World Cup glory could kill women’s football in Spain

Just a day after securing progression to the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the celebrations on the Iberian peninsula would still be rife – as Spain look set to make history against England in Sunday’s showpiece decider.

That couldn’t be further from the truth though, and la Roja’s historic win against Sweden in Auckland has truly split a nation of football fanatics. But why, given the magnitude of this win, are there some supporters who have become disillusioned with the team’s Head Coach – and why do fans want him to step down despite his undeniable success?

The backstory

In Autumn 2022, fifteen of Spain’s finest football players withdrew themselves from national team selection by sending a strongly-worded email to RFEF – the Real Federación Española de Fútbol. The email was made publicly available on social media, with the players speaking of their ‘mental state’ and ‘health’ being ‘significantly affected.’

Such is the beauty of a well-worded email that it made no direct reference to Jorge Vilda, yet everyone across Spain and the wider footballing world knew exactly what these fifteen players were hinting at. Since his appointment as Head Coach in 2015, Vilda had been a controversial figure to say the least – widely viewed as incompetent, with some going as far as to critique his controlling behaviour.

The email came merely a month after reports of another mutiny within the Spanish camp, with that initial incident forcing Irene Paredes to issue a statement, clarifying that ‘we believe that there are several internal aspects that need to be improved… it is about being brave and saying things, even if they are not pleasant.’

Reports of Vilda’s refusal to listen to player input are damning enough, but when coupled with allegations that players were unable to lock their bedroom doors while on international duty, it’s possible to gain an insight into just how controlling the Spaniard can be. It’s important to note that this negligence runs deeper than just Jorge Vilda though, with Alexia Putellas stating in her documentary – Alexia: Labor Omnia Vincit – that the RFEF refuse to improve the efficiency of travel plans, for example.

Embed from Getty Images Embed from Getty Images

The Catalan midfielder spoke of how the Spanish national team were forced to travel by bus, rather than on chartered flights like most other nations – ‘we did it the other day, we came from Scotland. We left the hotel at 8am, and I arrived home at 6:30pm or 7pm.’

Putellas was also quick to explain the impact that poor planning can have on the team’s on-pitch performances – ‘say that tomorrow you had to play against England, and they’ve travelled by plane – half an hour or an hour by plane… and we’ve spent five hours on the bus… you either improve these things, or they take their toll on you.’

Jorge Vilda’s management techniques are evident through the story of one individual player – Damaris Egurrola. The midfielder played under Jorge Vilda at youth level while representing Spain at the U20 Women’s World Cup, and was later called up to join the senior team. However, she later filed a request to switch her international allegiance to the Netherlands, for whom she was eligible through her Dutch mother.

It was in the final of the U20 World Cup when he came down at halftime and told me that he didn’t like my game. At that time, we were performing very well in midfield and enjoying ourselves a lot. I remember I left the second half crying.

Damaris Egurrola, speaking to La Confidencial
Embed from Getty Images Embed from Getty Images

The dramatic return

Twelve of those players made themselves available for selection though ahead of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, allowing Jorge Vilda to name them in his final 23-player squad for the summer. Yet after such vocal criticism of his management techniques, nobody could truly be sure if the Spaniard would recall any of las 15.

Vilda did in fact opt to recall three of those players – Aitana Bonmatí, Mariona Caldentey and Ona Battle. The trio were also joined by Alexia Putellas, who had never formally made herself unavailable for selection but was vocal in her support for las 15.

Mapi León, Patri Guijarro and Clàudia Pina refused to even make themselves available for selection ahead of the Women’s World Cup – and we’ll delve into that decision at the end of this article.

Impressive results

Spain have truly impressed at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, and they’re deserving of their berth in Sunday’s showpiece final against England. La Roja made light work of Costa Rica in their opening match, before going on to score five unanswered goals past a dismal Zambian side.

Those results, coupled with Japan’s two wins from their respective matches, ensured that Spain’s final group stage match against the Nadeshiko would be a decisive one – with the winner topping the group. Spain fell to a comprehensive defeat in that fixture, but earned themselves an easier path to the final instead by avoiding the United States’ side of the bracket.

Jorge Vilda’s side cruised to victory against Switzerland in the round-of-sixteen, though their quarterfinal clash against the Netherlands was a closely-contested clash. With that match taking place in the early hours of the morning for those watching in Europe, it looked as though Mariona Caldentey’s penalty would be enough to send la Roja through to the semifinals – but a Stefanie van der Gragt equaliser in the first minute of stoppage time ensured an additional thirty minutes would be played.

With less than ten minutes remaining in extra time, it was Barcelona’s Salma Paralluelo that found the decisive winning goal for the Spaniards – setting up a mouthwatering semifinal tie against Sweden, who have established themselves as one of the world’s most consistent footballing nations in recent years.

Embed from Getty Images Embed from Getty Images

That decisive match against Sweden looked to be headed for extra time once again – and with the nation’s first major final potentially taking place in just a few days, Spain were keen to avoid that at all costs. Salma Paralluelo cemented her status as a national hero in the 81st minute though, seemingly bagging the winning goal – but Rebecka Blomqvist has other ideas, and netted the equaliser with just two minutes left of regulation time.

93 second later, Spanish fans were able to celebrate once more. Left unmarked on the edge of the penalty area following a corner, Olga Carmona was able to rifle an effort past Zecira Musovic – with the assistance of the crossbar – to seal Spain’s participation in their first ever Women’s World Cup Final.

Why would winning the World Cup kill women’s football in Spain?

World Cup glory on Sunday would further split a nation that is already divided over Jorge Vilda’s tenure as Head Coach, and Luis Rubiales’ refusal to act upon players’ concerns – given that he is a staunch supporter of Vilda.

At the very least, Spain lifting the elusive trophy on Sunday would only serve to legitimise Jorge Vilda’s management techniques. It’s important to acknowledge that fifteen players felt so strongly about those very techniques, they felt the only appropriate course of action was to withdraw from national team selection.

Three of those players still hold those feelings – and missed out on the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup as a result. This issue is far from resolved, yet a Spanish win on Sunday would almost certainly bring an end to any background discussions surrounding Vilda’s future as Head Coach.

Embed from Getty Images Embed from Getty Images

Jorge Vilda, Luis Rubiales and the wider RFEF have robbed Spain’s brightest generation of the chance of going to the FIFA Women’s World Cup. At no point in their career should a player have to choose between what they feel is morally right, and representing their nation on the world’s greatest stage. Those two principles should go hand in hand, and yet – for whatever reason – they don’t.

If Spain are to be crowned as World Champions come Sunday afternoon, there will undoubtedly be brief celebrations in Sydney and back home on the Iberian peninsula – but the long-term picture is a damning one, and la Roja desperately need a resolution.

Spanish girls have looked up to the likes of Alexia Putellas for years now. By selling out the Camp Nou and lifting the UEFA Women’s Champions League twice, Putellas, Barça Femení – and in turn, Spain – have become synonymous with success in the women’s game. Failure to listen to the very players that have built that success could have irreversible effects, as those young players who once dreamed of growing up to be like Alexia Putellas will feel undervalued and irrelevant.

One thing is clear though. If Spain lift the World Cup trophy on Sunday, it is in spite of Jorge Vilda, not because of him.