Jorge Vilda: Spain’s World Cup coach at the heart of a civil war

Spain took a strange route to the World Cup trophy both on and off the pitch, somehow triumphing against a backdrop of infighting and rebellion

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Sunday 20 August 2023 13:53 BST
Emotional Lucy Bronze tears up after football World Cup win

With so much still unsaid around this Spain team, three statements in the final stages of this Women’s World Cup run stood out all the more, that illustrate much of the story of their run to the title.

One was Tere Abelleira immediately after the semi-final victory over Sweden in Auckland. “Now we can talk about a ferocious team spirit,” she said. It was as the midfielder was saying this in the Eden Park mixed zone that Jenni Hermoso was striding behind and shouting: “Come on! We’re in the final of the f***ing World Cup!”

That is now the most important fact of all. It was amid this mood of jubilation, however, that the abrasive Spanish federation boss Luis Rubiales came out with something that was much more open to dispute.

“What we have endured is a lot,” said Rubiales. “That questions have been asked of Jorge Vilda, who is a hard-working man, a world-class coach, who has turned down other federations that have offered more money and stayed with Spain. We have stuck with those who have always wanted to be here, that have valued the great work that he has done to grow, and we have forgotten the people with resentments. He has continued working with his people and not paid attention to those who wanted to destroy him.”

It was the first time at this World Cup that anyone in the camp has publicly raised the squad mutiny that has shaped Spain’s entire run, since most of it has been set aside in an uneasy truce that ultimately ended with the trophy heading back to the Iberian peninsula. The description of “people with resentments” sounded like the most cavalier way to blow all this up, especially ahead of the biggest game of all. Ultimately, that “ferocious team spirit” was more than enough to keep Spain together through the build-up and allow them to triumph in the final.

Rubiales’ words only added another edge to a situation that was already hugely complicated, both in terms of how it came to this and how everyone is dealing with it. It is not just about Vilda, although he is the most public face, visibly ignored by some players in victory but embraced by others.

The 15 players who last year sent the email resigning from the national team – with the tacit support of Alexia Putellas, Jenni and Irene Paredes – had several complaints. Most focused on how oppressively disciplinarian Vilda’s managerial regime was but they were also unhappy about how outdated the entire international set-up seemed. Some of the arrangements, like travelling long distances by bus or not having staff in certain key roles, fell well below their club standards.

They did not feel any of this gave them the best possible chance of fulfilling a generation of talent.

Unsaid but undeniably perceived by so many around the situation is that some of the players do not think Vilda is a good enough manager. There is at least a fair argument to this, even as Rubiales protested he is “a world-class coach”. Many would certainly dispute that. That Vilda has such a strong relationship with Rubiales is just another complication.

Jorge Vilda head coach of Spain during a training session

With the federation risking the chance of a generation, and some players realising the same, overtures were made. Hermoso and Paredes returned, opening a way back. The federation’s director of women’s soccer, Ana Alvarez, met with every single player individually over May and June.

All complaints were heard. Only some players were accepted back, and that involved having to send an email declaring their willingness to be called up again. They were Ona Batlle, Mariona Caldentey and – above all – Aitana Bonmati, perhaps the best player in the world right now and winner of the World Cup Golden Ball to assert just that. Vilda decided to stick with the players involved in preparation for this World Cup, just as Rubiales decided to stick with him.

It has resulted in a squad that is partly made up of rebels and replacements. Some have set aside grievances for the greater good. Others are grateful to Vilda for persisting with them.

All have overlooked this for the time being, which was why Rubiales so abrasively addressing it before the final is such a risk. It has only complicated already conflicted feelings around this Spain team. A growing view at this World Cup and back home in Spain has been that most support the players but do not want the national team to win because that is a vindication for the federation and Vilda.

It doesn’t help Rubiales that he is not a popular figure, commonly seen as one of the most divisive in Spanish sport. There is also some inevitable backlash against the players, since there is the constant threat of the issue getting subsumed into the usual culture wars, but this is where the general public parking of the mutiny has at least offered something like a positive.

Spain eventually triumphed in Sydney

One figure with insight into the situation spoke of how there can be internal conflict for some players, too. They want to do the best for themselves, but know that every success makes the federation and the manager look good.

Yet, it has been a more unusual example of the classic dynamic of adversity creating success. There have also been compromises and common ground.

Vilda’s staff have softened some approaches. The federation has listened and acted on other concerns, such as the willingness to move camp when the players were bored out of their minds in Palmerstown North.

Some of Vilda’s calls have worked, such as bringing teenage sensation Salma Paralluelo on as a substitute to break games. Others would say that’s just an obvious move.

There is also a more obvious fact here. In a historic football shift that long preceded Rubiales, and greatly influenced the English Football Association, Spain were one of the first wealthy western European football cultures to implement the kind of coaching revolutions that has characterised the modern game. The country industrialised talent production, while going further than most similar federations in underpinning it with a defined football identity.

While that has almost come back on itself in the men’s game, creating this self-repeating and now almost self-defeating cycle of the ball endlessly getting circulated, the more developmental stage of women’s football means it can be much more effective. Spain are one of the few teams at this World Cup with such an ingrained style, made in Barcelona, that goes much deeper than any coaching decision.

The wider national coaching structure has meanwhile honed the natural talent of stars like Putellas and Bonmati, producing elite athletes that also have that resilience that has been so apparent at this World Cup.

Spain’s midfield star Aitana Bonmati

The likelihood is that this supersedes any of Vilda's decisions.

The squad’s mentality has helped, which is why they didn’t buckle after the collapse against Japan during the group stage. In a strange way, that 4-0 defeat might even have served them, helping to solve further tactical issues. Bonmati even said at the time “this is going to unite us more than ever”.

It means Spain became the only world champions in either men’s or women’s football to have also lost by more than three goals in the same competition, other than West Germany 1954. Japan 2011 are the only previous Women’s World Cup winners to have even lost a game, adding one other little twist.

There is then one final layer. It was the frustration at a defeat to England in the Euro 2022 quarter-finals that brought all this to a head. It was ultimately an even bigger game against England that fully illustrated how they have adapted.

A lot remains unsaid, even after victory, but, to use an old Spanish football saying, some of the truth is on the pitch.

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