Aitana Bonmatí Can’t Win
2:36 PM EDT on August 16, 2023
It feels odd to say, but right now, mere days away from a chance at a monumental, career- and maybe even life-defining achievement, I do not at all envy Aitana Bonmatí.
The positives of her present situation are obvious. In a few days' time she will compete against England for the opportunity to make Spain the champions of the world. No mere cog, the 25-year-old midfielder is the team's engine. A strong performance in the final, of the kind she's already produced multiple times at this World Cup, would likely see her walk away with the Golden Ball award as the tournament's outstanding player. And what she's already done at the World Cup probably makes her the big favorite to win the next Ballon d'Or, in light of how she's helped lead Spain to the final and was the fulcrum of Barcelona's resplendent, La Liga– and Champions League–winning season. Bonmatí is on the verge of winning everything a player can win, collectively and individually, and yet there remains an unmistakable pall over it.
That pall has a name: Jorge Vilda. It's actually a little unfortunate that Vilda himself has become almost the sole focus of the issues that caused last year's failed player mutiny, since the situation is in reality much bigger than him alone. The 15 players, Bonmatí included, who submitted the infamous letter to the Spanish soccer federation (RFEF) complained about the lack of professionalism in the national team setup, including subpar training sessions and tactical preparation, and demanded better. Most read that as a criticism of the poor quality of Vilda's and his staff's coaching, which it certainly was in part, but it was broader than that, too. It's no crime to be a mediocre manager; the bigger issue is when mediocrity is accepted by those in charge, especially when that acceptance comes at the direct expense of the actual talent that craves something more.
In reality, RFEF president Luis Rubiales is a much bigger villain than Vilda. Rubiales is the one who decided to go to the mattresses against a sizable chunk of the country's best players rather than hold an unproven, underperforming manager accountable for his middling results and his alienation of the entire senior team. (It's worth remembering that the original plan was for the entire Spain squad to protest the national team in some form, and it was only after certain higher-ups in the Spanish soccer scene got into the ears of some of the players that the number shrank to a still-majority 15.) This is the same Rubiales who intentionally sabotaged Spain's men's team ahead of the 2018 World Cup when he fired then-manager Julen Lopetegui in a fit of pique just days before that tournament kicked off, and who fired Luis Enrique after the most recent men's World Cup even though by every account he had been doing an exceptional job. Vilda might be inept, but Rubiales is the one who wields the real power here, and wields it with malice. If anyone deserves blame for turning the Spain setup toxic, it's him.
And yet, Rubiales won his battle, Vilda kept his job, and here we are. As the World Cup neared, the majority of the 15 players ended their boycott of the national team and announced to the federation and to Vilda their openness to return. Vilda took only three of them to the tournament: Ona Batlle, Mariona Caldentey, and Bonmatí.
It's impossible to fault Bonmatí and the rest of them for reconciling with the federation and returning to play. This is, after all, the World Cup, the biggest sporting event on the planet, which comes around only a few times during a career. Not only that, but Spain is in the midst of what are probably two or three golden generations of players who, benefitting from the federation's increased investment into the girls' and women's game and the rapid rise of the Spanish league, have a fantastic shot at winning the tournament for the first time in the country's history, with or without most of the 15 stars who demanded better, with or without their mediocre coach. Achieving that glory, doing so as the team's brightest star, capping the season of her life with the biggest team trophy in the sport, which would very likely win her the biggest individual trophy as well—it's clear why Bonmatí would find the allure of all that too great to pass up. The cost of missing out, for what had already proven a futile fight, would've been significant.
However, the choice to rejoin the national team comes with costs of its own. We Defectorers are not the only ones who have a hard time bringing ourselves to root for Spain this summer because of how Spain's success would inevitably redound to Vilda and Rubiales. I've seen several diehard women's soccer fans from Spain wrestle with this very dilemma, struggling and ultimately failing to rid their mouths of the bad taste. What's worse, the national team's run has become something of a cause célèbre for Spain's chud community, which has found in the team's success, and the humiliation of the 15 boycotters it represents, a fun new outlet for their misogyny. To a very real extent, some of the biggest Spanish supporters of women's soccer over the years are now dreading the prospect of a Spanish victory, while many of those who've denigrated the women's game are thrilled by the prospect of Spain lifting the trophy, weaponizing their victories into some bizarre testament to sexism.
I can't imagine what this feels like for players like Batlle, Caldentey, and Bonmatí, who might soon realize their dreams only to see those dreams twisted to serve interests diametrically opposed to their own. I also can't imagine what it's like for the 12 of the 15 who are back at home, and especially players like Mapi León, Patri Guijarro, and Clàudia Pina, who stood firm in their principles and refused to reconcile.
Spain's run to the final has made a few things clear: Vilda is not a very good manager, as his flawed tactical setups have placed the team in foreseeable binds in multiple games; Spain could desperately use the talents of players like León and Patri (both of whom are among the very best in the world at their respective positions), who would help cover some of the weak spots Spain's opponents have targeted; even with Vilda's second-rate managing, and without superstars like León and Patri and even Alexia Putellas (who's yet to shake off most of the rust from her long injury layoff), Spain remains one of the strongest teams in the world because their players are flat-out amazing.
Vilda and Rubiales no doubt already consider this World Cup as vindication for their choices over the past year. An early exit might have been a comeuppance, proof that Vilda was in over his head and Rubiales was dumb to keep him at the expense of better players and a more harmonious squad. But by making it to the final, the duo has probably already won the PR battle.
That puts anyone who might want to root for Spain in something of a pickle. It's tempting to hope for a Spain loss in the final, to save the world the sordid image of Vilda and Rubiales lifting the trophy with smug smiles on their faces, and chuds all over Spain cheering another victory for machismo. However, even if Spain loses to England, Vilda and Rubiales will probably still come away with their positions strengthened, and the chuds whose rooting interest is entirely disingenuous won't lose any sleep over a loss anyway; meanwhile, the players who've actually made it happen would come away with nothing. With that in mind, it might feel better to pull for a Spain victory; if Vilda and Rubiales have already won the power struggle, the least the players themselves deserve is to taste victory too. But that takes you back to the nightmare image of a grinning, trophy-wielding Vilda and Rubiales, and the nausea overtakes you. It's a lose-lose situation.
And that's just for those of us looking on from the outside. I can't imagine what it's like for Bonmatí, who saw the problems holding the national team back, sought to do something about it, was thwarted, returned to help the team forward in another way, and is now on the doorstep of a greatness that will be warped and corrupted in ways she never could've imagined back when she dreamt about this as a little girl. Winning or losing the final, winning or losing the Ballon d'Or, returning to Spain to greet a divided public, returning to Barcelona to find teammates León, Patri, and Pina—no matter the outcome, all of it will be colored by the national team power struggle and her place on both sides of it. The only thing left for Bonmatí to do now is what she's already sacrificed so much, but not everything, in order to accomplish: go out there and try to win, whatever that ultimately means.