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Spain Is A Big Ugly Mess With Some Extremely Cool Players

The Spain women's national team huddles on the field after losing to Italy in the UEFA Euros
Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

It’s almost time for the 2023 World Cup. To help get you ready, we will be providing you with precious information about every team in the tournament. You can read all of our team previews here.

Spain is … well, the fact of the matter is, Spain is the weirdest 2023 World Cup team preview to write. It's a mess of a situation, made so by an ongoing war between the nation's soccer federation (RFEF) and some number of the country's (and world's) very best players, fought over the conditions of the national-team project and the tenure of its coach, nepo-baby Jorge Vilda.

Back in September, 15 national-team players (which is to say, a majority of the senior squad) sent copies of a letter to the RFEF, raising issues with the training, tactics, and overall professionalism of the project; calling (by some reports anyway) for the replacement of Vilda; and asking not to be called up for national-team duty until and unless changes were made. This was the culmination of months if not years of discontent and quieter attempts at getting Vilda and the RFEF to take the project's problems—with training, tactics, team selection, handling of injuries, and results—seriously. The players later denied having requested Vilda's sacking, but, given that they saw the national team's conditions under him as so lousy as to warrant their explicit refusal to participate, this may be a distinction without much difference. Here's how Luis described the RFEF's response:

When confronted with a collective action from a majority of the national team squad—which, again, features some of the very best players in soccer—the Spanish federation has decided to double down on Vilda, in spite of his underwhelming results as coach. The RFEF has stated that it will not fire Vilda, and instead it is demanding that the 15 players apologize for the coordinated letters in order to be let back into the side.

If the players refuse to apologize, the federation implicitly threatened to ban the dissenters from the national team for two to five years, though the RFEF said it would not resort to that punishment just yet. For now, the players will not be called up for Spain's upcoming October games against Sweden and the United States, and the federation says it is committed to selecting players who want to be there, "even if they have to play with youth players."

Not ideal! Not at all what you want. And it only got uglier for a while. The dispute spilled over into club matches between Barcelona (several of whose players were among the protestors) and Real Madrid (none of whose players were among the protestors, reportedly due to pressure from within the club), with players refusing handshakes. Barça's Alexia Putellas, the best player in the world but not a signatory to the original letter (as she'd been out with an ACL injury at the time, to refuse call-ups would have been moot), threw her lot in with the rebels. The RFEF reiterated its stupid, bullheaded support for Vilda.

There's been a thaw in recent months, or anyway most of Las 15 (as they came to be known) have written to the federation that they are once again willing to play for the national team. Putellas has also returned to the squad; so has Irene Paredes, the team's captain, who like Putellas was not among the original 15 but who, like Putellas, reportedly supported the collective action.

Their returns are understandable enough, even without much evidence of change on Vilda's or the RFEF's part: Sports culture demands and valorizes sacrifice, after all, and players will eat a lot of all different types of shit for a chance to represent their country in a World Cup. But even with positive changes, if there truly have been any, it remains a deeply screwed-up situation, the players performing under duress for a coach they've given an extremely public no-confidence vote and for a federation that met their concerns with absolute maximum scorn and disdain. Notably, it's a situation that 12 of Las 15 won't be part of—including Barça's Mapi León, one of the world's best central defenders, and her Barcelona teammate Patricia Guijarro, both of whom would otherwise be lynchpins for a full-strength Spain team.

Who Is Their Star?

With apologies to Paredes, and to Jenni Hermoso, and to Aitana Bonmatí—freaking sick players any of whom would be the undisputed star of many of the world's other national teams—Spain's star remains Alexia Putellas, very possibly the greatest player in women's soccer history. Alexia missed virtually all of the 2022-23 season recovering from an ACL tear suffered in training on the eve of the '22 Euros; she notched a few substitute appearances at the end of the campaign, including a largely ceremonial 90th-minute cameo in the Champions League final. She's 29 now, hasn't had an extended run of good form in real matches in more than a year, and might not be her old self anymore. And even if she is her old self, she might not be her old self for very much longer. That gives this World Cup a special electricity: What if she's still, for now, Alexia?

If she is, then she's as good as it gets. A left-footed midfielder by trade, Alexia processes the game at impossible-seeming speed and with impossible-seeming vision, so that she appears to be perceiving things before they happen: Dropping into a gap between the lines just as it aligns with a teammate's line of sight; receiving the ball with a satin touch or half-turn that baffles two collapsing defenders in what would be a normal player's blind spots; slotting a pass to space that won't even exist until the ball gets there; suddenly transforming a disorderly clot of bodies at the top of the box into a silky one-two that looks like it has to have been scripted and rehearsed. She can be a no. 10, and a no. 8, and a no. 6, and a no. 7, and even a no. 9; she's the best passer in the world and also scored 34 goals in her last healthy season.

I'm not doing her justice. Get a load of this shit.

That's from one goddamn game.

Tell Me About A Cool Youngster

Fast players in the ball sports are often said to possess sprinter speed. For the fleetest of them, sometimes the hyperbole will go even further, characterizing the player's quickness as Olympic. Usually, this is simple puffery. In Spain forward Salma Paralluelo's case, it is literally true.

Though still only 19 years old, Paralluelo has been a budding phenom in Spain for years due to her success both on the pitch as a soccer player and on the track as a sprinter. Her fame goes back to what is still her most sensational 12 months as an athlete, when between the ages of 14 and 15 she won the U-17 Euros and the U-20 World Cup with Spain, and—competing against grown women this time—won a bronze medal at the Spanish Indoor Athletics Championship in the 400-meter dash. Before calling quits on her athletics career in 2022 to focus solely on soccer, Paralluelo won two gold medals (in the 400-meter dash and the sprint medley relay) at the European Youth Olympic Festival, and set five all-time Spanish sprinting records in her age group. And all that while hardly racing at all for two years due to everything being shut down during the pandemic!

So yes, Paralluelo has legitimate sprinter speed, the type that could've quite possibly earned her a spot at the actual Olympics one day. As you can imagine, that grass-torching speed makes her nigh unstoppable in open space on the soccer field. Her most powerful move is when she bombs down the pitch from her customary left wing starting position, begging a teammate for a long pass behind the defense to kick off a footrace she almost always wins. Lest you think she's some one-trick pony, you should know that she combines her absurd quickness with more than enough pliancy and touch to sneak past defenders with neat dribble moves, and she has a bomb of a left foot capable of sending pinpoint crosses and long shots right where she wants them. Here are some highlights from the 2022 U-20 World Cup, which Spain won and Paralluelo was named the tournament's best player:

And to get an idea of what her left foot can do, here's this goal she scored a year ago that got her a nomination for the Puskas Award:

Paralluelo isn't yet a locked-in starter for the senior Spain team, especially not after Mariona Caldentey's return from exile. But the teenager's game-breaking speed and powerful shot mean she's certain to play at least a super sub role this summer. Either way, she's sure to give opposing defenses nightmares whenever her legs start churning.

Who Is Their Enemy?

Their own damn coach and federation are their enemies! We already covered this!

National Folk Hero Whose Nickname Is Cool

Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, to be honest, does not seem to have been all that great or cool of a guy, based on the admittedly not extensive reading I have done on the subject. By all accounts he was a brilliant 11th-century military strategist and tactician; by legend he was just and valiant and courageous and so forth, the ideal of a knight. That's impressive! But also he seems to have been a bit of an opportunist, a warlord-for-hire, fighting for whichever city-state or kingdom presented an attractive proposition. That's pretty lame. I dunno. Maybe mercenary work was looked on more favorably back then.

But one must admit: As nicknames go, it doesn't get a whole lot cooler than "El Cid," the descendant transliterated form of the Arabic honorific al sayyid ("the lord" or "the master") Díaz de Vivar may or may not have earned during his lifetime, due to his impressive work fighting both for and against Muslim armies in medieval Spain. It's just a very cool nickname!

Scran Or Not Scran: National Dish Edition

Spain has a few different "national" dishes, dishes that are associated very strongly with Spain even if none of them truly are in any official way the "national dish" of Spain. You've got your paella, of course, the famous dish of saffron-scented (and -colored) rice with other delicious stuff, which absolutely is scran as hell. You've got your gazpacho, the famous cold blended vegetable soup most familiarly made with tomatoes. Definitely scran! 

Jamón Iberico, the very famous prosciutto-like ham, maybe isn't quite a dish so much as just, like, a meatstuff, which becomes a dish when for example placed into a sandwich, and may not be national, in the sense that they also have it in Portugal, but it is strongly associated with Spain and one thousand percent scran. And then you have your Spanish chorizo, likewise not really a dish all on its own until you do something with it, but also extreeeemely scran. All good!

And then you've got your tortilla española, the Spanish omelet, my favorite of the national-ish Spanish dishes. This is the one that's sort of like a frittata, but consisting of egg and potato, cooked on the top and bottom, levered whole out of the pan for presentation as a big ol' yellow hockey puck, and typically served lukewarm. This is a perfect food. One time I was making a Spanish tortilla in my kitchen and when the time came for flipping it—a terrifying job until you've gotten the hang of it—I gave a happy whoop to celebrate the successful flip, upon which my hand tilted forward just enough that the very incredibly oily (in a good way!) and not-quite-yet-firm tortilla slipped out of the oily pan and splattered to the floor. One of the worst moments of my or anybody's life.

Anyway the Spanish tortilla is as scran as any scran ever.

What Would A Successful World Cup Look Like For This Team?

As a strictly sports question, the answer to this depends on whether Alexia Putellas can play like Alexia Putellas. Spain's loaded either way, but Spain with real-deal Alexia can fight for the whole thing. Spain with a diminished Alexia, well … Spain with a diminished Alexia isn't as good.

But also, in the larger sense, Spain maybe can't consider its World Cup successful at all, given the number of Spain's best players who have sacrificed their participation to fight for something bigger, and might not get it unless and until the RFEF pulls its head out of its ass. Which it hasn't yet seemed the least bit inclined to do.

A group-stage flameout might be a horribly bitter vindication for Las 15 and an overdue wake-up call for the backward federation. That could count for a kind of ugly success if it gets Vilda out of the paint, entrenches a more prominent voice for the players in national-team matters, and puts the project on a path to professionalism and equality with the Spain men's team. A stirring run to the final, in turn, would be a great thrill for the team and its supporters, but might also fortify the RFEF in its blinkered conviction that its mediocre coach is more important than the nation's best and brightest talents. From here that doesn't look like much of a success at all.

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