PREVIEW: Can Spain put their problems behind them at the FIFA Women’s World Cup?

We’re just days away from the commencement of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, and millions around the globe are starting to prepare for another fabulous festival of football.

This year, Spain are predicted to record their best ever finish in the competition’s history – which shouldn’t be too hard to do, given the furthest they’ve made it is the round-of-sixteen in 2019.

Yet despite boasting one of the strongest squads on paper, question marks surround the Spanish side as they arrive in New Zealand. This is a nation shrouded in controversy, and la Roja must certainly overcome their difficulties if they’re to live up to the expectations this summer. back in action

What happened with ‘las 15’?

It’s a long and complex story, but put simply, Spanish football was shocked in September 2022, as fifteen national team stars made themselves unavailable for selection amidst rumours of friction between players and Jorge Vilda.

Those fifteen players were then supported by Alexia Putellas – with the Barça Femení midfielder sidelined through injury at the time. While she never officially made herself unavailable, she was vocal to support her colleagues.

In the buildup to the Women’s World Cup, it was unclear if any of the fifteen players would return to Vilda’s squad. Just three did so, with Ona Batlle, Aitana Bonmatí and Mariona Caldentey – all of whom play their club football for Barcelona – returning to la Roja ranks. Despite being a vocal supporter of the protests, Vilda has also welcomed Putellas’ return as the two-time Ballon d’Or winner looks to play a crucial role this summer.

But this is still a mutiny that hasn’t quite reached its inevitable conclusion. Patri Guijarro, Mapi León and Sandra Paños are another Barça trio that have still been frozen out as they remain unimpressed with Vilda’s leadership.

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Cultural controversy

As Spain look to focus on the football and place the ‘las 15’ situation behind them, la Roja have found themselves at the heart of yet another controversy.

Having arrived in New Zealand, the Spaniards took to the training pitch. There, a video published on the national team’s official social media channels shows four players seemingly mocking the haka – a key aspect of traditional Maōri culture.

Some have called for the four players to be dropped from the squad, while others insist that cultural education would suffice. Regardless of the outcome, it’s a situation that Jorge Vilda would have preferred to avoid – and it will surely hang over them like a dark cloud throughout the tournament.

Putellas x Bonmatí

As I’ve already mentioned, Alexia Putellas and Aitana Bonmatí will return to the Spanish squad – and are likely to feature together as the staple of Jorge Vilda’s midfield. Having been recognised as the best female player in the world twice, Putellas’ name is now synonymous with class; but it’s her club colleague that we should really be focusing on.

For years, Bonmatí has been heralded as Putellas’ understudy. Both play a very similar role in the midfield and are heralded as royalty in their native Catalunya, with Putellas even having been nicknamed la Reina – the Queen.

But the younger of the duo has truly shone throughout Putellas’ injury-enforced absence – and is now in contention for the Ballon d’Or herself. While these two will ultimately be working together towards a common goal, there will undoubtedly be an air of competition between them as they look to secure bragging rights at the end of the year.

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The youngsters are taking over

There is just one teenager included in Spain’s Women’s World Cup squad – Salma Paralluelo. The Barcelona star has now appeared seven times for the senior national side, bagging a respectable six goals including a hat-trick against Argentina on her debut.

For her club, her goals-per-game ratio hasn’t been quite as impressive, though that’s to be expected when working with a larger sample size. 14 goals in 24 appearances across all competitions certainly isn’t a bad return though, and Paralluelo will age like a fine wine.

Athenea del Castillo is another superstar that will look to lead the line for Spain. Esther González and Jenni Hermoso are likely to be the favoured starting strikers, but del Castillo will surely be given time to shine this summer.

The Real Madrid star has scored seven goals for her country in 27 appearances – but numbers don’t always paint the full picture. The 22-year-old provides so much more than just her goal contributions and will be an interesting player to watch throughout the tournament.

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The potential opponents

In Group C, Spain will face competition from Zambia, Japan and Costa Rica as they strive to progress and reach the knockout rounds for just the second time in their history.

I’ve viewed Zambia as dark horses for a quite a while, but they’ve somewhat lost that status after managing a thrilling win against Germany. The Copper Queens tend to utilise a 4-3-3 formation, with the standouts being Barbra Banda and Rachael Kundananji.

Put simply, both are outrageously fast. Germany’s defence couldn’t keep up with them, allowing the African side to counter with unbelievable pace – ultimately recording a shock win against a team ranked within the top ten globally.

Japan reached the semifinals of the 2022 AFC Asian Women’s Cup, and will be looking to return to the glory days of their past. The Nadeshiko have been in decline since they lifted the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup trophy, settling for silver four years later before an embarrassing early elimination in the 2019 round-of-sixteen.

Japan simply have to bring an end to their decline. While they might struggle to progress past the round-of-sixteen, reaching that stage is the very minimum for Futoshi Ikeda’s side this summer if Japan are to maintain their status as a powerhouse of women’s football.

Costa Rica finished fourth at the 2022 CONCACAF Women’s Championship, but that’s about all they’ve got going for themselves. Las Ticas are expected to finish rooted firmly to the bottom of their group, though they might look to record their first win at a FIFA Women’s World Cup tournament.

Should Spain progress from their group, they’ll face competition from Group A in the round-of-sixteen. That means that New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland and the Philippines are all potential opponents – but la Roja will realistically face one of the two European outfits.

If you’d like more information on Spain’s potential opponents, we’ve compiled a handy comprehensive guide to every team competing in the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup – you can read that by clicking this link.

FromTheSpot will be bringing you coverage of every game throughout the FIFA Women’s World Cup, including previews and detailed reports. We’ll cover games in the buildup to the tournament too, so you can get a feel for the potential favourites ahead of action getting underway in Australia and New Zealand.

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