Mark Ogden, Senior Writer, ESPN FCAug 20, 2023, 12:40 PM ET
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SYDNEY -- Jorge Vilda will never forget the night he guided Spain to a first-ever Women's World Cup title. The La Roja coach was booed by the crowd when he held the trophy aloft and celebrated victory with barely a pat on the back from his players, but despite it all, he was a world champion, and that distinction will mean vindication. Maybe not in the hearts and minds of his players, but if a coach wins a competition as important as the World Cup, they can point to the glittering trophy in response to every criticism or condemnation.
Vilda's methods, personality and approach to the job might not be popular with many, but he has just delivered a World Cup, arguably the ultimate answer.
Ever since 15 of his players wrote to the Spanish federation (RFEF) last October to raise concerns about Vilda's management style and other issues behind the scenes, the 42-year-old has been embattled, fending off questions about splits in the squad and why he chose to leave 12 of the so-called "las 15" out of his squad for the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. When his team eliminated the Netherlands in the quarterfinal, only one substitute embraced Vilda at the end. He was ignored by every other player on the pitch.
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There was also a lack of warmth after the semifinal win against Sweden, and as the Spain players celebrated at the end of their 1-0 win against England in the final in Sydney, they did so without Vilda. When they danced in celebration after he gave a postmatch address in a huddle, Vilda tried to join in, although the players had their backs to him. It was a different story when Billie Jean King later joined the celebrations, and every player huddled together for a team photo with the tennis legend.
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When the Spanish mutiny threatened to cost him his job last year, Vilda, whose father, Ángel, is the head of the federation's women's department, was given the unequivocal backing of RFEF president Luis Rubiales. It created a rift within the squad that has still not healed, but it is a reality that many squads and athletes the world over perform for coaches they don't particularly like, and Vilda is merely the latest in that long line.
Aitana Bonmatí, who set the tone and tempo in Spain's midfield as they passed circles around England in Sunday's final, put the victory firmly on the players. "Today, we went out on pitch to send the message: we are here, we have grown as players, we are not the same team as years ago -- we can compete, fight for every ball and win, but we also know how to suffer. I'm so happy for everyone.
"I think it's super important winning this trophy because of the young people that can see they can be pro football players right now."
Of course, with celebrations just beginning in Sydney -- Spain were reportedly scheduled to fly home early on Monday morning, regardless of whether they won or lost -- it is too early to know what the future holds for Vilda and the new world champions. This success might lead to a line being drawn on the past and a focus now on the path ahead, but it could equally prompt the lid being blown off the whole situation and the uneasy truce of this tournament being broken. A tweet posted by the RFEF after the game, which said "VILDA IN," was greeted by a succession of responses saying, "VILDA OUT."
When asked about the coach after the match, midfielder Teresa Abelleira refused to be drawn into the conversation. "I won't respond to those things: I am really happy. It even seems a bit ugly to me that you are asking this on such a beautiful day for Spanish football."
Vilda's response, meanwhile, was to focus on the end result and not the things that led them here. "I've always said that if all the suffering was necessary to become world champions, it would be worth it," he told reporters after the final. "It's been difficult at a personal level in management, but on a sporting level, we've achieved results that we've never achieved before.
"I am very happy that we are champions of the world."
As he celebrated Spain's win on the pitch with Queen Letizia, Rubiales will undoubtedly believe he was right to hold firm by backing Vilda rather than the players. Success is success, regardless of the cost in this case.
Vilda has certainly played his part in Spain's success. When his team has needed the coach to make big calls, he has made them -- and gotten them right. He has dealt with the difficult issue of Alexia Putellas, the Ballon d'Or winner in 2021 and 2022, by dropping her from the team when it has been clear that her fitness since returning from a cruciate ligament injury in April has not been sufficient to warrant a starting spot. Going into a World Cup final without his -- and maybe the world's -- best player on the pitch was a huge decision, but it was the right one.
Similarly, he used 19-year-old winger Salma Paralluelo as an impact substitute in the quarterfinal and semifinal, and on both occasions she scored crucial goals to help secure victory.
Football teams can win despite their manager rather than because of them at times, and Spain's many outstanding players might have come together to win for themselves and their country ahead of their coach. But Vilda still devised the tactics, the team selection and substitutions; whether he is liked or not, he played his part. And if Spain can win a World Cup with a coach who is anything but universally liked, or even respected, by his players, just imagine what they could achieve if everything were harmonious.
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Regardless of who's in charge, the players are motivated to keep on winning. "Spain is here to stay," Abelleira said. "If you back us, we can do big things. Women's football in Spain can do huge things."
This is Spain's first World Cup on the women's side of their program, but the Spanish women won the most recent editions of the under-20 and U17 world championships and their U19 side are the European champions. Against England, just as they did against Sweden and the Netherlands, Spain won by dominating possession and playing with pace and width. They are a team of depth and quality, and the future is clearly bright.
Spain could dominate the rest of this decade if their emerging players continue to progress, but the friction and tension around the senior squad doesn't seem a healthy atmosphere with which to go forward. But Spain are World Cup winners despite it all, ripping up the rule book and defying convention to become world champions.