Welcome to the final of the parity World Cup.
In a vacuum, it might not look like it. Sunday’s World Cup final will pit the second- and fourth-ranked pre-tournament favorites—England and Spain—against each other for soccer’s biggest prize. In March Madness terms, that’s two No. 1 seeds living up to their billing. But this tournament has felt different, and not just because the two-time defending champions were dumped out so early. For the first time in its 32 years, this competition felt wide open. Two of the world’s best teams survived to make it this far, but you wouldn’t have been too surprised to see any of eight or 10 teams there.
Take Japan, which arrived at the World Cup relatively unheralded after a series of poor results in 2022—and proceeded to blow the doors off the tournament. The Japanese scored five goals against leaky Zambia and four against now-finalists Spain. They nabbed goals on the counterattack and goals from long spells of possession. Hooked passes around the defense that landed at the attackers’ feet with the precision of a billiards player. Through balls played from just over the halfway line. If there’s any justice out there, this edition of Japan will be remembered as one of the world’s beloved cult teams, like the electrifying Denmark men’s side of the 1980s.
Which is what Japan will have to settle for, because it lost in the quarterfinals to Sweden. Sweden, which prevailed against the U.S. women on sudden-death penalties, played its best game of the tournament to beat Japan 2–1, but still needed its opponents to miss a penalty and double- (triple-?)doink a late free kick off the crossbar, off the back of star goalkeeper Zecira Musovic and off the post to advance. Then the Swedes ran into Spain, who held them at bay for 80 relatively listless minutes before bringing on 19-year-old Salma Paralluelo to juice its offense and deliver the knockout punch, just as it did against the Netherlands in the quarterfinals. For the second time in two games, Spain slipped and allowed a late equalizer; for the second time in two games, it found the winner anyway.
On the other side of the bracket, it took 20 penalties to separate Australia and France in the quarterfinals. Nigeria took England all the way to a shootout in the Round of 16. Colombia carved through the English midfield in the quarters before settling for too many low-percentage long-range shots.
Soccer’s low scorelines can sometimes deceive in this way. Games that were close can appear to be easy wins after the fact. Narrow wins can feel comfortable. The USWNT won three straight games 2–1 to advance to the final of the 2019 World Cup, but it never trailed in any of those and scored in the first 10 minutes of each one. It was pushed, yes, but rarely threatened. This year, it’s not one or two bounces that someone might feel could have gone another way; it’s a dozen or so. Each quarterfinal match was decided by a single goal or less. The two tournament favorites—the U.S. and England—were both pushed to penalties in the Round of 16, and their paths diverged as sharply as possible from there.
These two finalists had to grind the whole way. Spain scored against Sweden with its only two shots on target in the whole game. Just as it did against Colombia, England became too passive after it took the lead in the semifinal, allowing Australia to seize momentum and for star Sam Kerr to score a thunderbolt to tie it.
Kerr missed other, closer chances later on, and England had enough time after her equalizer to rev to life again and put the game away. England was better on the whole, but the difference was even smaller than the 3–1 scoreline would indicate.
England probably has a narrow advantage in the final, with its imposing defense facing Spain’s languorous attack and the devastating Lauren James set to return from a suspension following her red card against Nigeria. But the margins will be thin there too. Spain’s distinguished midfielders have been largely fettered since the Round of 16; if England gives them the time it gave Colombia, it could be made to pay.
More than half of the teams from the knockout bracket are probably thinking of how they could have made either of these teams pay, if only they had played a little bit better or gotten a little luckier on that day. The apex of the sport feels like a plateau this year, with more teams than anyone expected pulling themselves up. The top teams have closed the much-discussed gap with the USWNT, but none of them are pulling away by much.
At least not yet. In another four years, who knows? A level playing field is ripe to be tilted again by the investment of money and expertise. Whoever makes the smartest bets on player development, league competitiveness, and organizational support will have the best chance at opening the gap we’ll talk about for the next generation.
But first the powers that be still have to be convinced that it’s worth it. The lead-up to this tournament was dominated by stories of squads using the spotlight a World Cup brings to speak out against poor treatment at the hands of their federations. Teams ranging from Canada to South Africa have expressed frustration with the suits in charge of their teams and their lack of resources and support. Jamaica made the knockout rounds despite missed payments and games canceled due to sheer organizational dysfunction. The U.S. only recently finished its six-year fight for equal pay. England’s players couldn’t come to an agreement with that country’s Football Association about World Cup bonuses before the tournament. There are levels here, obviously, but the broad patterns—an attempt to nickel-and-dime this side of the program, a lack of respect for these athletes in particular—track throughout.
No team demonstrates this more clearly than Spain. Less than a year ago, 15 Spanish players threatened to quit the team if the federation didn’t fire coach Jorge Vilda, citing both the atmosphere he created and his player selections and tactics. The federation stood by its man and, pointedly, not its women, threatening bans and demanding apologies and generally treating the complaint with the sort of patronizing delusion that would do Principal Skinner proud. Only three of the 15 players ended up returning to the roster for this World Cup.
Vilda is still in charge, and he’s become perhaps the World Cup’s public enemy No. 1. Videos of him wandering the field after a win, celebrating by himself while being ignored by his players, are popular postgame entertainment. Multiple people are making Cruella de Vilda jokes. Spain has kept winning anyway, even as neutral fans felt kind of icky about it. On their podcast, U.S. veterans Christen Press and Tobin Heath dissected the nuances of rooting for the Spanish players even if their success benefits Vilda. If the Spanish players are trying to lose to spite their bosses, then they are having the worst World Cup of anybody. That still doesn’t make them the tournament’s classic-punk band, who require this tension and anger to make their performance better.
One imagines that the top brass at the federation will claim either result Sunday as vindication for the decision to keep Vilda, despite signs pointing to the players’ dragging the coach behind them rather than their being led to glory by him. If the suits try to do so, then it could squander any momentum this tournament run provides to the sport back home. Why take an easy head start into the next four years when you can gloat over a false victory in a battle you never should have fought in the first place?
Women’s soccer is not in some “If you build it, they will come” moment. “They” are by and large already here, waiting for the construction barriers to come down so they can rush in. The Australia-England semifinal set all-time viewership records for both television programs and streaming services in the host nation. The American women got 1.5 million people to watch the English-language broadcast of a match that kicked off at 3 a.m. Eastern time. England women’s jerseys were selling 700 percent faster after the semifinal. The sport’s governing bodies are only shooting themselves in the foot with their systemic contempt and parsimony.
The future of this sport is there for the taking, but it’s not going to be free. The next era of women’s soccer will be defined by those nations that provide their teams, their leagues, and their grassroots with the best support. And that could be anyone’s game.