The Duality of Spain: World Cup Winners and World-Class Mess

After the biggest tournament in Women’s World Cup history, Managing Sports Editor (and soccer player) Liza Katz ’25E looks back on how this tournament has exemplified the sport's conflicted moment: one of women's excellence being repeatedly overshadowed by sexist systems.

The Duality of Spain: World Cup Winners and World-Class Mess
Star Spain forward Jenni Hermoso before a match for her former club team Atlético Madrid in 2018. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

If you haven’t been living under a rock for the past eight weeks, you have probably seen, or heard, about this year’s edition of the Women’s World Cup. Co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand and featuring eight debutants — Haiti, Panama, the Philippines, Portugal, Vietnam, Morocco, Zambia, and The Republic of Ireland — this was undeniably the biggest and most successful tournament to date.

The field was expanded to 32 teams for the first time, goals were more frequent than ever before, and games were closer regardless of teams’ FIFA ranking coming into the tournament, meaning upsets abounded throughout the group stage. We saw co-host New Zealand notch its first-ever World Cup win on home soil in the tournament’s opening game; two teams in the top 10 of FIFA’s last pre-tournament rankings — Germany (No. 2) and Canada (No. 7) — bow out in the group stage; and four teams ranked below 50 progress to the round of 16, including three African nations.

The tournament brought the drama: England wunderkind Lauren James was red-carded and suspended for two games for stepping on an opponent, the United States was knocked out in what was then the longest-ever penalty shootout (a record that was broken just a few days later by England and Nigeria), and the Spain-Sweden semifinal match saw three goals scored in the final 10 minutes of regulation. The entertaining tournament concluded with Spain defeating England 1-0 via a strike from outside back Olga Carmona late in the first half.

However, despite a final match that, at times, looked much less competitive than that scoreline would indicate, the result and the aftermath of Spain’s victory have encapsulated the dualities of women’s soccer as a whole.

On the one hand, the best team did win. Spain dominated the tournament from the outset — they started the tournament off with a 5-0 win over Zambia in which they had 75 percent possession and put 13 shots on goal — and aside from a shocking 4-0 loss to Japan in their final game of the group stage, they looked virtually unbeatable.

The team averaged 71 percent possession and scored 18 goals over the course of its seven games. Spain played a beautiful, tiki-taka style of soccer inspired by the FC Barcelona men’s squads that dominated the sport in the early 2010s. It was this style of play, combined with its impressive combination of youth and experience, that powered the team to its first World Cup title in just their third appearance in the tournament.

On the backs of veterans Jenni Hermoso, Aítana Bonmatí, Irene Paredes, and Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas, a group of young stars rose. Championship hero Carmona, defensive stalwarts Laia Codina and Ona Battle, goalkeeper Cata Coll, midfield anchor Teresa Abelleira, and clutch supersub Salma Paralluelo are all 24 years old or younger and played major roles in the squad’s success.

It’s teams like this that prove that the world has indeed caught up with the United States and that their dominance is likely over. This will only improve the appeal of the sport as a whole, and generate more opportunities for people to watch high-quality soccer on the international stage.

With that exposure comes the opportunity for further growth of the women’s game. FIFA has already stated that their goal is equal prize money for the men’s and women’s tournaments by 2027, and women’s professional soccer leagues around the world have seen an increase in attendance in 2023. In the United States, many National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) teams have broken attendance records this season, and games are more competitive than ever, with many countries’ domestic leagues attracting more international talent. The game seems to be on the rise.

However, off-field controversies surrounding Spain’s win have marred their impressive accomplishment and the impact it had on the sport. In the lead-up to the tournament, 15 Spanish players removed themselves from consideration for the National Team due to toxic and dangerous working conditions, and called for the removal of coach Jorge Vilda for fostering that environment. Three other players, including then-captain Paredes, expressed their support for “Las Quince.”

The Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) rejected calls to change the coaching staff, and told Las Quince they could only return to the national team if “they accept their mistake and ask for forgiveness.” The federation also claimed that if the players were to refuse a call-up, they could face between two and five years of disqualification from national team selection.

After much deliberation, three of the 15 players — Battle, Bonmatí, and Mariona Caldentey — put themselves back up for selection earlier this year, and were selected for the World Cup squad, as was Paredes, though she was stripped of her captaincy.

Because of this roster turnover, Spain arrived at the World Cup with one of the youngest casts in the tournament. And despite the turmoil, the team displayed some of the best team chemistry both on and off the field. One notable viral moment came after their semifinal matchup with Sweden, when Vilda was pictured celebrating the win with his coaching staff alone, with no players in sight. While he picked this roster, it is obvious that the players wanted nothing to do with him. They won this World Cup in spite of him, not because of him.

And while this would be enough controversy to mar any tournament victory, the Spanish Federation had more to come. During the trophy presentation, RFEF President Luis Rubiales kissed Hermoso without consent while presenting her medal. After immense backlash around the world in the news and on social media, and despite Hermoso's first reaction to teammates being “Hey, I didn't like it,” Rubiales released a statement saying that the kiss was consensual, and the RFEF suggested the next day that she was downplaying the incident. She later denied involvement in that statement, and said she did not agree to the kiss, holding firm that it had been an act of sexism.

Spain’s government has taken a hard line, with Deputy Prime Minister Yolanda Diaz calling the kiss an “attack.” Within the sport, numerous famous figures in Spanish soccer have condemned Rubiales, and in the last few days, a group of 81 footballers, including the entire World Cup-winning squad, said they would no longer play for the national side under its current leadership.

Right now, Rubiales has received a 90-day ban from FIFA but has thus far refused to resign despite governmental, media, and player pressure. The Spanish High Court’s prosecutor plans to contact Hermoso about a possible criminal complaint for sexual aggression, and the state-run Sport Administrative Court has been asked to look into the matter further. The RFEF says it will take legal action to prove his innocence. The conflict does not look like it will be resolved any time soon.

For this type of scandal to taint an accomplishment of this magnitude is not only a disservice to the tournament, but to the sport itself. In a moment in which we should be celebrating one of the best women’s soccer competitions ever played, with the highest level of play we’ve ever seen at the international level, all we are talking about is a man’s bigoted and sexist actions.

Despite everything, FIFA has not come down hard enough on a man that has clearly committed grievous harm. FIFA president Gianni Infantino recently told women’s soccer players to essentially fend for themselves against this kind of behavior: “Pick the right battles. Pick the right fights. You have the power to change. You have the power to convince us men what we have to do and what we don’t have to do. You do it. Just do it.”

If this is the man that is running soccer’s governing body, it’s no wonder that nothing has been done to make change. This Spanish team defied the odds and won the biggest prize in international soccer. They should not have to additionally convince those who are supposed to support them to do so in the fight for their right to basic human decency, both from their coach and their Federation.

Many in and around the sport didn’t want the Spanish team to win purely because of Vilda, myself included. If Spain were to win, I thought, would the federation, which has time and time again backed a man creating a toxic playing environment, be willing to part with the coach that won them soccer’s ultimate prize?

Many soccer fans seemed to think that the answer to that question was no. However, with the news breaking that much of Vilda’s coaching staff were resigning and that he himself was sacked on Tuesday, Sept. 5 after interim RFEF president Pedro Rocha met with the Spanish government, pundits seem to have been proven wrong. Maybe this time, basic human decency has prevailed. But for it to take yet another scandal involving federation leadership to move those in power to take a stand is appalling and something that would never happen in men’s sport. We need to be better.

So yes, Spain’s accomplishment will go down in history. But like many other history-making moments, instead of those 23 women being praised for their hard work, dedication, and passion for the sport they love, we will forever discuss the misdeeds of the men who were supposed to support them.