, had any of the other semi-finalists emerged with the trophy.
With many games taking place in the early hours of the morning Spanish time, it’s perhaps inevitable that a country with little previous pedigree in senior women’s international football, took its time to warm up to the competition.
Sunday’s Final did see big outdoor screens set up in cooler cities while those experiencing a scorching Spanish summer had some indoor events. 7,000 packed into Madrid’s WiZink Arena to watch the game for example. However, in the hours following the game, the streets of Central Madrid remained quiet with little sign that a Spanish national team had just achieved something truly historic on the other side of the world.
Why Spain could dominate the women’s game
With or without Vilda, Spain is now very well placed to be the dominant force in international football, potentially for many years to come. That seems strange to say given their limited success at senior level prior to this tournament and the significant problems that still exist within the federation and its ability to promote the women’s game.
However, the country is blessed with an extraordinary depth of talent, something that has been demonstrated so clearly over the past month as a Spain squad that was missing some of its best players, still managed to conquer the world.
In FC Barcelona, you have the dominant European club side of the era and the domestic scene in Spain should only grow with Real Madrid now starting to take female football a lot more seriously, a trend that will surely only continue on the back of a success which has the potential to be transformative in terms of the Spanish public and its relationship with women’s football.
What’s even more ominous for the rest of the world, is that Spain are also currently by some distance the most successful nation in youth football. They won the Under-20 World Cup in Costa Rica only last August in a repeat of the 2018 Final against Japan. They also successfully defended the Under-17 World Cup in October, with the senior triumph completing a remarkable hat-trick of global crowns within the space of twelve months.
They should only get stronger when some of those young players graduate to the senior set up while their triumph in Australia also came with star player Alexia Putellas well below her best level following a major injury.
If they can achieve so much despite the deep divides that have rocked this team over the past year, it’s frightening to think how good they could be with a full pool of players to pick from and a more harmonious environment.