Beware, the sleeping giant is awake!
They dared to dream. They knew the going would get tough. For England were formidable opponents. But La Roja held firm. 90 minutes later, they joined the ranks of football`s great nations by winning the Women`s World Cup final against reigning European champions England.
Long toiled in the shadow of the men`s team, whose golden era yielded a 2010 World Cup triumph sandwiched by a pair of European Championship trophies, Spain’s rise has indubitably mirrored the revival of European football at a tournament once dominated by the United States.
In fact, their national squad boasts such depth that even last year`s mutiny against manager Jorge Vilda proved unable to derail their World Cup preparations. The next generation is also more than eager to make its mark as shown by super-substitute Salma Paralluelo. A champion’s medal around her neck, the 19-year-old lay on the field for a while and nestled into the golden glitter that had just fallen over her team.
Paralluelo, who is already a world champion in the Under-17 and Under-20 levels, took a good amount of time soaking up the atmosphere at Stadium Australia after helping her side overcome adversity to win its first senior major global title. Her captain Olga Carmona netted a crucial goal in the first half on Sunday and Spain held on to cap the month-long tournament. But Carmona’s moment of crowning glory was soon tinged with sadness after learning of her father’s death.
Sunday’s triumph made Spain the first team to hold the under-17, under-20 and senior women’s world titles at the same time. They also joined Germany as the only nations to win both the men’s and women’s titles. It was a moment to savour when the final whistle was blown — the players piled on each other in front of their goal, dancing on the field before and after the trophy presentations. It was a joyous celebration on and off the pitch.
“We’ve suffered a lot throughout the past 12 months but I think everything has a reason to be. This has made us a stronger team,” Carmona said soon after the game. “And it’s really incredible. I don’t know just why Spain is the world champions, but I think that we deserved it.”
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Over anything else, the win over England was enough evidence to prove that the rest of the world is catching up to the traditional powers. Germany, Brazil and the United States have been on the receiving end of the early exit curse. A very few expected the traditional soccer powerhouses to have long gone home by the time Spain hoisted the trophy, literally.
To expect that an expanded field of 32 teams will expose the disparity in the women’s game made a lot of sense. But, who knew that teams including Morocco, South Africa, and Jamaica will advance to the knockout round to defy our expectations?
Morocco was one of the eight teams playing in its maiden World Cup. More surprisingly, the semifinals included four teams that had never won a World Cup title: Spain, England, Sweden and Australia.
Spain, though, certainly featured among the top teams heading into the tournament, but not the favourite. The favourite was undoubtedly the two-time defending champions United States. But they fell and the loss came in the most heartbreaking fashion, a 5-4 penalty shootout in which the winning Sweden penalty barely crossed the line despite goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher`s best attempts to make one more incredible save.
It is safe to say that Spain grew over the course of the tournament. Following a 4-0 humiliation against Japan in the group stage, they replaced Misa Rodriguez with Cata Coll in goal. It has long been considered football lore that World Cup winners tend to make slow starts and there is inspiration to be found from previous teams who have begun poorly and gone on to great things. La Roja rebounded quickly by trouncing Switzerland 5-1 to kick off the knockout round and built from there. Swiftly and faultlessly.
“It`s madness, a unique moment. You don`t think about anything, just celebrate. I`m not aware of it yet. When we land in Spain, we`ll realize what we`ve done. That`s when we`ll really realize that we`re world champions,” enthused captain Olga Carmona after the match.
Midfielder Aitana Bonmati, named best player of the tournament, was equally stunned: “I`m shocked but very happy and proud. It`s the dream of every female footballer. I couldn`t ask for anything more. The FC Barcelona resident recalled her debut on the pitch “with the boys,” before evoking the “milestones reached.” “We`ve earned it, we`ve worked hard for it,” summed up Paraluello, named Young Player of the tournament.
It is evident that Spain had been building to this point, nine players on the squad were from Champions League winner Barcelona, and the country had bagged the 2018 under-17 World Cup and the 2022 under-20 World Cup crowns amid the turmoil surrounding them in the past year.
Overall, women`s soccer still faces a battle for equality with the men`s game. Remember, there were several teams at the World Cup in open dispute with their federations over pay and conditions. Off the pitch, the greatest Women`s World Cup in history, with 32 teams, was the best-attended ever and most games were played in front of bumper crowds.
On it, a tournament full of surprises signalled the end of the United States` long reign as the superpower of women`s soccer as their dreams of an unprecedented third title in a row came to an end after their earliest exit ever. Sweden, who dumped out the Americans on penalties, finished third after beating Australia 2-0 on Saturday. And the Matildas did not walk out with nothing, they certainly had the consolation of capturing the hearts of the home nation as their exploits in reaching the semi-finals for the first time splashed across the front and back pages of local newspapers on an almost daily basis.
In the end, women’s soccer got what it wanted.
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