An ugly player revolt in the build-up to the Women’s World Cup had threatened to derail Spain’s campaign, but La Roja have enjoyed a deep run at the tournament despite major upheaval in their set-up.
In October, 15 players, known as “Las 15”, wrote to the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) demanding changes to the national team set-up and made themselves unavailable for selection, directing the majority of their complaints at coach Jorge Vilda.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
The players denied calling for Vilda’s sacking, saying they only wanted improvements in working conditions because the events with the national team had affected their emotional and physical health. But the federation claimed otherwise and backed Vilda.
While naming his World Cup squad, Vilda included only three of those rebels – Mariona Caldentey, Ona Batlle and Aitana Bonmati – as other high-profile players such as Barcelona’s Patri Guijarro, Mapi Leon and Sandra Panos were left out.
A new-look Spain headed to the World Cup under pressure, but they settled in quickly, registering comfortable wins over Costa Rica and Zambia. Their biggest challenge came in the third game against Japan when they were outplayed in a 4-0 defeat and failed to convert their chances despite dominating possession.
Spain, however, bounced back in style with a 5-1 victory against Switzerland in the last 16 and a 2-1 quarter-final win over the 2019 finalists the Netherlands in extra time, booking their place in the semi-finals for the first time.
A last-four meeting with Sweden awaits them in Auckland on Tuesday as Vilda’s side aims for a momentous achievement. But how did they manage to do this?
“Spain have one of the best teams they have ever had in their history,” Laia Cervello Herrero, who reports on Spanish football for The Athletic, told Al Jazeera.
“They have great individual players who are the best in their positions right now. This is the case of Bonmati, Batlle and Irene Paredes. … Also, the main players of the national team play in the same team – Champions League champions Barcelona. It is easier to take the skeleton of a winning team and transfer it to the national team. It gives you more guarantees.”
Freelance writer Bea Redondo said that while Spain, positioned sixth in FIFA’s world rankings ahead of the World Cup, have done well to reach the semi-finals, they have yet to face any higher-ranked opposition.
“What Spain has shown is a huge resolve and improvement in the knockout stages,” Redondo added. “They have also shown an ability to put their differences behind them as a group and focus on the goal ahead.”
Speaking to the media ahead of the semi-final, Vilda, who has coached the team since 2015, credited the Spanish federation for backing the players during their revolt last year, saying without the support of President Luis Rubiales, the team would not have made it so far.
Vilda said there are no cracks in the squad, but it remains to be seen if the player revolt has truly ended.
“The RFEF at that time [last year] was not betting enough on their women’s team,” Herrero said. “Players [complained of] a lot of travelling by bus with little notice and, in the case of Vilda in particular, they complained of poor preparation.
“They complained about not watching videos analysing their upcoming opponents, insufficient training sessions and a lack of professionalism.”
Spain's players celebrate the win and Vilda, well… pic.twitter.com/BSsV1SxFhW
— Ryan Maquiñana (@RMaq28) August 11, 2023
Despite missing several players due to the revolt, Spain have emerged as the title contenders with midfielder Bonmati, young winger Salma Paralluelo and defender Batlle playing a key role in their campaign.
Women’s football writer Richard Laverty said a depth of talent has helped Spain.
“They had a really good run late last year and into this year, beating teams like the USA, which gained them a good enough FIFA ranking to be a seeded team for the World Cup draw,” Laverty said.
“It’s been interesting to watch it develop. There have been stories over the past 12 months over divides between players from different clubs who now play in the Spain team together and still divides between Vilda and certain players, yet they seem to be managing to get the results they need.”
Bonmati, a leading contender to win the Ballon d’Or this year, has been a standout player for Spain with three goals and two assists while Batlle and Jenni Hermoso have also put in strong performances, especially in the knockout rounds.
“Bonmati is the best player on the team right now. She sets the tempo of the team, and when she is at her best, the team is at its best,” Herrero said.
“Then there is Paralluelo, who at just 19 years old is being one of the best by far and was key to Spain’s progress to the semi-finals with that great goal after a sprint against the Netherlands.
“And Batlle is the best right back in Europe and has the versatility to play on both sides like Salma. It is something that makes her essential for Vilda.”
Defensive midfielder Teresa Abelleira has also played an excellent role as a holding midfielder, according to Laverty.
“You cannot win tournaments just with attacking players. You need a very, very good defensive midfielder, and Teresa has been fantastic,” he said.
Spain usually dominate ball possession, but often they have been guilty of failing to convert chances – something that cost them the game when they lost to England in the Women’s Euros quarter-final last year despite taking the lead.
If Spain are to beat world number three Sweden and reach the final, Vilda’s side will need to focus on clinical finishing.
“With their possession game, they get in some very good areas but are wasteful or don’t take the shot on,” Laverty explained.
Defensive weaknesses can also be an issue for Spain, who have struggled to find a replacement for Leon.
“Leon’s role has been harder to replace, and the team hasn’t shown the strength we’ve been used to defensively when she was Paredes’s partner in the centre of the defence,” Redondo explained.
“Ivana Andres, Rocio Galvez and Laia Codina have shared this role over the last few matches, but none of them has been able to provide the sense of security Paredes and Leon bring together for Barcelona.”