To win a World Cup, everything usually has to be perfect. The manager and the players have to exist in harmony. The squad has to be in delicate balance: between talent and tenacity, youth and experience, self-belief and self-control. A team needs momentum, and good fortune, and unity. Spain, in the year preceding this year’s Women’s World Cup, had none of those things.
The squad was in a state of open revolt. More than half the team had walked away, withdrawing their labor in protest at their treatment not only by executives of the Spanish soccer federation but also by their coach, Jorge Vilda. The country’s great star, the leading light of its golden generation, had watched it all from the sideline, desperately willing her anterior cruciate ligament to heal.
Even when a truce was found, a cadre of the mutineers restored to the team’s ranks, it was an uneasy one. The peace was born of convenience, rather than resolution. The squad was still cleaved by rifts and schisms and cliques. Winning a tournament is a matter of marginal gains, of fine details. Spain had none of them. In its circumstances, it seemed simply not possible for it to become world champion.
And yet, and yet, at the end of the biggest, widest, broadest, deepest Women’s World Cup, it was Spain’s players standing on the podium, the golden confetti settling on their shoulders, wreathed in the acrid smoke of fireworks, their hands clasped around the trophy for the first time.
A team that had endured all that Spain has in the past 12 months should not be able to win a World Cup. It should not have outlasted every other team in the tournament. It should not have narrowly beaten England, so wily and effective and resolute, in a tense, delicately poised final, 1-0. Except that Spain could, and did, the ultimate expression of succeeding despite it all.
Spain did so not because it found a solution to all of its troubles. Alexia Putellas, the team’s injured star, did not miraculously return to fitness. She has been here, but she has not been herself. The players and the manager did not make up in the nick of time; even in the aftermath of victory, nobody quite wanted to broach that subject.
“I am happy for the people who are happy for us,” said Vilda, the coach.
Aitana Bonmatí, one of the restored protesters, was asked what Vilda had been like as a coach during the tournament. She took a breath and gave the most diplomatic answer she could. Initially, it extended to just three words. “Everything is good,” she said. Asked to expand, all she added was that “it is not fair to discuss this in this moment.” Jenni Hermoso, tears in her eyes, wanted to make sure that the exiled players who had missed out knew “they were part of this process, part of this star.”
No, the secret behind Spain’s success was simple. Talent, in vast enough quantities and deep enough reserves, conquers everything. No other team in this tournament had Spain’s raw, undiluted, undeniable quality. The competition was fierce, and yet, in the harsh light of day, no other country really came close.
That was clear even in the final, even against a team of England’s resolve and reputation. Only a single goal separated the finalists, in the end. As Alba Redondo said, there were times when England — the reigning European champion, the admittedly slender pregame favorite — ensured that Spain “had to suffer.”
But far more frequent were the times when it appeared that Spain was playing if not quite a different sport, then one on a significantly higher difficulty level.
In the first half, in particular, there were moments when Spain’s performance felt like a technical clinic. Redondo might have scored after one intricate, sweeping move had pried England apart; Salma Paralluelo could have capitalized on two.
The buildup to Olga Carmona’s first-half goal — the only goal of the final — was swift, brutal and exquisite, all at the same time: Lucy Bronze guided down a blind alley; Teresa Abelleira and Mariona Caldentey expertly levering open the space she had vacated; Carmona applying the finish.
The best expression of Spain’s superiority, though, was in almost every pass played and touch taken and decision made by the unparalleled Bonmatí, the Barcelona midfielder who decided to use the greatest stage soccer has to offer to paint her own personal masterpiece. She was elected player of the tournament after the game. She could have won the award for Sunday’s performance alone.
It was Bonmatí, more than anyone else, who was at the heart of every one of Spain’s painstakingly constructed attacks. It was Bonmatí who set the game’s rhythm, determined its pace, selected her team’s angle of assault. She was Spain’s creative force, its destructive element. More than once, she changed the tone of the game with a single touch, an apparently minor choice that transformed everything.
Strictly speaking, the result did not need to have been quite as close as it was. Hermoso could have doubled Spain’s lead, deprived England of its last wisps of hope, with a second-half penalty kick — awarded for a careless handball by Keira Walsh — but she struck her effort too tamely, and too closely, to Mary Earps, the England goalkeeper.
Just for a moment, Spain’s stranglehold on the game was broken. England fizzed with renewed possibility, revived hope. “We suffered the most when we saw there were 13 minutes of injury time,” Redondo said. If true, they did not show it. “I was not nervous, not really,” Spain’s goalkeeper, Cata Coll, said.
Her teammates took the ball, asserted control, waited out the ticking clock, trusted their talent to see them through. It was only when the game was over, when they were gathered in a circle, their arms draped over one another’s shoulders, unity descending at last, that it occurred to them what they had done.
“We were asking each other what had happened,” Redondo said. “We were trying to work out what we had just done.” Even after they had lifted the trophy and paraded it around the field, Redondo said she could not quite believe the weight of the medal around her neck. She spent some time asking people to hold it, to feel it, to see just how real it was.
She pointed to the crest on the new jersey she had put on. Above the Spanish badge was a single star. It had not been there before. That is the ultimate reward. It is not possible to obtain one unless everything is just right. Unless, as Spain proved, you have the talent — bright and clear and irresistible — to make sure nothing can go wrong.
Rory Smith is The Times’s chief soccer correspondent, based in Britain. He covers all aspects of European soccer and has reported from three World Cups, the Olympics, and numerous European tournaments. More about Rory Smith
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