(CNN) — History has been made. Against the odds and amid a backdrop of turmoil, Spain reached the pinnacle in Sydney on Sunday, beating England 1-0 to win the Women’s World Cup for the first time.
That Spain had progressed to the final, given the tumultuous year the national team had experienced, was remarkable. That La Roja triumphed against the reigning European champion and pre-match favorite in spite of the disputes and divisions which has clouded the national team throughout the tournament makes this achievement extraordinary.
Olga Carmona’s wonderful 29th-minute strike proved to be the winner. Spain could even afford to miss a second-half penalty as La Roja became only the second country, after Germany, to win both the men’s and women’s World Cups.
As Spain’s players celebrated by forming a joyful heap of red on the Stadium Australia pitch, many of England’s players were in tears as hopes of becoming the country’s first senior soccer world champion since 1966 were ended by a brilliant Spain.
For possession and attempts on goal, there was only one team in it – Spain outplayed England. But there is some solace for England which, like Spain, was competing in a Women’s World Cup final for the first time, because the team has progressed further than ever before in this competition. Even in defeat, the Lionesses had made history.
Prince William paid tribute to the “spirit” of the Lionesses, posting on X, formerly known as Twitter: “Although it’s the result none of us wanted, Lionesses you have done yourselves and this nation proud.”
But it is Spain which celebrates and it is Spain’s future which shines the brightest, especially if off-pitch issues can be resolved, because now, incredibly, the Iberian nation is a Women’s World Cup winner at Under-17, Under-20 and senior level.
Some of the country’s most famous faces reveled in the team’s success. Tennis star Rafael Nadal, the 22-time grand slam winner and arguably Spain’s greatest athlete, posted an Instagram story which said: “Let’s goooooo!!!! Congratulations, WORLD CHAMPIONS!!!!”
Division and uncertainty
But as fireworks lit up the night sky and a wave of golden ticker-tape showered the victorious players during the trophy presentation, thoughts wandered to those Spanish players who had missed an opportunity to win the sport’s biggest prize because of the dispute between the players, the coaching staff and the country’s soccer federation.
Last September, 15 Spanish players declared themselves unavailable for selection, saying they were unhappy with the training methods of head coach Jorge Vilda, who had described the situation at the time as a “world embarrassment.”
When asked in the build-up to the final what it was like to face a dressing room that questioned the worth of the coach and staff, Vilda told the Spanish newspaper Marca that there was no choice but to “focus” on work.
Only three of those 15 players who had written letters to the Spanish soccer federation (RFEF) last year, saying the “situation” within the national team was affecting their “emotional state” and health, were selected for the World Cup squad.
One was Aitana Bonmati, the midfielder who excelled against England and who won the Golden Ball, given to the best player of the tournament. The Barcelona player was peerless and epitomized Spain’s supremacy and also the talent at the country’s disposal.
Spain has become a world champion without some of its best players, talents who are the finest in the world in their respective positions. It says much for the pool of talent at Spain’s disposal that it was able to succeed in such circumstances.
Yet although this could be a transformative win for women’s soccer in the country – in its three previous World Cup tournaments, Spain had never progressed beyond the round of 16 – it is perhaps not a unifying one.
The country is now the best in the world, but the international futures of those exiled players remain unclear. With victory, the questions surrounding the national set-up, of whether or how the dispute can be resolved, do not disappear.
The best team wins
This was a final between two of the best teams in the tournament, which made for an intriguing and entertaining encounter.
As expected, Spain monopolized the ball – enjoying over 50% of possession in the first half – and La Roja’s technical superiority allowed them to pass with finesse, their one-touch football putting the Lionesses on their heels.
Salma Paralluelo, the 19-year-old who came off the bench to play an instrumental role in the semifinal win against Sweden, started the match and justified her selection as she proved to be an ever-present danger in attack.
The teenager, who was named the tournament’s best young player, is now the first player to win Women’s World Cups at Under-17, Under-20 and senior level and could certainly become one of the game’s greats.
Even with two-time Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas on the substitutes’ bench – the Barcelona star has been far from her best this tournament as she continues to find form after a serious knee injury – Spain was superior.
Although it was England which had the first real chance to break the deadlock, Lauren Hemp hitting the crossbar with a curling shot from just inside the edge of the box in the 15th minute.
Almost immediately afterwards, a fine save from England goalkeeper Mary Earps kept out Alba Redondo’s effort but, in truth, the Spaniard should have done better from close range.
Then, in the 29th minute came the opening goal, Carmona lazering her shot into the bottom-right corner after beautiful build-up play down Spain’s left flank. Lucy Bronze’s charge upfield had left a gaping hole in England’s defense and Spain capitalized.
Irene Paredes should have doubled Spain’s advantage, while Paralluelo’s first-time shot kissed the post just before the break.
Spain was in the ascendancy and continued to dominate after the break.
It seemed as if victory would be sealed in the 68th minute when Jennifer Hermoso stepped up to take a penalty after Keira Walsh had been penalized for handball. But a fabulous save from Earps, who dove low to her left to keep out Hermoso’s effort, ensured England stayed in the match.
Buoyed, England enjoyed its best period of the match thereafter. Substitute Lauren James forced Spain goalkeeper Cata Coll into action but for all of the increase in energy, England could not puncture La Roja’s defense and it was the eventual winner which finished the match the stronger.
Spain head coach Vilda said he was filled with “immense joy and pride.” He told reporters: “We’ve shown how we can play, we’ve shown that we know how to suffer. This team believed and we’re world champions.”
Meanwhile, England’s head coach Sarina Wiegman, who has now suffered defeat in two successive World Cup finals after being at the helm of a Netherlands team which lost to the US in 2019, said the Lionesses should feel proud.
“Of course, it feels really bad now,” she said. “We got to the final and then we lose it, but how we have shown ourselves, who we are, how we want to play, overcoming so many challenges we can be very proud, but it doesn’t feel that way at the moment.”