Spain’s Players Earned This World Cup
9:52 AM EDT on August 20, 2023
It should have been simple, and should have been beautiful. A national team with some of the best players in the world, a significant number of which play at the best club in the world, in that country, come to the World Cup and, despite some stumbles, stake their claim to the trophy in dominating fashion. In one sense, this is just what Spain did at the 2023 World Cup, and what they finished on Sunday by outplaying England in the World Cup final, scoring by virtue of its left back of all players, and riding out a nervy chunk of second half drama to take the tournament final 1-0.
On paper, it was a perfect ending to this ninth Women's World Cup.
Matches aren't played on paper, though, and there's some complicating context to consider. For this specific Spanish team, at this specific moment, there always will be. A win for the Spanish players unfortunately also means a win for Jorge Vilda, and it means a win for Luis Rubiales, and it means a win for the Spanish soccer federation, RFEF. To support Spain in this tournament was to contend with the fact that these players were also going up against the toughest foe in women's soccer, its own national federation. The Vilda problem, summarized previously on this site and frankly not worth repeating at this moment for me, threatened to overshadow a magical run. At times, it did overshadow it.
Fuck that. Spain's players deserve this World Cup run, this World Cup final, and this World Cup trophy; it belongs to them, and to no one else. Against England, those players weren't always at their best, but they were good enough and cohesive enough, and Olga Carmona proved deadly enough in the 30th minute, that the 1-0 lead Spain earned on the run of play felt immediately insurmountable.
England had a magical run of its own, building off last summer's Euros triumph. There's nothing to be ashamed about for the Lionesses here, but they were simply overwhelmed by Spain's deadly precision on the ball, and were stifled by their stalwart defending off of it. If not for Mary Earps's foul-mouthed heroics in goal, England probably loses this game by more than a slim 1-0 margin. It's remarkable that they didn't, given that Earps correctly guessed on Jenni Hermoso's 70th minute penalty kick. As she had all tournament, she kept English hopes alive while screaming profanities to the heavens all the while:
After that missed penalty, Spain looked flustered for the first time, really, since the 4-0 demolition by Japan in the final group stage match. Whereas La Roja bounced back from its most recent setback—giving up an equalizer to Sweden in the semi-final, only to benefit from another Carmona game-winner just a minute later—this one felt a bit more perilous. There was a 15-minute period, give or take, where Spain looked vulnerable, and that's a long time indeed in a World Cup final. Had England capitalized on that, this excruciatingly tortured journey for the Spanish players might well have overwhelmed them.
That's not this Spain team, though, and that collapse never came. Their first-half domination gave way to nerves, but eventually the players settled into the final stretch, and into the endless 13-plus minutes more that followed in stoppage time. It's fitting that they had to go through one more struggle, one more period of doubt, before making their way up to soccer's mountaintop. That ascent should have been preordained, given how much Spain and its players have done to define the landscape of women's soccer since the last World Cup cycle. The team absolutely did its part, in the final and everywhere else; it was everyone around them that made it complicated.
Without all the drama, this Spanish team is the best side in the world, the most talented, with the players most suited for this success. The country now holds three simultaneous World Cups, with the senior success matching the Under-17s and Under-20s. The talent pipeline has been established, and it's hard to say that Spain doesn't deserve to be exactly where it is, with the biggest trophy of all validating the journey here.
Still, it's not all golden, even as this most deserving of teams lifts that yearned-for trophy. There will be plenty of time to admonish what the Spanish federation will eventually take from this triumph; given that organization, it would not be surprising if that answer wound up being somewhere between "nothing" and "see, we were right all along." There will be plenty of time to fight for change, too, so that this wonderful group of players does not have to go into another international tournament facing opponents both within and without.
There, too, will be time to question Vilda's tactics—which, to be fair, he got mostly correct against England—and his exclusion of so many of the 15 players who protested his existence. And there will be time to question whether Aitana Bonmatí, Ona Batlle, and Mariona Caldentey should have played in this tournament at all, given that so many of their fellow protestors were either excluded or withdrew themselves from consideration. (My opinion there is that it is unfair to blame that trio, given how many of their cohorts also stepped back into the mix, only to be left out by Vilda, and especially given how much a World Cup means to players worldwide. I will also say, though, that a small part of me wishes that they had stayed out; I don't know if Spain wins this World Cup without their contributions, which is both an argument for them playing and for them abstaining.)
For now, though, there is mostly bliss. This was a victory for players like Bonmatí, who was the most dominant of players for this side and the rightful Golden Ball winner, and for Teresa Abelleira, who was inch-perfect in her role as the defensive anchor of the midfield, and for Salma Paralluelo, who is all of 19 years old and scored some of the biggest goals in this World Cup. It would be easy to go down the list and celebrate each and every Spanish player for what they contributed to this effort. They should be celebrated.
For now, at least, they can celebrate each other. They were with each other at the final whistle; though the cameras of course showed Vilda jumping for joy with his coaching staff of mostly, though not entirely, men, the lasting image from the celebrations will be the players sprinting onto the field to embrace each other.
Also good: Vilda in the middle of a jumping celebration, with all the players ignoring him before he over-exerts himself. Maybe it's childish, but I laughed. And as images of this World Cup run go, a bunch of best-in-the-world stars celebrating together and ignoring the high-handed men in their midst works pretty well.
These Spanish players won together, and won by coming together despite their differences in approaches towards their federation. So why not celebrate together? For a month in Australia and New Zealand, it really was the them against the world, and that included their home country's institutions. It's to the credit of this group that all the tears, and noise, and years of fighting still culminated in the ultimate triumph. They earned it; no one else did.