Spain begin their 2023 Women’s World Cup campaign on July 21st in Wellington with what should be a comfortable opening game against Costa Rica. They are among the favourites to make it all the way to the Final in Sydney a month later, but this has been no ordinary buildup. Our Spain Women’s World Cup preview looks at some of the bewildering events of the last twelve months and how it may affect the team’s chances.
The Rebel 15
Women’s football in Spain was rocked in September 2022 by what was effectively a mutiny staged by more than half of the national squad. Fifteen players sent identically worded emails to the Spanish football federation, withdrawing themselves from selection until a situation that was having a negative impact on their “emotional state and health” was resolved.
Although not directly referenced, it was widely viewed as a demand for coach Jorge Vilda to be replaced. The so-called “Rebel 15” included a host of star names, most notably six players from a dominant Barcelona team that largely formed the core of the Spanish national side.
Alexia Putellas, a back-to-back winner of the Ballon d’Or Féminin in 2021 and 2022, did not send an email given she was already unavailable due to injury, but also endorsed the message, by publishing their joint statement.
There had long been murmurings of discontent with the way things were going under Vilda who was already seven years into the job by this point. Despite possessing one of the most talented squads in the women’s game, Spain had not made it past a Quarter-Final at a major tournament under his guidance.
Talk of dressing room disharmony, a toxic environment and broken relationships between the coach and many players frequently surfaced before and after last year’s Euros, where Spain suffered an Extra Time defeat to hosts and eventual winners England in the last eight.
However the mutiny ran deeper than just a challenge to Vilda’s premiership. It felt like a wider protest at how the female game was being run in Spain with many players also believed to be angry at Spanish Football Federation president Luis Rubiales for his perceived disinterest in developing and promoting it.
The outcome of the stand-off was an utterly unsatisfactory one as far as the players were concerned. Neither Vilda nor Rubiales were in any mood to back down and despite holding a seemingly untenable position in September 2022, Vilda remains in charge and will again lead Spain at the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
The Final 23
Recent months have seen some of the rebel players back down to some extent and talk to the RFEF about returning to the national team fold, understandably reluctant to miss out on the career highlight of playing at a World Cup. Others have stuck to their guns and refused to budge from the position they took in the autumn.
The end result is that just three of the fifteen players who withdrew themselves from selection in September are part of the final squad of 23 Spanish players who will take part in the tournament. Those three are Aitana Bonmatí, Mariona Caldentey and Ona Batlle of Barcelona.
Among those who won’t be heading down under in July and August though are the key Barça trio of Patri Guijarro, Mapi Leon and Sandra Paños who all started as the Catalans won the UEFA Women’s Champions League Final against Wolfsburg last month with Guijarro’s quick-fire brace helping to turn the game around.
The absence of Paños, Barcelona’s first choice goalkeeper is particularly surprising given there is a place for her back-up at club level – the uncapped 22 year old Catalina Coll.
The fit-again Alexia Putellas is included with the legendary midfielder having reportedly acted as a mediator between the management and rebel players in recent months.
Can Spain win the Women’s World Cup?
The short answer is yes they can. This is still a very talented squad that is unquestionably one of the strongest in the whole tournament. Perhaps only holders the United States and European champions England will make the long trip with a greater chance of returning with the trophy.
Spain can take confidence from a strong performance against the Lionesses in last summer’s Euros in what was perhaps the only game that Sarina Wiegman’s side were fortunate to win. They also beat the United States for the first time in a friendly in October, that match played out without the fifteen rebel players with what at the time was viewed as effectively a Spanish B team squad.
They should cruise through a World Cup group where the only serious challenge is likely to come from 2011 champions Japan with Costa Rica and Zambia their other opponents in the first stage.
Plotting Spain’s possible route to the Final in Sydney on 20th August, the Round of 16 would see them face opposition from what is a relatively weak Group A. Co-hosts New Zealand or Switzerland would be the most likely opposition should Spain win their group and between them those two nations have a grand total of just one FIFA Women’s World Cup victory to their name heading into the tournament.
While Spain can’t better that tally themselves after disappointing showings in their only previous World Cup campaigns (2015 and 2019), it would be a major shock if they didn’t at least reach the last eight this time. Only further dressing room fractures and disharmony behind the scenes could seriously threaten to get in the way of that, something that can’t be ruled out given the events of the past twelve months.
They should have more than enough talent to at least reach the Quarter Final stage when things may start to get more difficult with Sweden or The Netherlands likely opponents at this point.
Spain will be based in New Zealand all the way until the Final should they reach it, with all potential knockout games taking place in either Auckland or Wellington.
However it’s tough to see a road to Sydney that doesn’t involve La Roja needing to get the better of a US squad that is hoping to win the trophy for the third time in a row. The two teams are in the same half of the draw and a possible Semi-Final showdown in Auckland is a date for the diary should both win their groups and continue to progress.
How will Spain line up at the 2023 Women’s World Cup?
In the absence of Paños, Real Madrid’s Misa Rodriguez looks set to be the starting goalkeeper.
The defensive options are exclusively from Real Madrid and Barcelona, with the exception of Athletic Club’s Oihane Hernández who will most likely have a back-up role. The experienced Irene Paredes is likely to be the defensive leader although her Barça teammate Mapi León will be missed.
The midfield is where Spain look particularly strong and where they’ll be hoping to take control of games. Putellas will unquestionably have an important leadership role, but is only just fighting back to fitness after serious injury problems which restricted her to very limited involvement during the 2022/23 season.
Aitana Bonmati is the other outright star in midfield with 16 goals in 46 caps to date for the 25 year old. Meanwhile 23 year old Real Madrid midfielder Teresa Abelleira is pushing for a starting role in what could be a breakthrough tournament for her on the international stage.
In attack, Mexico-based Jennifer Hermoso, the only member of the squad who doesn’t play their domestic football in Spain, will provide genuine goal threat. She’s the all-time top scorer for the Spanish national side with 48 and is likely to win her 100th cap in New Zealand.
However the 33 year old faces real competition for the striker role from Alba Redondo, top scorer in Liga F this season with 27 goals for Levante while Esther Gonzalez shone in qualifying and bagged a brace in Spain’s 7-0 friendly win over Panama on Thursday.