The FIFA Women’s World Cup Final 2023 was full of nail-biting moments, controversial decisions and excellent entertainment. Ultimately, it was the Spanish side that proved worthy of lifting the World Cup trophy with a 1-0 win over England.
England’s manager, Sarina Wiegman, chose to keep Ella Toone in the starting 11, over the returning Lauren James after she was given a red card and a two-match ban in the game against Nigeria. Spanish manager, Jorge Vilda, chose to bench two-time Ballon D'or winner, Alexia Putellas, and start 19-year old Salma Paralluelo, who ended up winning FIFA’s Best Young Player 2023.
The first half was mostly dominated by Spain with a few moments of magic from England. Paralluelo threatened England down the wing and had an early opportunity to score but it was blocked by England captain Millie Bright. Spain prevented Rachel Daly from playing as an attacking left back, leaving a major gap for England to create opportunities down the wing. Spain refused to give England time to build up from the back three; a tactic which England have massively valued in their previous games in order to gain possession and dictate play towards the opposition’s goal.
An opportunity for England to score fell to Lauren Hemp who was denied scoring her first World Cup Final goal by the crossbar. Spanish Alba Redondo shot at England’s goal but it was saved by goalkeeper Mary Earps. However, the ball remained in England’s third as Spain continued to dominate possession and continued their high press.
England’s Lucy Bronze broke into the midfield with a promising run but lost possession and left the wing exposed for Mariona Caldentey to press unchallenged, who found captain Olga Carmona. Carmona then sent a low ball into the bottom left corner of England’s goal.
An opportunity for England arose as Alessia Russo sent a potential goal across Spain’s goal to Ella Toone but she was unable to create a shot. Despite England’s defence massively improving throughout the tournament, England’s back line, particularly as the first half drew to a close, was sometimes out of shape as they committed bodies forward with the intention to equalise.
The second half saw Wiegman make some intriguing changes; Alessia Russo off for Lauren James, and Rachel Daly for Chloe Kelly. It seemed that England were left without a natural striker as James and Toone often switched as the preferred number 10. The number 9 position – the ideal goal scoring position – was missing. However, since the change was made, England looked galvanised and began to create more promising chances than they had in the first half. Kelly sent a long ball to Hemp but the chance went wide of Spain’s goal.
England continued to give the ball away too quickly and too easily – a mistake Spain rarely made.
VAR was used as a handball from Keira Walsh was checked and eventually a penalty was given to Spain. Jennifer Hermoso took the penalty but Earps anticipated the direction of the shot and saved the attempt. The scoreline remained at 1-0 to Spain. Momentum was gathered by England and multiple chances were created, including from James, but this attempt was saved by Spanish goalkeeper, Cata Coll.
A head injury was picked up by Alex Greenwood after Parauello kneed her in the head. She was down for a substantial amount of time, but was bandaged up and was cleared to continue to play.
Ella Toone was subbed off for Bethany England and it looked like the team finally had a natural number 9 on the pitch. As 13 minutes of added time continued, defender Millie Bright moved to Spain’s final third almost as an additional striker. Since this isn’t where Bright is used to playing, domestically or internationally, it seemed an odd choice particularly when Spain advanced towards England’s goal, where Bright was needed. But with England’s chances of lifting the World Cup trophy diminishing by the minute, committing bodies forward was their only way of securing a late equaliser.
However, that equaliser never came, and as England’s final corner amounted to nothing tangible, the referee blew the final whistle and the World Cup 2023 drew to a disappointing close for England.
Spain’s journey up to and throughout the World Cup was dominated by the division between the Spanish Federation, manager Jorge Vilda and the Spanish players. After Spain’s defeat to England in the quarter-finals of the European Championships under Vilda, players urged for fresh leadership going into the World Cup.
15 Spanish players initially refused to be selected for the World Cup due to alleged mistreatment on behalf of Vilda that affected their “emotional state” according to an article from Cadena Ser. After three players returned to the squad, the remaining 12 players refused to give in, demanding better treatment and support from the coach and the federation. The Spanish captain who always remained in selection, Alexia Putellas, spoke of solidarity with the striking 12 players, and prominent player Jennifer Hermoso stated: “we transmit a message of general discomfort”.
The Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) backed Vilda and ignored the concerns of some of the best players in the world and demanded that players who wish to return to the team must apologise for their “mistake and ask for forgiveness”. The 12 players once celebrated by the federation, were abandoned and now have little chance of returning to the squad without dismissing their beliefs.
Now that Spain has won the Women’s World Cup, the mistreatment of players who weren’t in the squad may not be addressed, and the feeling of division and a now conditioned culture of exiling players may never leave this Spanish side. It sets a dangerous precedent that federations, who have been known to under-fund women’s football and in some cases ban women’s football altogether, could continue to dismiss the concerns of players. As Vilda received his medal, the crowd could be heard booing. Jorge Vilda is certainly a divisive figure.
The Spanish players, despite the division, proved that their skill could triumph over the disputes, and their precision and continued press truly deserved the World Cup title.
However, women’s football deserves better.
In a press conference before the World Cup Final, FIFA President Gianni Infantino challenged women to “convince us men'' that they deserve better treatment, equal pay and greater opportunities. The progress of women’s football continues to be denied by establishment leaders, and despite decades of perseverance, women's sport is not shown the same respect and treatment as the men’s game.
However, there’s still hope. Spain and The Lionesses reached their first ever World Cup Final, showing that the inequalities of access to resources and investment between the top and bottom teams is narrowing. This World Cup saw a record number of countries qualifying, a record number of young players selected and more fans than ever before.
The women’s game is growing, but it’s going to need the support of federations and associations to see it fully prosper.