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Spain Rode A Thunderbolt Into The World Cup Final

Olga Carmona of Spain (R) attempts a kick while being defended by Nathalie Bjorn of Sweden (L) during the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Semi Final match between Spain and Sweden at Eden Park on August 15, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand.
Ane Frosaker/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

The task before us this morning was to determine who could be the least enjoyed team in women's soccer, let alone the Southern Hemisphere, and for 80 minutes neither Sweden nor Spain felt up to the burden. But 80 minutes don't get the story told, and ultimately the younger more vibrant Spanish signed up for the bomb disposal of trying to beat an entire subcontinent.

Two glorious late goals, first by Salma Paralluelo in the 81st minute and then an even better one from Olga Carmona in the 90th spirited the Spanish to a date Sunday with either the veteran English or the even more deliciously improbable Australians. The Aussies will play with joy and emotion, the English with we've-been-here-before detachment, and we know what most folks will consider more fun.

Those two teams play in tomorrow morning's second semifinal, and nobody outside the British want the British to do anything but be subsumed by the singular force that is Matilda. There is nothing quite like watching a fan base (or in this case a country) experience the joy of reaching for everything for the first time, and Australia's shootout victory over France in the quarterfinals compressed the entire island into a single paroxysm of delight. The internet was clogged with reaction videos from every conceivable Australian or Australian-themed bar, and the one from the airplane in which every seatback TV but one was tuned to the game went COVID-level viral almost within minutes, and the one person who was watching Return of the King instead is the new global standard for obstinate focus.

But for this to become a factor in the final, the Matildas must beat England, and that is to be determined come the dawn. For at least one day, the Spanish are their own level of fun.

They soccer-dominated the Swedish in that very soccer-y way—having all the possession and none of the shots on goal. They leaned into the game against the Scandinavian wall until Paralluelo, who is now the favorite for player of the tournament over her teammate Aitana Bonmati, took a seemingly pedestrian cross from Jennifer Hermoso, found just enough space between two flatfooted defenders and cleanly beat keeper Zecira Mušović.

That wasn't the goal that people will remember, though, in part because Swedish sub Rebecka Blomqvist evened the match seven minutes later, but in greater proportion because Carmona ran into a seemingly innocuous corner, a play the Spanish ran consistently all tournament, and rifled a 25-yard tracer from the left side edge of the box off the crossbar directly over Mušović, who in truth was either momentarily mystified by the pace or didn't get an early enough look to make a save she had been making all tournament long.

The match itself had enough potential for chaos to make it a memorable one outside the Iberian Peninsula, but memories fade as soon as the next game is played, and because it is that rarest of combo plates, the host country in its first real appearance at this rarefied level, the Spanish will at least get to sneak into the final under the cover of one of two possible scenarios—the veteran relentlessness of the old firm English, or the playing-with-the-casino's-money Tillies.

The Spanish are indisputably fun despite their king-hell drag of a coach, Jorge Vilda, and they will likely be the world's decided preference if the English survive because, well, who doesn't love a plucky underdog with minimal history on the loftiest stage? Thus, they'll have their own rooting interest tomorrow, and they get to decide in their own heads whether they want the prohibitive favorite or the global one.

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