Bethany England, dejected at full-time as the Spanish players celebrate around her. Alamy Stock Photo

Sensational Spain leave England shattered and flattered by the scoreline

Spain were crowned world champions with a 1-0 win in Sydney.

THIS WAS ANOTHER sincere English heartbreak, but it was no hard luck story. 

England were flattered by the scoreline -  Spain’s technical and tactical superiority was such that they deserved more than a one-goal win.

The resolve of Mary Earps meant Spain didn’t get a scoreline commensurate with their dominance, but none of that matters. Spain are World Cup champions and the centre of power in the women’s game has shifted across the Atlantic, perhaps irreversibly. 

Superficially, Spain’s World Cup triumph is hardly a roadmap for other nations to follow. Having the federation quell a 15-player putsch against the coach and instead enforce the status quo and an uneasy coalition won’t be packaged and sold by consultancy companies. 

But on a deeper level, this Spanish victory is a result of a process that has already played out in the men’s game: an investment in elite coaching guided by clear principles. Six Barcelona players started for Spain tonight, precisely the same number as started the 2010 final victory at the men’s World Cup. 

And like their predecessors in South Africa, Spain had a level of cohesion and technical quality with which their opponents could not live. That England finished the game with centre-back Milly Bright up front felt like a parody of the chasm between the sides. 

Spain’s brilliance could be told entirely through the figure of Aitana Bonmatí. She was tireless off the ball and magnetic when she had it, gliding through challenges with easy grace and bamboozling England with a seemingly endless triptych of pause-goad-and-pass, all delivered with the cruel and precise timing of the matadora. 

spains-aitana-bonmati-holds-the-player-of-the-tournament-trophy-after-the-final-of-womens-world-cup-soccer-between-spain-and-england-at-stadium-australia-in-sydney-australia-sunday-aug-20-2023 Spain's Aitana Bonmati holds the Player of the Tournament trophy. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Spain’s coach Jorge Vilda may be held in low esteem by his players but tonight he resoundingly won the tactical battle.

England caught fire in this tournament when Sarina Wiegman switched to a back three at the end of the group phase and so the system was retained, but Vilda had the players to take it apart. Spain shredded England’s right-hand side, on which Lucy Bronze was offered little protection against Maria Caldentey and overlapping full-back Olga Carmona. 

Spain threatened to score down that wing long before they finally did. Bronze went MIA for the decisive moment, choosing to dribble into midfield and the bear-traps laid by Spain. When Bronze lost the ball, she could only stand and watch what unfolded. Ona Batlle instantly pinged the ball left for Caldentey, who waited for the planned overlap of Carmona. Once she arrived, Carmona slammed the ball into the bottom corner, Carlos Alberto-style. 

England hit the bar in the opening stages but that foreshadowed nothing. Spain presented them with problems they could not solve. According to Fifa’s stats, no side were put under less pressure in midfield than England before today, but Spain made sure that detail didn’t survive to the end of the tournament. England were smothered by Spain’s pressing, out-numbered in midfield and overwhelmed. 

Wiegman made a double change and shifted to a back four at half-time and while that stalled some of the momentum, England still struggled to create chances. Earps gave England hope by springing from her line and saving Jenny Hermoso’s penalty, and her bellowed FUCK OFF!! in celebration was the classic stuff of English bloody-mindedness. 

But all England could bring to the closing stages was a thwarted fury. They had nothing to match cool excellence of Spain’s technique. A lesser team may have panicked at the fact of thirteen minutes of stoppage time, but Spain continued to dominate, making England look as if they were defending a slender lead rather than chasing a deficit. 

England’s future is bright: they will return home better-supported than they were even last year, their domestic league rocketing to become the best in the world. They have also made great progress in the grander argument for equity and respect from their own bosses. Perhaps some day the FA can think of a greater compliment to pay Sarina Wiegman than to suggest she might even be capable of coaching their men’s team. Perhaps the president of their FA will be bothered to show up to their historic achievement. Perhaps the next tournament won’t be prefaced by a dispute over bonuses. Perhaps Mary Earps’ goalkeeper shirt will be available to buy in shops next year. 

But all of that is for the future. For now England must soak in a disappointment that must feel like despair, for Spain were simply so much better. 

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