Spain are a divided team on the brink of Women’s World Cup glory

“How on earth did they do it?” an international journalist asked in the press box at Auckland’s Eden Park after Spain qualified for the World Cup final with a last-gasp win over Sweden.

How do you go from rebellion to a World Cup final? And how do you do it in a dressing room divided at the outset and with a coach in whom the players have shown they don’t have confidence?

This is how it all happened.

Let’s start at the beginning. Going into this Women’s World Cup, the Spanish national team had never won a knockout game at an official tournament — not at a European Championship, not a World Cup.

At last year’s Euros, they started as one of the favourites. For the first time in their history, they had a Ballon d’Or winner in their ranks and many of the best players in the world. Things were looking good.

On the eve of the competition, Alexia Putellas was injured. The team did not depend on her; they were fortunate to have one of the best squads in their history. But the blow was hard because of what it meant.

Spain players hold up a shirt bearing Alexia Putellas’ name at last year’s Euros (Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

Some of the staff at the RFEF, the Spanish football federation, described that day to The Athletic as the hardest they could remember. Putellas is a much-loved player in the squad and was in her prime after winning her first Ballon d’Or.

She had also been one of the faces of change in Spanish women’s football.

The change from not having a professional league to having one. From not having a wage agreement to having one — albeit a poor one that set the minimum salary at €16,000 (£13,700) a year — that made it easier for players from important teams to be able to play football without balancing a job at the same time. Becoming a mother also became more financially viable. 

They started to train at night, to have physiotherapists. This was spearheaded by Barcelona, and Putellas was one of the faces of that change.

To injure her anterior cruciate ligament — a scenario players have nightmares about that seems to be spreading through the women’s game like a plague — was a hard blow.

Even so, they started as favourites.

Luck did not go their way. Just as at the 2019 World Cup where they faced eventual champions the U.S. in the round of 16, at the Euros it was England at the same stage — the team that would also go on to win the tournament.

That game was key for what was to follow. They played promisingly for 90 minutes, but in extra time they fell apart and ended up losing.

One of the team’s weaknesses, which they shared with Barca, became apparent. The backbone of the side was made up of players from the Catalan club and they transferred their strengths to the national side, but also their weaknesses — something that had already happened at the men’s World Cup in 2010.

Barca players, operating in a league with little competition in which they were used to scoring in practically every game, were uncomfortable on the pitch when the score was against them. This was especially obvious in the Champions League, where teams threatened them more. 

Barcelona were coming off the back of a heavy defeat in the Champions League final in Turin where they were stymied in certain parts of the game. Despite the fact Lyon had looked superior from the outset that day, Barca had the tools to put in a more competitive performance.

These are the ghosts that appear in such matches — affecting many of the same players who had also experienced similar situations in the rounds of 16 at the 2019 World Cup against the U.S. and the 2022 Euros against England.

Some had previously shown signs of dissatisfaction with the way the Spanish national team operated. The more professional Barca became, the more of a difference they noticed when they went on international duty. Sources close to the Barca dressing room, who prefer to remain anonymous to protect their jobs, explained to The Athletic that, at some points, the players felt they were wasting their time going to the national team.

The training sessions were not the same. There was a lack of resources and tools — they needed more physical trainers, more physiotherapists, more analysts, more trips by plane and fewer by bus.

In her documentary, Alexia: Labor Omnia Vincit, Putellas showed her concern over the situation just before the Euros.

Before the match against England, the players felt that they lacked specific preparation, analysis of the opposition and training. After the Euros, five players spoke to the head coach Jorge Vilda, expressed their feelings and, The Athletic has learned, asked him to resign.

In seven years in charge, he had not managed to win that elusive first knockout game — and they feared they were missing out given he was working with, arguably, the most talented squad the national team has ever seen.

They felt the situation was stagnating and, at the time, saw no option but to do something drastic: resign from the national team until things improved.

They did this through 15 individual emails sent to the RFEF. These were leaked to the media — and the war began. The players were: Patri Guijarro, Mapi Leon, Sandra Panos, Aitana Bonmati, Claudia Pina and Mariona Caldentey (all Barca), Lola Gallardo and Ainhoa Moraza (both Atletico Madrid), Amaiur Sarriegi and Nerea Eizagirre (both Real Sociedad), Laia Aleixandri and Leila Ouahabi (both Manchester City), Ona Batlle and Lucia Garcia (both Manchester United, although Batlle has since moved to Barca) and Andrea Pereira (Club America).

They were nicknamed “Las 15”.

No Real Madrid player acted. Sources close to some of the Madrid players claim that they were pressured by the club not to do so.

It was September, 10 months before the World Cup. During these months there was stagnation — it took a long time to deal with the situation. Nothing pointed to a good World Cup for Spain.

There were arguments in the middle of matches between Barca and Real Madrid players. Tensions mounted. As the months went by, the group became fractured. First, because of a lack of clear leadership and poor coaching, according to several sources close to the 15 players. Then, because of the lack of dialogue with the RFEF, many began to hesitate. Some wanted to return, others did not.

Two months before the start of the World Cup, individual meetings began with the RFEF and some of the players. Vilda attended an FC Barcelona training session. Some changes were made, but these were minimal: more coaches, a private charter, fewer buses and a promise to travel to New Zealand well in advance.

That convinced some players, but it was not enough for seven: Leon, Guijarro, Pina, Gallardo, Moraza, Eizagirre and Sarriegi.

Panos, Barcelona’s first-choice goalkeeper, was convinced. However, she was not called up due to a “technical decision”, according to Vilda.

There was little room to smooth things over, and some of the players were not speaking to each other at the start of the pre-World Cup training camp. 

The atmosphere went from being tense to fractured, with everyone doing their own thing. There were certain cliques, but everyone also understood that there was a common goal. The players and staff understood that they didn’t have to be best friends in order to compete together.

The conflict was put aside for a while.

The criticism received after the group-stage defeat against Japan brought the squad closer together. Though there have been images of the players united, hugging in a circle during some matches and encouraging each other, it had been difficult to see that replicated with the Spain head coach.

Social media has been full of videos of the coach alone, not celebrating goals with his players. This image has been stark at some points — yet after the match against Sweden the players gathered in a circle in the middle of the pitch with the coach in the middle — and the team has shown signs that the problem has not been solved. Estrangement is evident.

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Jorge Vilda has cut an isolated figure at points during the World Cup (Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Sources close to the dressing room told The Athletic that there is still not much communication between Vilda and the players. A move as big as changing the goalkeeper halfway through the competition was announced hours before the match. It caught previous first-choice Misa by surprise and Cata Coll, her replacement, had been given no indication she would play either. That attracted attention.

At the squad presentation for the World Cup, when the final details of the expedition to Australia and New Zealand were announced, half of the players did not applaud when Vilda’s name was called.

In the match against the Netherlands, there was a very significant image. While a doctor attended to Laia Codina, who had taken a blow to her cheekbone, the two teams gathered to discuss the match’s closing stages.

On one side, a circle on the bench with Andries Jonker in the middle giving instructions. On the other, a circle in the middle of the pitch, without Vilda. The coach was on the bench.

How can a team operating under these conditions reach so far in a competition of such calibre?

The answer is, in some ways, easy: Spain have a complete squad.

Of the 23 players, only Enith Salon, the third-choice goalkeeper, is deemed unlikely to play. The rest are all crucial. Many of them told The Athletic they felt they could play at any moment. That is something that has always kept them in the competition.

On a footballing level, Spain have maintained their idea of the game and have benefited from circumstances that, in part, have favoured progression.

They had an easy draw in the group stage. They started off with the two most beatable opponents, Costa Rica (3-0 win) and Zambia (5-0 win), before the hardest blow came at the best moment: they were hammered by Japan 4-0, but had already qualified and had a certain margin for error going into the round of 16. 

The team had seen that film before. Players who have learned from the big bumps in the road — many of them, such as Bonmati, in the Champions League finals in Budapest and Turin. They had proved that they were stronger in Eindhoven, that they had learnt the lesson.

Despite coming second in the group, they were once again lucky to be set on a path that avoided knockout ties against Japan, the U.S. and Norway. Those are the opponents they would have been most afraid of.

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Losing to Japan 4-0 was the low point of the tournament but came at a good time (Guo Lei/Xinhua via Getty Images)

The last-16 match against Switzerland — who did not present them with much of a problem — went smoothly. Spain gained a lot of confidence from a complete performance in the 5-1 win — possibly their best of the whole tournament.

Bonmati, who has said on several occasions that big defeats are good for her to learn from, has carried the team. In addition, Vilda has been brave in making the necessary changes, taking the right decisions to revolutionise the team.

Putellas is coming off one of the worst injuries a footballer can suffer but has shown brief flashes in second-half cameos. Coll — a goalkeeper who, according to sources inside the team, was stopping absolutely everything in training — has been brimming with confidence. Codina has impressed in the centre of defence in place of Rocio Galvez, who struggled against Japan, and Ivana Andres, who is nursing a calf injury.

Teresa Abelleira has made up for Guijarro’s absence, surprising many with her quality. Jennifer Hermoso has played an important role in midfield when Putellas has not made the starting line-up. 

And another differential: Salma Paralluelo. 

Aged 19, she has been one of Vilda’s most important players. She was one of only six players who, until the Netherlands, had started every game. And against the Netherlands and Sweden, she had a revelatory role that earned her two goals and two awards for player of the match.

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Salma Paralluelo celebrates her opener against Sweden (Ane Frosaker/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images)

The whole football world has fallen at the feet of this young athlete.

Spain’s youth teams had just won everything. In the lower categories, not a single title has eluded them. These players have grown up and are now performing for the senior side.

They have already been growing up as footballers at professional clubs, with conditions that have allowed them to focus solely on football. We’re talking about Bonmati, Batlle, Coll, Paralluelo, Abelleira…

Players accustomed to winning in the lower categories, brought together with the best — in the absence of Mapi — with the best of the veteran players who have been part of the change in Spanish women’s football.

Differential players, a fortunate draw, a defeat at the right time and Vilda making good calls at critical moments. All of this has led to the team coming together and gaining confidence.

But when the players have had problems it has been when they have not been able to find the mental strength to break the deadlock and become great — especially when they find themselves behind.

In overcoming the Netherlands and Sweden, they have learned to win in different ways and have been strong in the face of outside criticism.

Only one of the best generations of footballers could have turned Spain from a broken team that had never made it beyond the last 16 into a side one step away from being crowned the best in the world.

Meanwhile, the grey cloud hanging over this World Cup final is the players that are not there. Those close to them are worried about what will happen when those at the tournament return for the start of the season — especially at Barca, the team with the most World Cup players. 

Vilda avoided answering that question when asked about them in the press conference before the final and some players, including Bonmati and Coll, have said they have not spoken to their club team-mates during the tournament. 

Another big question is what Vilda will do when the tournament is over. Not even a history-making run to the final has made people forget the conflict — he was asked about it six times.

Will he carry on after making history? It’s a question that will soon be answered.

(Top photo: Maja Hitij – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

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