How not to win a World Cup: Spain, Jorge Vilda and the story of a complicated victory

While Spain displayed their talent on the pitch to defeat England in the World Cup final, questions around their controversial head coach continue to overshadow an unprecedented triumph

Miguel Delaney
in Sydney
Monday 21 August 2023 13:39 BST
Sarina Wiegman says Lionesses can be 'very proud of themselves'

As Olga Carmona ran back to the Spanish celebrations, having just declared that the federation’s support was “marvellous” with a World Cup medal around her neck, she and manager Jorge Vilda high-fived then shared a huge hug.

It was an image that went against the more prolific pictures of other players refusing to even look at their coach in the moment of glory.

This is not to try and say it was all much rosier in the Spanish camp than had been reported. It is quite the opposite. It points to how multi-layered the many issues in the squad were, going way beyond a mutiny against the manager that came about due, for the most part, to the nature of Vilda’s managerial regime and discontent at how outdated the entire international set-up seemed.

The tragic news of Carmona's father passing away before the final illustrates this. But, separate from this tragedy, the issues were real.

The Spanish federation’s social media account did put out a post with a picture of the coach and the Women’s World Cup trophy declaring “Vilda in”. The manager, having eventually appeared for his press conference after almost three hours of celebrating, was asked about this – and those who doubted him. In other words, the players at the core of the mutiny, who did not come back.

Vilda’s answer was perhaps the most direct reference he’s made to the controversy throughout this World Cup, but was still oblique.

“I’m happy for everyone we made happy and that wanted our squad to win. That’s it.”

It was just another layer to a situation that has seen a core of players mutiny against the coach and the federation, some come back, with individuals then standing alongside replacements for rebels. It is understood there is a growing Real Madrid-Barcelona rift, to go alongside a more complicated split between those who are in the squad and have little time for Vilda and those who are completely indebted to him.

Vilda maintained the support of the Spanish FA throughout the player mutiny

Madrid’s Carmona, whose influence in the squad grew after the mutiny, is very much one of the latter.

There is a lot that can be said about all this, but all pale next to the most relevant statement of all. Spain are world champions. Jenni Hermoso had an unintentionally pointed comment on that: “It is easier to say you are world champions than to achieve it.”

That has rarely been so true. The most fascinating part of it all is that nobody has ever won any major tournament in a manner even close to this. It is a victory completely without precedent in the history of the sport.

There’s an obvious reason for that. Squads faced with such strife usually fall apart. The centre doesn’t hold.

It is in many ways how not to win a World Cup. You only have to look at France 2002 and 2010, the Netherlands at Euro 96 and even various men’s Spanish teams.

And yet, in the moment of glory, there was another image that symbolised so much.

By the penalty area where goalkeeper Cata Coll withstood England’s late pressure, all of the Spanish players had come together in one big group. Almost at the other end of the pitch, by the sideline, the coaching staff celebrated in their own separate huddle.

Aitana Bonmati celebrates with Barcelona teammate Mariona Caldentey

That alone symbolised so much. And yet there was more.

In the middle was the entire England squad, Sarina Wiegman and her staff gathering the players together for a consoling message of pride. It was the team with much more unity that had, in many ways, been taken apart.

The question isn’t quite how, though.

There are obvious explanations. Just as a very specific set of circumstances fostered this crisis, a very specific set of circumstances have also made Spain the best team in the world.

Vilda lifted up by his support staff and some players after Spain’s win

All of these players have come through a superb coaching infrastructure, immersed in a highly specific identity, that just isn’t yet visible anywhere else in a developing women’s game. It has given them a supreme advantage that allows them to overcome an unprecedented number of problems.

You only have to look at the instinctive way their players get out of the tightest of spaces, to initiate an intricate passing triangle. Any conscious issues are inevitably overcome when it comes that naturally. Carmona’s goal was the perfect example of this. It was executed at such speed and with such flow it was as if they didn’t even need to think about it. They just knew what to do. It was ingrained.

It used to be like this for the Spanish men, goalkeeper Coll even making a point of mentioning of how she was inspired by Andres Iniesta and Iker Casillas in 2010. It was just that other countries caught up and began to develop plans that worked very well to counter it.

Spain’s celebrations concluded a controversial and complicated campaign

Wiegman gave as good an attempt as anyone, other than Japan. This is another historic anomaly with this Spanish team. No one outside West Germany 1954 has ever won either a men or women’s World Cup having lost a game by more than two goals. Wiegman and her staff had, of course, pored over footage of Spain’s 4-0 defeat to Japan.

They thought they had something figured out, but found Vilda’s side had stepped up a level. The Japan match had evidently allowed insight into potential solutions for Spain’s tactical problems.

Wiegman almost seemed blown away by how good Spain were, in a very gracious press conference. She naturally admitted they deserved it and then elaborated on the almost impossible balance she tried to strike between pressing Spain but not leaving space in behind. It’s immensely difficult when a player like Aitana Bonmati can just escape in the way she does.

Bonmati was named player of the tournament as Spain won the World Cup for the first time

That is, again, the other side of this issue.

If Spain’s preparation shows how not to win a World Cup, their idea of the game is just how to play football. There are so many moments you watch one of those moves and think every single footballer should have this as a fundamental of their game.

There may be fair questions over whether Vilda is any good as a coach at all but he did get one big call right on Sunday: it was clearly correct to go with Salma Paralluelo over Alexia Putellas and became more pronounced given Wiegman’s reluctance to play Lauren James from the start.

One stuck. One twisted.

It is one of many turns in the story of this campaign, that has never been as neat or as binary as portrayed.

It still isn’t how you’d want to prepare for a World Cup, though. That is by far the most remarkable aspect of this fully deserved win.

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