Spain’s rapid rise to Women’s World Cup final, in spite of its coach and federation, is ‘just the beginning’

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - AUGUST 14: Jorge Vilda head coach of Spain during a Spain training session during the the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 at North Harbour Stadium on August 14, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Less than a year ago, Spain’s players were rebelling against head coach Jorge Vilda. On Sunday, he’ll lead them onto the pitch at the Women’s World Cup final. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Women’s soccer’s sleeping giant awoke gradually, painfully, in spite of its paternalistic self.

Spain’s rise to the top of the sport, and to Sunday’s World Cup final, has felt rapid. A month ago, La Roja had only ever won one Women’s World Cup game; now they’re playing for a title.

But their success had long been simmering; the giant had been stirring, winning championships at youth levels, producing wonderful players. Its problem, for decades, was neglect and machismo.

Spain’s soccer federation employed a single vindictive, disparaging, unqualified, “volatile,” “unprofessional” and flat-out bad women’s national team coach for 27 years. It backed the coach, Ignacio Quereda, despite formal complaints from players and zero World Cup qualifications (until 2015). Because it simply didn’t care. As recently as 2014, it spent less than 1% of its budget on women’s soccer. It reportedly paid national team players a per diem of 27 euros. Twenty-seven.

A player rebellion finally ousted Quereda, “the cancer of women’s football,” in 2015. But his successor, Jorge Vilda, provoked a new era of problems. After a frustrating quarterfinal exit at last summer’s Euros, players confronted Vilda and the federation with several core concerns. The federation responded by publicizing private emails, rebuking the players, and turning the past 11 months into a dramatic, divisive, anxiety-ridden mess.

And yet, even without multiple starters who resigned from the team in protest, even with Vilda still in charge, and even with two-time Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas hampered by injury, Spain is one win from the mountaintop.

It is here, in the World Cup final, because its newly professionalized clubs and vaunted youth development systems are producing the world’s savviest and most skillful players. Those players have won the last two Under-17 Women’s World Cups. The Under-20 team didn’t even qualify for their World Cup from 2006-2014, then surged to the quarterfinals in 2016, the final in 2018 and a title last year.

And the fact that frightens all their competitors, including the United States, is that only three members of those three youth championship teams have graduated to this 2023 World Cup team.

Multiples more are still rising, or waiting in the wings.

So it is clear that Spain, suddenly supreme, is merely scratching the surface.

Spain’s cultural shift toward embracing women’s soccer

Spain’s history of women’s soccer suppression is far from unique, of course, but it is extreme. And it was shaped by what Maria Teixidor, the former head of women’s football at FC Barcelona, calls “a very machista society.”

“We live in a macho country and that conditions us,” longtime playmaker Vero Boquete told in 2012. “From an early age it was expected that boys do one thing and girls another.”

She and other players felt those expectations, viscerally, soon after stepping onto their first soccer pitch. “There was a regulation preventing boys and girls from playing on the same team,” Boquete said, recalling her introduction at age 6. “So I used to regularly train with the boys, go to games with them and even put my kit on. But I then had to sit on the bench. I was still very young and didn’t understand why. But it was frustrating and left a mark on me.”

Sexism filtered through the sport, up to the Royal Spanish Football Federation and down from it. The Spanish federation created a women’s soccer department, then essentially ignored it. Ángel María Villar, its three-decade president beginning in 1988, appointed his buddy, Quereda, to lead the nascent women’s national team. Within a decade, players began complaining — and Quereda “began to disappear people” in response, as one former player put it. He’d also call them fat, and call them “chavalitas” — little girls. He’d allegedly take phone calls in the middle of training — in between berating shouts that brought them to tears. They felt “commanded by him,” “inhibited” on the field, forbidden from broaching controversial subjects with the media.

“It’s like having a boss who despises you,” Boquete told El País in 2015.

OTTAWA, ON - JUNE 17:  Ignacio Quereda, coach  of Spain looks on during the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 Group E match between Korea Republic and Spain at Lansdowne Stadium on June 17, 2015 in Ottawa, Canada.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Ignacio Quereda was head coach of the Spain women’s national soccer team from 1988 until his ouster in 2015. (Matthew Lewis/FIFA via Getty Images)

“He eventually wanted control over everything,” María Teresa Andreu, one of Spanish women’s soccer’s pioneers, said of Quereda. “He is a person that will not accept a single piece of criticism, and we collided often [when Andreu worked at the Spanish federation]. I and many others. If we made ​​a list of all the players who have gone through the national team, none would speak well of him. Even within the federation, there are many people who have asked to change departments so as not to travel with him.”

But the federation’s leaders didn’t care.

In 1998, players drafted a letter full of grievances. “I took charge of the situation and went to talk to Villar,” striker Mar Prieto later told AS. But nothing changed. Villar, she said, would “always run away from the problems.”

He also refused to invest in the country’s top women’s league, which the Spanish federation ran — but which wasn’t recognized as fully professional until 2021.

What spurred changed, gradually last decade, was investment from the country’s top clubs.

From Athletic Bilbao to Atletico de Madrid, they all had renowned academies and developmental methodologies — on the men’s side. They had pathways, from grassroots to pros, that ingested talented kids throughout their respective regions and molded them into world-class players. They began leveraging those same structures and expertise for girls and women.

By 2018, according to Spanish women’s soccer executive Pedro Malabia, “Most of the clubs have a complete structure of teams in their academies. I’m talking about having 12 or 14 teams in their academy, starting from U-6 up to the first team. The Spanish teams are really investing and really believe in the worth of the academies.”

Their growth went hand-in-hand with a broader women’s empowerment movement in Spain. Parents challenged restrictive gender norms, and girls broke into traditionally male activities. From 2003 to 2018, roughly, the number of registered female soccer players in Spain reportedly quadrupled. And “year by year,” Malabia told The Equalizer, “they have better coaches, they have better facilities, they have better conditions.”

The impact was relatively instantaneous. Throughout the 2010s, youth national teams began to compete for and win European championships.

What they lacked, for years, was a professional league to sustain and accelerate their development beyond their teens. But that’s the void that clubs, most notably Barcelona, began to fill. Barca poured money into its senior women’s team. A full-time staff of two became a staff of 20. Semi-pro salaries became semi-lucrative ones. Matchday crowds of 300 became, occasionally, 60,000. Other clubs, such as Real Madrid, eventually jumped aboard. And the Spanish player pool became one of the sport’s best.

Its chief inhibitor, according to players, remained the senior national team environment.

Spain's team coach Jorge Vilda (R) poses for a photograph with players during a training session at Leichhardt Oval in Sydney on August 18, 2023, ahead of the Women's World Cup football final match between Spain and England. (Photo by DAVID GRAY / AFP) (Photo by DAVID GRAY/AFP via Getty Images)

Spain’s team coach Jorge Vilda (R) poses for a photograph with players during a training session at Leichhardt Oval in Sydney on August 18, 2023, ahead of the Women’s World Cup football final match between Spain and England. (Photo by David Gray/AFP via Getty Images)

Players rebel amid public dispute with Spanish federation

Spain’s Women’s World Cup debut ended at the bottom of its 2015 group. It led to a formal statement, signed by all 23 players, bemoaning “inadequate” preparation and support; and then to a full-fledged campaign to oust Quereda.

The federation initially resisted, with one official calling the players’ concerns “inappropriate and unnecessary.” But a month later, it finally parted ways with Quereda, and replaced him with Jorge Vilda, whose nepotism-tinged career had begun in 2009 as Spain’s U-17 head coach and U-19 assistant — to his father, Ángel Vilda, a well-connected figure in Spanish soccer.

Jorge had just turned 34 years old when he got the senior national team job; his only experience had been with the youth teams. But he gradually accumulated power — and used it. In the early years, he was allegedly “dictatorial,” inspecting players’ bags after shopping trips, tracking their every move during training camps, and asking them to keep their hotel room doors unlocked until he checked on them before bedtime.

Over time, those rules reportedly eased. But players still felt the staff lacked professionalism. They felt unsupported by the federation. After Euro 2022, they met with Spanish federation officials to push for resources and respect. With none apparently forthcoming, three weeks later, 15 of them sent identical emails indicating they’d decline national team invites “until the situation is reversed.” They cited an environment that, as they later explained, had harmed their “emotional and personal state” and the performance of the team.

The federation responded with a strongly worded statement, saying the emails constituted a “very serious infraction,” and promising that “the players who have submitted their resignation will only return to the national team in the future if they accept their mistake and ask for forgiveness.”

Vilda responded by calling all of this a “world embarrassment,” and vowing to charge forward “only with players 100% committed to the project.”

So on he went, without eight members of the Barcelona squad that would go on to win the Champions League. (In addition to “Las 15,” as the shunned players became known, injured stars Putellas and Irene Paredes supported them.) On he went, without Manchester United’s Lucia Garcia and Ona Batlle, without Manchester City’s Leila Ouahabi and Laia Aleixandri.

Notably absent from “Las 15” were Real Madrid players, who reportedly succumbed to pressure and left the Barca players feeling betrayed. Tension pervaded for months, even within the Barca dressing room, with players torn over how to proceed. “There are discussions, people have different opinions,” one Barca teammate, Sweden’s Fridolina Rolfo, admitted recently.

They wanted, of course, to play at the World Cup; in some cases, sponsorship deals and financial futures depended on it. Aitana Bonmatí’s Ballon d’Or candidacy probably depended on it too.

But they also had values, which starting defender Mapi Leon cited in her reasoning for skipping the World Cup. Midfielder Patri Guijaro also removed herself from consideration.

Ultimately, according to The Athletic, after extensive discussions with the federation and promises that conditions would improve, eight of “Las 15” declared themselves willing to return. But only three were selected for the World Cup roster. Garcia, Aleixandri and Ouahabi were omitted. So was starting goalkeeper Sandra Paños — while her Barca backup, Cata Coll, was selected.

So inevitably, surely, the tension stretched into World Cup camp last month. The entire circus framed coverage of the team. The squad was weakened.

And none of it mattered, because the players are so darn good.

Soccer Football - FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia and New Zealand 2023 - Semi Final - Spain v Sweden - Eden Park, Auckland, New Zealand - August 15, 2023 Spain's Salma Paralluelo celebrates scoring their first goal with Aitana Bonmati REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

Spain’s Salma Paralluelo celebrates scoring a goal against Sweden with Aitana Bonmati. (REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli)

‘This is just the beginning’

But even they, Spain’s catalysts at this World Cup, aren’t necessarily products of the country’s modernized system. Putellas was born in 1994. Defender and captain Irene Paredes was born in 1991. They acquired some of their skills, somehow, in the ‘90s and 2000s, which in Spain were still women’s soccer’s prehistoric age.

“If you speak to all these players like Alexia Putellas, like [forward] Jennifer Hermoso [born in 1990], the ones that are now leading the national team, they will tell you that until the moment of professionalization, they didn’t have a proper education on football methodology or football tactics,” Teixidor, the former Barca official, told Yahoo Sports. “They play because they liked to play. Most of them started in clubs in their hometowns, where they played until the age of 11 or so, when teams are split between boys and girls. And then girls didn’t continue. They had to move to another city, to continue playing.”

Nowadays, stories like theirs are less and less common. At Barca alone, as England defender Lucy Bronze told ESPN last year, “there are just like clones and clones and clones of these amazing, technical, intelligent players.” They do not yet have best-in-class physical training, but they are spearheading women’s soccer’s evolution.

And their future hardly hinges on 90 minutes at Stadium Australia.

Spain might beat England in Sunday’s final; it might lose. Either way, Teixidor says, “I am convinced.”

“This,” she says of La Roja’s run, “is just the beginning.”

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