Jorge Vilda’s side cast aside rumours of internal divides to deserve their 1-0 victory in the final, writes Tom Smithies
Football still isn’t coming home after all these years – unless, that is, your home address has a Spanish postcode.
Spain are the world champions, crowned at the end of a thrilling, wondrous World Cup because their blend of technique and skill ultimately deserved to be rewarded. One brilliant goal was enough, driven home in the first half by Olga Carmona, and England’s lengthy wait to emulate the Cup-winning class of 1966 goes on.
The greatest Women’s World Cup ever might not have been graced with the final final of all but it was nonethless a thundering finale to what has been an extraordinary tournament – blood, sweat and tears were all spilt by the final whistle in front of 75,784 breathless fans.
The cool air of a Sydney evening was electric with possibility, and these two formidable teams had raced into a contest where every kick, every second mattered.
By halftime both sides had hit the woodwork, both sides had spurned glorious chances, and one – those in red – had found one brilliant, devastating incision. In the end, for all England’s might, that was enough.
Both are teams in the true sense, neither dominated by one star name, but across the park footballers of supreme quality wrestled for supremacy on the biggest night of their lives.
If Spain seemed to settle the quicker, their human movement almost as electric as their use of the ball, England would not be unsettled. Theirs was the first real opportunity, as the ball was worked from one side to the other and instantly back again – deep in the Spain area, Rachel Daly cleverly headed down for Lauren Hemp to shoot against the bar.
Setting the tone for a game of punch and counter punch, Spain raced upfield and the effervescent Salma Paralluelo pulled down the left and crossed low to the far post; Alba Redondo’s attempt at conversion was somehow shovelled away by Mary Earps.
The cohesion of Spain, a side who’s fracture under the controversial coaching of Jorge Vilda is effectively an open secret, is phenomenal to behold – helped by a starting team that was 7/11 of Barcelona.
The irony of the opening goal was that it exposed a crack in England’s apparently rock solid facade, sparked when Lucy Bronze cut inside and through the centre circle on a ranging run. Desperately she signalled for Ella Toone to run ahead and look to receive but Toone held her position; Bronze was tackled and Spain were away.
Teresa Abelleira brutally exposed England with a crossfield pass deep to where Bronze had been, to the feet of Mariona Caldentey. One more touch was enough to release Carmona into the box, to lash a perfect shot beyond Earps.
Back in the centre circle, from where she had not had time to move, Bronze threw her hands to the skies in anger. Toone’s confidence seemed visibly to leak away, to the extent that she somehow failed to make contact in front of goal just before halftime when an equaliser seemed certain. The offside flag spared her immediate blushes, but England’s No 10 was struggling for relevancy to the contest.
Compare that with the confidence of Paralluelo, Barcelona’s former sprinter with a first touch that could tame a speeding train. At 19 and in her 15th cap, she toyed with the English players at times like doing tricks for fun at the park, at one point stealing the ball from Keira Walsh of all people to spark an attack. With the last kick of the first half Paralluelo struck the post with a snap shot, then produced a curling drive soon after the break that Earps did splendidly to save.
England by this stage were clinging on. Sarena Wiegman had acted decisively at halftime, withdrawing Daly and Alessia Russo to bring in Chloe Kelly and Lauren James but the changes brought little extra fluency.
Then came a moment to make the England coach’s face even blacker, as Walsh’s hand brushed the ball in the penalty area and – after a ludicrously long VAR check – Spain were awarded a penalty. Jennifer Hermoso looked calm, but her spotkick was brilliantly saved by Earps.
England were galvanised, with Kelly now leading the charge. Her pass inside was fed on to James, back from her red card against Nigeria, to drive a shot tipped over by Cata Coll. England scented blood but only from among their own, with Alex Grenwood’s forehead split open by an accidental knee from Paralluelo.
The seconds were ticking away to a Spanish victory, especially as Paralluelo ran with the ball and released Hermosa for a shot that England scrambled away. Beth England came on for Toone as Wiegman desperately sought late salvation but it was Spain who came closest again with Earps brilliantly denying Ona Batlle.
13 minutes of stoppage time followed, but England couldn’t get the ball, and in the end they couldn’t get the World Cup. Spain were deserved champions.