To win the World Cup, everything basically has to be perfect. The manager and the players have to exist in harmony. The squad has to be in a delicate balance: between talent and stability, youth and experience, self-belief and self-control. A team needs momentum, and good fortune, and unity. Spain, in the year before this year’s Women’s World Cup, is none of those things.
The squad was in a state of open revolt. More than half the team walked out, losing their jobs in protest at their treatment not only by Spanish soccer federation executives but also by their coach, Jorge Vilda. The country’s great star, the leading light of its golden generation, watched it all from the sidelines, desperate to heal his anterior cruciate ligament.
Although a truce was found, a cadre of mutineers was brought back into the ranks of the team, it was an uneasy one. Peace is born of convenience, rather than resolution. The squad is still divided by rifts and schisms and cliques. Winning a contest is a matter of marginal gains, of fine details. Spain is not among them. In its circumstances, it seems unlikely that it will become a world champion.
And yet, and yet, at the end of the biggest, widest, widest, deepest Women’s World Cup, Spain’s players standing on the podium, golden confetti resting on their shoulders, enveloped in the pungent smoke of the fireworks, their hands are clasped together. around the trophy for the first time.
A team that has endured everything Spain has had in the last 12 months should not win the World Cup. It should not exceed every other team in the tournament. It should not have beaten England, so cunning and effective and determined, in a tense, delicately poised final, 1-0. Except that Spain could be, and was, the ultimate expression of victory over all this.
Spain did this not because it found a solution to all its problems. Alexia Putellas, the team’s injured star, miraculously returned to fitness. He is here, but he is not himself. The players and the manager did not recover in time; even after the victory, no one wants to talk about that topic.
“I’m happy for the people who are happy for us,” said Vilda, the coach.
Aitana Bonmatí, one of the reinstated protesters, was asked how Vilda looked like as a coach during the tournament. He sighed and gave the most diplomatic answer he could. In the beginning, it came down to just three words. “Everything is good,” he said. Asked to elaborate, he added only that “it’s not fair to talk about it at this moment.” Jenni Hermoso, who was in tears, wanted to make sure the exiled players who missed out knew they were “part of this process, part of this star.”
No, the secret behind Spain’s success is simple. Talent, in great abundance and deep enough reserves, covers everything. No other team in this tournament has had the raw, undiluted, undeniable quality of Spain. The competition is fierce, and yet, in the harsh light of day, no other country really comes close.
That was clear even in the final, even against a team of England’s determination and reputation. Only one goal separated the finalists, in the end. As Alba Redondo put it, there were times when England — the reigning European champions, the admittedly slim pregame favorites — made sure Spain “had to suffer.”
But more often than not it appears that Spain is playing if not a different sport, then one of a higher level of difficulty.
In the first half, in particular, there were moments when Spain’s performance felt like a technical clinic. Redondo could have scored after a complex, stunning move that broke England apart; Salma Paralluelo would have used two.
The build-up to Olga Carmona’s first-overall goal — the only goal of the final — was fast, brutal and exquisite, all at once: Lucy Bronze guided down a blind alley; Teresa Abelleira and Mariona Caldentey expertly opened up the space he vacated; Carmona applied the finish.
However, the best expression of Spain’s excellence is in almost every pass played and touch made and decision made by the incomparable Bonmatí, the Barcelona midfielder who decided to use the greatest stage soccer has to offer to paint his own personal masterpiece. He was elected player of the tournament after the game. He could win the award for Sunday’s performance alone.
Bonmatí, more than anyone else, was at the heart of each of Spain’s well-crafted attacks. Bonmatí set the rhythm of the game, determined its pace, chose his team’s angle of attack. He was Spain’s creative force, its destructive element. More than once, he changed the tone of the game with a touch, a seemingly small choice that changed everything.
Strictly speaking, the result doesn’t have to be as close. Hermoso could have doubled Spain’s lead, denying England its last hope, with a second-half penalty kick – awarded for a sloppy handball by Keira Walsh – but he produced his effort too tamely, and too close, to Mary Earps, England’s goalkeeper.
For a moment, Spain’s stranglehold on the game was broken. England was filled with renewed possibility, hope revived. “We struggled the most when we saw that there was 13 minutes of injury time,” said Redondo. If it’s true, they don’t show it. “I’m not nervous, not really,” Spain goalkeeper Cata Coll said.
His teammates took the ball, asserted control, waited for the ticking clock, trusted their talent to complete them. When the game was over, when they were gathered in a circle, their arms hanging over each other’s shoulders, the harmony finally descended, as they remembered what they had done.
“We were asking each other what happened,” Redondo said. “We tried to fix what we did.” Even after they lifted the trophy and paraded it around the field, Redondo said he couldn’t believe the weight of the medal around his neck. He spent hours asking people to touch it, feel it, to see how real it was.
He pointed to the crest on the new jersey he wore. Above the Spanish badge is a single star. It didn’t exist before. That is the ultimate reward. It is not possible to get one unless everything is correct. Unless, as Spain proved, you have the talent — bright and clear and irresistible — to make sure nothing can go wrong.