Spain, Vilda show resilience to seal World Cup progress

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand — There was something apt about Spain shrugging off the distraction of an earthquake in Wellington to reach the Women’s World Cup semifinals for the first time with a 2-1 extra-time win against Netherlands.

La Roja have been de-stabilised by a faultline of their own for the past year, with coach Jorge Vilda still in charge for this tournament despite 15 of his players — known as ‘las 15’ — writing to the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) demanding changes to the set-up. The players denied calling for Vilda to be fired, wanting only improvements behind the scenes, but the RFEF claimed otherwise and threw their support behind Vilda, who has been in charge 2015.

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Ever since the so-called mutiny last October, Spanish football has been struggling to restore calm. Only three of ‘las 15’ made it into Vilda’s squad for this World Cup, with the dressing room reportedly split on the events of last year, and the wounds have clearly not healed, with defender One Batlle saying last month: “You don’t have to be best friends with your teammate.”

Yet despite all of the tension and the issues that still simmer, Spain are now one game away from the World Cup final. They have learned how to live with their earthquake, so the tremor which measured 5.6 on the Richter Scale, which was recorded just 67 minutes before kick-off in New Zealand’s capital city, probably felt like just another bump in the road.

“We were so concentrated on the game that we didn’t feel it, although we felt some shakes at the hotel the day before,” Vilda said. “The victory of Spain was the earthquake.”

It may have been significant that only one player congratulated Vilda at the final whistle, but whether the 42-year-old has the backing of the majority of team or not, results will dictate his future and he has now taken Spain further at the World Cup than they have ever been before.

“The Federation and president have always supported, and me, from the start,” Vilda said. “All employees are totally supportive and (Luis) Rubiales (RFEF president) has been with me all the way through. I am very happy because of all the management we have had to do. This is not over yet, but we have a lot of willpower to continue to make everyone happy.”

Vilda’s situation is certainly a paradox, but by reaching the semifinals, Spain have also shown that footballers can often put aside grievances against their coach or teammates to get the job done on the pitch. And they did that against the Dutch.

Salma Paralluelo‘s stunning individual goal in the 111th minute, seconds after Lineth Beerensteyn had missed a clear chance to put the Dutch ahead, sealed a 2-1 win for Spain and it was thoroughly deserved.

“It means everything to me,” the 19-year-old Barcelona winger said. “It was a unique moment. I felt euphoria.”

Spain dominated possession and registered 26 attempts on goal, compared to nine mustered by Netherlands, and also out-passed and out-crossed their opponents. This was not the performance of a group of players who only talk to each other when they cross the white line on the pitch. But it was also a game in which Spain’s gameplan worked perfectly. Against the more physical Dutch, Spain controlled the ball, stretched the pitch and took charge in all areas.

With one key factor in last year’s ‘mutiny’ the belief of the las 15 players that there wasn’t enough preparation or a defined gameplan to beat England in the Euro 2022 quarterfinal — it was alleged that the players didn’t even have video footage of England’s set-pieces and tactics — the manner of the win against Netherlands pointed to lessons being learned and preparation being upscaled by Vilda and his staff.

To beat the Dutch, the 2019 beaten finalists and a team good enough to top the USWNT’s group at this tournament, Spain had to be organised and convincing. They didn’t take the lead until the 81st minute, when Mariana Caldentey scored from the penalty spot following a VAR-influenced decision after a handball by Stefanie van der Gragt, but Spain had created so many chances — Esther González had a first-half goal ruled out for offside — that they had earned their lead.

Van der Gragt took the game into extra-time with an equaliser in the first of 12 minutes of stoppage time, but Paralleulo’s goal was one that was fitting to earn a place in the semifinals.

What happens next remains to be seen, but Vilda has probably earned himself an extended stay in the job and the RFEF will feel justified in keeping him there. As for the players, those who still harbour doubts and concerns are within touching distance of a World Cup final, so the only thing they can do now is continue to win and see how the dust settles at the end of it.

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