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It’s The Light That Lasts

Jennifer Hermoso, Alexia Putellas and Irene Paredes of Spain celebrate with the FIFA Women's World Cup Trophy after the team's victory in the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Final match between Spain and England at Stadium Australia on August 20, 2023 in Sydney / Gadigal, Australia.
Photo by Maja Hitij - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

The 2023 World Cup was darkened by shadows. The individual sources of these shadows all varied, but the true origin of nearly all of them was the same: the lack of respect, support, and care for women and the sport of women's soccer.

You could see the darkness looming over the tournament before the event even began. At least half of the previews we wrote for each team entering the World Cup listed the team's own national federation under the "Who is their enemy" section. The shadows' impositions on the proceedings lasted throughout the month of play, and, in Luis Rubiales's nauseating forced kiss, even stretched past the final whistle of the final match. Today, a day after the final, it feels like the fallout of the Rubiales debacle, and the greater nefarious forces it instantiates, has become the main takeaway from the final, or is at least the main thing people are talking about.

This is, to me, a mistake. Not in the sense that people should ignore what Rubiales did, or that people shouldn't make a big deal of it. His forced kiss, his dismissive attitude when first asked about it, and his mealy-mouthed apology are all repellent, and deserved to be called out as such. (In a sane world, Rubiales would be out of a job over it. And—maybe I'm being too optimistic here—I think that just might wind up happening, even in decidedly not-sane Spain.) Nevertheless, I do believe that to allow the Rubialeses and the Vildas of the world to overshadow what the women of Spain and England and every other team did to make the tournament what it was would be to undermine the magnitude and power of what this World Cup actually was.

It's tough to attempt to look at the present from a historical vantage point, but it's sometimes worth a try. When I try to look at the 2023 World Cup from a long-term perspective, even if it's only my own, I can barely even make out Rubiales and that menacingly gleaming head of his.

What I'll remember about this World Cup is that it was far and away the best women's soccer tournament I've ever seen. I'll remember Salma Paralluelo prowling around the pitch with a calm and languidness that only magnified the implied threat of her pounces. I'll remember Linda Caicedo shimmying her way past defenders and into the global soccer consciousness. I'll remember the magic present in every Brazilian touch and move that lifted a stadium located in Adelaide, Australia, transported it and everyone in it clear across the world to São Paulo, and also sent a ball into the back of a net.

I'll remember Rose Lavelle entering the USWNT's match against Vietnam and, with the brilliance of her skill, bringing some of the color and fragrance of her namesake to what had been a gray American performance. I'll remember what Melchie Dumornay did against England, and what Lauren James did for England. I'll remember the surprising successes of Nigeria and Japan and Jamaica and Morocco, and also the shocking comeuppances of Germany and the U.S. and Brazil. I'll remember Esmee Brugts's bangers and Danielle van de Donk's swim cap. I'll remember how Australia at first struggled under the weight of their massive home following before they eventually learned to ride the wave that carried them all the way to the semifinals. I'll remember Olga Carmona's two history-making goals, Aitana Bonmatí's month-long performances that ensured her magnificent season will be cast in gold, and the pure, unalloyed joy on the faces off all the Spanish women who had endured so much, resisted it all, and ultimately won.

And it's not only the specific on-field moments that will stick in my memory. I'll remember how this tournament felt like the dawn of a new age of women's soccer, with the "smaller" teams proving just how big they've become, and the "biggest" team learning not only that it was no longer the world's only giant, but not even the biggest of the bunch. I'll remember how the Spain-England final felt like the perfect encapsulation of the new age's elite, with the two teams that best maximized all three of the sport's keys—the physical, technical, and tactical sides of the game—meeting in the end to determine who was the best. I'll remember how, even when given just a modicum of support, even in the face of enormous obstacles, so many countries around the world were capable of producing amazing players, competitive teams, and unforgettable moments.

Sports get much of their popularity and power from the fact that they are larger than life. They are of course still made up of the stuff of life—of people, of emotion, of culture, of politics, and so on—and part of what makes following sports enriching is noticing and learning from the interactions between the whole and the parts. But none of the underlying stuff would matter in the same way if it weren't for the mysterious effect that turns a person wearing a colorful uniform and manipulating a ball with their feet in concert with several others into the most viscerally enthralling act on the planet.

The powers that be understand the unique power of sports, which is why so many seek to co-opt that energy for themselves. What else is Rubiales's ostentatious show of enthusiasm if not his attempt to steal the Spainish women's national team's shine and, with it, to brighten up a presidential tenure otherwise marred by controversy and disappointment? Such attempts at co-option are always unwanted, and should be loudly criticized. But it's important to remember that these shadows only exist because of the irrepressible light of the game itself. And the light always comes through.

Thankfully, even now, with the focus following Sunday's final being so centered on Rubiales and his fuckheadery, I do not believe that there is any real risk of what actually matters being permanently obscured. I am confident that Rubiales, Vilda, and all the other foes to the sport will go down as mere footnotes to what was on the whole a triumph of a tournament. The game belongs to the players, and the game's importance and meaning belongs to the fans. It was Spain's players who won, and it was and will be the players who win every other World Cup before and after. And it was the fans' experiences of the players' acts that will really determine what it all is to stand for.

This very Spain team probably knows this lesson better than anyone. Eight years ago, the members of the Spain women's national team reacted to a promising but unsatisfying performance at the country's first-ever women's World Cup by going public with their dissatisfaction with the national team setup. According to the players, the manager was an incompetent bully, the federation was at best asleep at the wheel, and the players demanded immediate changes in order to unlock the gigantic potential they knew rested inside themselves.

Eight years later, the vision those Spanish women were determined to fight to realize has been fulfilled. Spain is the champion of the world. Alexia Putellas, Jenni Hermoso, Irene Paredes (all three seen together at the top of this post in what is only one of the dozens of photos the trio made sure to pose for), and Ivana Andrés were the only four players present both at that fateful first World Cup and this one. Their feats are indelible, their names are etched in history, their light is beaming strong and clear, for now and forever. And I've forgotten the name of the manager whose ass they roasted eight years ago.

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