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Perspective | With a messy past and murky future, Spain charges into World Cup final


AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Of all the teams that booked the long flight to get here, Spain seemed among the least likely to stick around. The Spanish women’s national soccer team arrived Down Under mired in its own soap opera: A majority of the country’s top stars had privately asked the national federation not to be selected for the team, citing emotional health concerns that could arise from playing for the program. Then, the federation publicly claimed those 15 players demanded the firing of the head coach. And in response, those same players disputed the federation’s version of events, affirming their love for their countrywomen and soccer but again requesting not to be called up to the team until conditions improved.

It was a player revolt initially kept private until the federation decided to rip the curtains open for all to see the acrimony behind the scenes. The players didn’t appreciate it. The federation didn’t back down. And all of the drama unfolded a mere 10 months before the World Cup.

So when Spain arrived at the tournament with one of the youngest rosters — while missing veteran stars — the coordinators who booked the team’s travel might have been generous to plan for flights and hotels past the group stage. And yet Tuesday night in the bowels of Eden Park, there was forward Jennifer Hermoso, yelling in Spanish for all to hear (and a cameraman to translate):

“We’re in the f—ing finals!”

After the bitterness, after the dysfunction, after the coup that maybe, kinda, sorta wasn’t a coup after all (question mark), and mostly after a wild 2-1 win over Sweden, Spain is now a first-time World Cup finalist.

The teams played more than 80 minutes of goalless soccer until suddenly unleashing a scoring bonanza. First, Spain’s super sub, 19-year-old Salma Paralluelo, snapped the drought with one quick touch from her right leg in the 81st minute. Then, in the 88th, Sweden countered as Lina Hurtig, another outstanding substitute, headed the ball over to Rebecka Blomqvist for the equalizer. But the scoring didn’t stop there; in the 89th minute, Spain made sure that this semifinal wouldn’t come down to extra time or a penalty shootout. (The U.S. women can advise teams to never, ever get in a shootout with Sweden.)

As Olga Carmona handled Teresa Abilleira’s corner kick, she powered a shot from the top of the box and propelled Spain past all of its turmoil and into the championship match Sunday in Sydney against England or Australia.

“We’ve overcome every challenge, and now we face the ultimate challenge, the big one,” Paralluelo said.

Had Spain’s soccer federation not publicized the messy bits, no one would look at this squad and see conflict. Only talent. Though the team finished second in its group to Japan, it would go on to pelt Switzerland with five goals in the round of 16, then work over the Netherlands in the quarterfinals before finding some late magic against Sweden. And remember, the Swedes had knocked off two previous champions in the mighty United States and Japan, a nation more than a decade removed from its World Cup title but one of the favorites to win in 2023. After the semifinals, Sweden goalkeeper Zecira Musovic was ready to anoint the Spanish as the new it girls.

“I think Spain is a really good team,” Musovic said. “Maybe they’re playing the best game in the tournament for their side. So I don’t think it’s a coincidence. I think it’s deserved.”

For a long time, however, both teams appeared deserving of moving on. Or, at least, of striking first. But maybe the spectators were on to something, because not even 11 minutes had elapsed before many in the crowd of 43,217 took part in the wave. It was kind of early for such shenanigans, but who knows? The fans might have sensed that they needed to entertain themselves early because all the fireworks would come later — so late that they would have to wait until the final minutes of the match.

Through the first half, the teams worked into dangerous positions but couldn’t finish. In the 35th minute, Spain had an opportunity as the bouncing ball was unaccounted for in front of Musovic, but Sweden finally cleared. In the 42nd, Sweden’s Fridolina Rolfo shot on target but, again, no goal.

Then after halftime, Paralluelo jogged onto the pitch and her presence — specifically, her ability to place herself in the middle of the action and attract a swarm of defenders — changed the match. Though Hermoso’s ball into the box had batted off a Swede, Paralluelo still found it, controlled it and beat Musovic low and to the left. After the howls and fist pumps of celebration, teammate Aitana Bonmatí Conca reached for and raised Paralluelo’s right leg, as though she were displaying a national treasure.

Minutes later, Blomqvist’s lower limb was this close to becoming a Swedish legend after she tied the score.

“I felt like, ‘Yeah, game on!’ We looked sharp. We looked fresh, or more fresh than the opponent,” Musovic said she was thinking after her team evened the match. “But somehow they scored the second goal and yeah … big disappointment.”

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Because, of course, the squad with all the obstacles, whether self-imposed or external, found another one to knock down and climb over. From just about 20 yards, Carmona directed a shot over Musovic’s outstretched orange glove. Then after surviving seven minutes of added time, La Roja could jump and dance and shake away all the bad vibes from the past year. The team was, after all, in the freakin’ finals.

As Sweden’s Magdalena Eriksson stopped to speak with English-speaking reporters, she tried to put her thoughts into words after a gut-wrenching loss — until jubilation shouted in Spanish threw her off.

“It was a really even game,” Eriksson said, breaking down the first half. “I think they started better than us, but then we grew into the game and I think second half was completely even. We could’ve gone either way. The way we stepped up after we conceded . . .”

She stopped midsentence and looked to her left. A joyous Hermoso was making sure every reporter, and every Swedish player giving interviews, could hear her. So Eriksson waited a beat, then continued. Her word choice didn’t seem to be a coincidence.

“And then it’s really annoying to see them score so tightly after,” she said. “I’m extremely disappointed with that but . . .”

And whatever Eriksson said next could not be heard clearly because “We’re in the f—ing finals!” hollered in Spanish — words that would have seemed inconceivable a year ago — filled the space. For so many months, the noise surrounding this team was so unpleasant. After the tournament it has had, La Roja deserve some joyful shouts.


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