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Spain, bold and brilliant on the pitch, tops England in World Cup final

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SYDNEY — This unpredictable orchid of a World Cup, so rich in fine surprise, had one last what-on-earth in it, and was it ever a doozy. Spain, with its win over England by 1-0 in the final on Sunday night at Stadium Australia, became that rare team to soar to unprecedented heights 11 months after a team mutiny.

Yet La Roja, in just its third World Cup after debuting only in 2015 as a latecomer to the women’s game, and without any victory in any knockout-stage match before this World Cup, looked a tad faster, bolder and better than England for most of a curious final in front of 75,784 England-tilted witnesses. It retained that look — and its emphatic defense — through the whopping 13 minutes of added time that owed to injury and video-review delays in a second half during which England menaced but did not threaten, even with 21-year-old sensation Lauren James inserted at halftime after a two-game suspension for stepping on the back of Nigeria’s Michelle Alozie.

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“We’ve done something historical, and women’s football is here to make something big and it’s here to remain,” said captain Olga Carmona, whose 29th-minute goal wound up standing up.

“In Spain,” Manager Jorge Vilda said, “women’s football development was going at a very quick pace. I’m sure that now it’s going to explode.”

The path to that explosion certainly qualified as odd. It’s not just that Spain became only the second champion (after Japan in 2011) to win the World Cup after losing a match in group play (a 4-0 thumping to Japan, actually) and not winning its group (which Japan won). It’s also that, last September, 15 players sent an email to its soccer federation, reportedly raising concerns about the national team under Vilda. The federation admonished the players and stuck with Vilda, who by 2023 would omit 12 of those 15 players from this World Cup squad, while including three signers and three who did not sign but did express support for the signers.

Buckner: Spain and England played quality soccer. That should be enough.

So the victory scene became a blaring signal of the depth that must exist in Spain, the bench players storming across the pitch for mad, teary hugs with their exhausted teammates. It also became something else for the onlookers who witnessed it unfold. The players and coaches are celebrating in separate circles; what does that mean? No, they’re all together now, with Vilda jumping up and down amid, but no one is hugging himOh wait, the players are tossing Vilda into the air

“The Spanish football federation has been wonderful,” said Carmona, who had not been among the emailers. “It’s given us all the appropriate conditions to become world champions, and the truth is that it’s a privilege. It’s a real privilege that all our families, the people we love, were able to be here. It’s very important, and it’s been a motivating factor, a determining factor for us.”

As Vilda received his medal, fans booed.

Later on, he made not even a hint of a gloat.

He called it “difficult” personally and managerially but said, “If all of this were necessary to be world champion, then it’s valid.”

Somehow, the players of No. 4-ranked England, which had seemed the best team in this tournament including in its 3-1 semifinal denial of Australia and Australian fervor, wound up in a particular, peculiar agony: They stood in a group waiting through the interminable time while No. 6-ranked Spain’s players kept exulting and FIFA kept setting up the medal podium. Their nation had spent the 57 years since England won the men’s World Cup in 1966 hoping and moping in a woebegone relationship with World Cups of soccer, by far England’s favorite sport. They had graced a first final since that day of Geoff Hurst’s disputed goal against West Germany, and now their brilliant manager, Sarina Wiegman, looked forlorn, her record with England falling to 30 wins, seven draws and two defeats.

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“Probably a million feelings to be honest: proud, disappointed, heartbroken that we didn’t win,” Millie Bright said.

“It feels really bad and very disappointing,” said Wiegman, also a runner-up manager when with her native Netherlands at the 2019 World Cup, “but I’m still very proud of this team.”

“Obviously it’s going to be a disappointed ride home,” defender Jess Carter said, “but we just have to reflect …”

In one touching scene on a bench, Spain’s Ona Batlle consoled her crestfallen Barcelona teammate, England right back Lucy Bronze, who at 31 had found her way to her first World Cup final. Bronze had had a trying evening altogether.

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In the run-up to the Spanish goal, she went on an extended run with the ball through the middle of the pitch, leaving a spot open in the England defense once a smallish committee of Spanish defenders quelled her progress. “They capitalized,” Carter said, “on us being a little bit out of shape (on defense), and they caught us on the opportunity.”

The ball moved across the midfield line to Teresa Abelleira. Abelleira directed it wisely and distantly leftward toward where the England defense had lost its Bronze. Mariona Caldentey got it there, then shoved it nicely left down lower to Carmona, who took it left-footed and blew it along the ground by goalkeeper Mary Earps’s outstretched hand and just inside the right goal post.

“It’s a moment that you dream of, that you literally dream of when you go to bed and you dream about something that can happen in life,” Carmona said, later adding: “They always tell me I have a left foot of gold. I don’t believe it, but I always try to shoot and score goals.”

Now Spain, a fresh powerhouse since the late 2010s with Under-17 and Under-20 programs flourishing as champions as well, found itself in a position identical to the 2022 European Championship quarterfinal in England. Its 1-0 lead back then lasted into the 84th minute before England scored once in regulation and once in stoppage time to yank out victory. Yet this match never felt like that match, even if it did have one moment that suggested it might.

A questionable penalty call in the 69th minute went against England, based on video that showed the ball grazing the dangling hand of Keira Walsh as she defended in the box. Spain’s lead looked ripe to double, but Earps leapt to her left to stop, and catch, a flimsy penalty bid from Jennifer Hermoso. “I actually thought, ‘We had the momentum now,’ ” Wiegman said. “ ‘Now we’re going to get back and score a goal.’ I was actually convinced of that.”

They never did get a chance thereafter you might call gasping, leaving their best chance way back in the 17th minute, when Lauren Hemp’s rocket smacked the crossbar. Spain, meanwhile, got enough chances to make Earps earn her award as the top goalkeeper, including bids from Salma Paralluelo, the 19-year-old budding superstar, and from 25-year-old Aitana Bonmati, who earned the Golden Ball award as the top player.

“They’re absolutely the team with the best possession game,” Wiegman said. “We knew that ahead of the tournament. To be honest they deserved that win,” even if, she said, England might have, if only.

“We’ve suffered a lot throughout the past 12 months,” Carmona said. “But I think everything has a reason to be. This has made us a stronger team, to be stronger as well, and it’s really incredible.”

The USWNT has owned the World Cup. Its rivals are catching up.

They tore through Europe in Oceania, beating Switzerland, 5-1, and Netherlands, 2-1, and Sweden, 2-1, before the final, in a tournament that showed how the women’s game had spread around the globe, how the world had caught up to the bigwigs. It showed how Jamaica and South Africa and Morocco could make the knockout stage, how Haiti and the Philippines have promise, how Colombia and Brazil have louder-than-ever support, and now it showed a breakthrough champion that fit it, even if that fit did have its awkward bits.



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