What does it take to win the World Cup in 2023?
A tournament of narrow margins ended in a close but conclusive 1–0 victory for Spain on Sunday in Sydney, Australia. Less than one year after a player mutiny saw 15 players remove themselves from consideration for the national team, La Roja defeated England to become champions of the world. Given all the turmoil in the Spanish camp, given all the contenders thinking this might be their year, how did Spain emerge victorious?
Was it an impregnable defense? Well, Spain surrendered four goals in one match against Japan during the group stage, while England had given up three all tournament: a penalty after a handball in a 6–1 win against China and absolute long-range bangers by Colombia and Australia. The fourth goal conceded by England this World Cup also required a perfect shot from Spanish left back Olga Carmona, but it was also maybe the first time all tournament you could say England’s defense was well and truly beaten.
That decisive goal required a ruthlessness Spain hasn’t often pulled off in this tournament, punishing an English mistake the instant it was recognized. England’s right wingback Lucy Bronze went gallivanting forward with the ball, gesturing at her teammates as if urging them to make something happen. She crossed the field all the way to the center circle, where she was stripped by Spain’s Aitana Bonmatí. Midfielder Teresa Abelleira immediately found winger Mariona Caldentey with a cross-field pass in the spot Bronze was supposed to be defending. Caldentey turned to engage English center back Jess Carter, pulling her forward to open space for Carmona’s overlapping run. Carmona, who scored the winner against Sweden in the semifinal, was chased futilely by English forward Lauren Hemp in a belated attempt to cover for Bronze. A simple pass. A well-taken shot to the far corner. The World Cup title.
So, does winning a World Cup require the world’s greatest international coach to win it? Apparently not. England’s Sarina Wiegman, the Popovich of the Polders, has won the European Championship with both the Netherlands and England and has now made it to every World Cup final since she became an international head coach. She is essentially speed-running international soccer, even if she has fallen twice at the final hurdle. Her employer is (rightly) so pleased with her that it started manning the battlements to fend off a potential USWNT approach the day U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski resigned. Wiegman herself has said she is happy in her current role, with no plans to leave before her contract expires in 2025, but then again, what coach wouldn’t say that on the eve of the World Cup final. FA chief executive Mark Bullingham dangled the possibility that Wiegman could replace England men’s manager Gareth Southgate, then denied it would necessarily be a step up for her anyway. Which, on the one hand, yes, but on the other, you’re paying her a $500,000 salary compared to his $6.3 million one, so the federation clearly thinks so.
So yes, you would probably rather have Wiegman than a guy who fans suspect choreographs celebrations with his coaching staff to distract from the fact that none of his players can stand him. It feels silly and dishonest to give Spain coach Jorge Vilda no credit, but even harder to calculate what the appropriate minimum might be given that his players are treating him like someone who keeps showing up to their games with no invitation. (A few players would eventually do a celebratory toss of Vilda, which felt a little like a bit from The Office.) Better to take their collective word for it than to cling to outdated notions of what a manager should be. There were better coaches for the job of leading Spain to this title. That this one managed it anyway will go down as testament to some combination of his good fortune and their incredible talent.
Despite the talent advantage on the sideline, England never looked close to duplicating Japan’s blueprint for punishing Spain on the counterattack. Its best early chances came from pressing Spain’s defenders, but Spain just as often was able to play out and threaten the other direction. In the end, Spain’s midfield trio of Bonmatí, Abelleira, and converted forward Jenni Hermoso seized and held control of the match. England goalkeeper Mary Earps saved a penalty to keep her team in it, getting such a huge jump on Hermoso’s strike that she was practically waiting for it to arrive.
But even as England pushed, Spain never relinquished its hold. Every time England slowed down, Spain looked a step ahead. The Spanish brought reigning world player of the year Alexia Putellas off the bench in the 90th minute, as she’s still regaining her form following an ACL injury last summer. It still felt a little unfair.
But in the final, her likely successor as world player of the year—and the winner of FIFA’s Golden Ball as the player of the tournament—bossed the game. Bonmatí was sublime, gliding through both this match’s early frenetic pace and its late combativeness. She constantly found space to either side of England midfielders Georgia Stanway and Keira Walsh, then cut the ball back across the grain as they scrambled to track her. She drove forward fearlessly into the formidable England defense. Her defensive intervention led to Spain’s goal. Bonmatí played this game like an emissary from the future, a player a few years ahead of everyone else on the curve, in utter command just like her idol Xavi against Manchester United more than a decade ago.
Bonmatí was far from a one-woman team, but she was the reason Spain was comfortably better than England on Sunday. And on this day, the talent around her was well suited to take advantage of her gifts. Maybe winning the World Cup is that simple: Develop the best player in the world (and the one before that), and put her in a position to succeed. Why didn’t anybody else think of that?
Spain managed this on the field at least. Hopefully it will start doing so on the training ground and in the locker room, too. Bonmatí was one of the 15 who wrote the initial protest letter to the federation. Eight of those later declared that they’d be willing to come back to the national team, and Bonmatí was one of only three of those to be selected. All 15 deserve to be heard from now, just as they deserved to be heard back then. No player should have to win the World Cup to earn respect. Spain did it anyway.