The reputation of women’s football has grown in recent years, and that is set to be evident in the coming month. The Women’s World Cup is ready to kick off in France, and the excitement is palpable. Compared to the tournament in Canada four years ago, the attention given has increased drastically, there is greater respect shown towards the women’s game, the controversial artificial turfs are gone and this year, the UEFA members are also fighting for a chance to compete at next summer’s Olympic Games, which is a major tournament in women’s football.
There are many sub-plots at this summer’s World Cup. The hosts, France, strong favourites going into the competition, could become the first nation to have both the men and women as world champions. Chile, Scotland, South Africa and a rapidly-emerging Jamaica are debuting. Italy, having gone through a mammoth revolution, are returning after 20 years, while Argentina are coming back after 12. In recent years in the women’s game, it has been interesting to evaluate the vast developments and growth by different nations, keeping long-term growth and sustainability in mind.
It isn’t, however, easy to detect these changes, because women’s football shows a severely different scenario from the men on the international scene. The USA are the strongest side ever, while Scandinavian nations often make a name for themselves (despite being different this year). The Asian nations are arguably greater than most European nations when it comes to women’s football, unlike the men, while in South America, the women’s game has shown a slow growth, with the exception of Brazil.
There is, however, one European nation taking immense strides forward. This nation has dominated the football scene in the last 10 years through their clubs and national sides, but that has mainly occurred with the men, with their lack of regard towards the women’s game facing huge backlash. In the last four years, though, they have improved greatly, and they may just be dark horses for the tournament this year. Making their second World Cup appearance will be Spain, who have grown in the last decade, as they begin their search for success on the international scene.
The Spanish era of underachievement in major tournaments ended with the men’s dominance from 2008 onwards. It was almost impossible for the national team to let their people down on the biggest nights. From the 1990s until 2006, there were massive expectations, but constant failure after early promise. That all ended in 2008 and until 2012, they were almost untouchable.
The quality was there in the domestic leagues, and that was all there to see for the world in the major international competitions every two years. For the women, the path to resurgence was totally different. Several football clubs were born in the 1970s, but the heads weren’t backing these project. Under the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, women were discouraged from engaging in football activities and asked to stick with common home-based activities. Despite the lack of support, the first match of the Spanish women’s national team took place in 1971.
That was an entertaining 3-3 draw against Iberian neighbours Portugal in Murcia, and it started something. The journey since, however, has been long and painful. The Spanish women’s team wasn’t yet recognised by its own federation, the RFEF. The federation took another bizarre decision, declining the chance to host the 1972 World Cup, thus, cancelling the project entirely and disbanding it. They were also denied the chance to participate in the 1981 Mundialito, the second edition of the unofficial Women’s World Cup.
It took a full decade and the fall of General Franco to bring the topic of women’s football back on track. The official existence of the women’s national team started in 1983, and around that time, UEFA began plans to organise their own championship. Given the recent birth of the national team, time and patience was required to succeed. In 1997, they took their first steps towards becoming a successful footballing nation.
The European Championships were held in Norway and Sweden that year and Spain did well there. Against the odds, Spain advanced from the group stages by virtue of goal difference, finishing above France. They did, however, fall in the semi-final to Italy, but for a long time, this was a highlight for women’s football in Spain and was a good foundation to build on for the future.
Since then, the country has gone on a bit of a downward spiral. In the 16 years following that, they failed to qualify for a World Cup or European Championship. The failure to qualify ranged from poor qualification campaigns missed chances and delusions. Coached by Ignacio Quereda, who led the team for 27 years between August 1988 to July 2015, and considered a guru in Spanish football for the women, they were running out of hope.
Quereda then decided to change things from the 2010s after years of underachievement and failing expectations.
The change in perspective first came in 2013, when Spain finally booked their place in the European Championships of that year. After falling short in the qualifying rounds, a 4-3 aggregate win in the two-legged play-off against Scotland was key to achieving that goal. The 3-2 success, earned in extra-time of the second-leg, will probably be remembered as one of the greatest moments in the history of the Spanish women’s team and one of the most iconic in their modern era.
Spain progressed from the group stages, past Russia and England and behind France, but were knocked out by a strong Norway side, who eventually reached the final but lost to Germany. There were several positives taken from this run, which would bring lots of encouragement for the women’s game domestically.
Clubs from the top tier started seeing the light and began investing in the women’s game, with Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao, and Atlético Madrid being the pioneers in this aspect. There was great criticism pointed towards Real Madrid for not joining the revolution, especially seeing as it was something they could afford and are one of the most popular and most successful clubs in Spain.
Around the same time, Quereda would enter his final phase as a coach of this team.
The 2015 World Cup in Canada was a huge chance to enhance their reputation, and Spain took the opportunity with both hands in qualification. La Roja won the qualifying group, overcoming Italy and winning nine times out of 10 games, with the other being a draw. Expectations were raised and a good performance was predicted across the Atlantic, however, those expectations weren’t met.
The team failed to get past the group stages. Paired with Brazil, South Korea, and Costa Rica, they finished last in their group. They opened with a draw against the Central Americans, before going on to heartbreaking defeats against the South Americans and Asians. So poor was their form that it would’ve taken a mammoth showing against South Korea in the final group game to have a chance of achieving qualification via their third-placed ranking.
At the end of the tournament, the players complained about the organisation and preparations made by Quereda. The lack of friendlies before the tournament and the management of the roster in Canada wasn’t appreciated by the players, and that caused huge ramifications. Quereda was removed from his post and was replaced by Jorge Vilda – the coach of the U19 side – and there has been good development since the.
Recently, many have focused on one simple, but impactful episode: the events of 17 March 2019. This was when just over 60,000 people gathered at the Wanda Metropolitano for a clash between Atlético Madrid Femenino and Barcelona Femení. The match ended with a 2-0 win for the visitors, but there was praise for the locals and many wondered how and why so many attended a women’s game and how this wasn’t seen anywhere in Europe.
Even Toni Duggan, the Barcelona player who scored in that game and has played at the highest level in England with Everton and Manchester City, was in praise of the local crowds. In a recent interview with Suzanne Wrack of The Guardian, she spoke highly of the Spanish public: “There’s a picture of me celebrating and behind me, there’s actually a man putting one finger up. I’m not promoting that or saying it’s a good thing but it kind of showed what it meant. You could feel the passion in the stadium that day. It was a real atmosphere, it was a massive game and it was only a league game.”
“In England, I think we get about 30,000 for maybe an FA Cup final and there are lots of kids on the seats, which is nice don’t get me wrong, but it’s a calm atmosphere.” She continued: “Sometimes [in England] we can give away free tickets and get 20,000 but 10,000 are free. But at the Wanda, those people had bought those tickets, they were diehard Atlético Madrid fans and were there to see their team win and that’s the difference between England and Spain for me. Sometimes [in Spain] you can go to stadiums and there are 2,000 people there but it feels like it’s 10,000.”
There is a huge affection towards the Spanish women’s national team. Even after the clashes with Quereda following their World Cup disappointment in 2015, the general public sided with the players instead of the long-time manager. To make a comparison, women’s football in Spain has been better received, better handled and better welcomed than in most other European countries or countries looking to grow the women’s game.
Even more than that, though, what really sparks curiosity towards women’s football in Spain is the future. Just take a look at the results of the younger teams: Jorge Vilda, who was 34-years-old when given the job with the senior team, was chosen because of his work with the country’s U17s and U20s, who have amazed in the last decade.
La Roja have won the U17 European Championships four times since 2010 (2010, 2011, 2015 and 2018) whilst making the semi-finals another five times in that period (2013, 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2019). In the same timeframe, they have won the U17 World Cup in 2018, whilst also doing well in 2014 when they finished as runners-up and also finished in third in 2010 and 2016.
The U19 and U20 sides weren’t just sitting around either. Spain won the last two U19 European Championships, being the runners-up in four out of five editions before those triumphs. In the last U20 World Cup, Spain nearly went all the way but fell short in the final against Japan. Many of the players from that tournament are in the squad which will begin the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France.
Those wins aren’t all. The senior team rose to their highest-ever FIFA ranking in 2018, placing in 12th between March and December. The rankings are a little more viable in the women’s game than in the men’s, so this is a fair reflection of their progress. In 2017, they took part in the Euros in the Netherlands, where they were knocked out in the quarter-finals against Austria on penalties, while they also won the Algarve Cup that year before success at the Cyprus Cup the following year, overcoming difficult opposition such as Italy, Japan, and Australia along the way.
Spain can look to the future with a smile. The travelling roster for the World Cup in 2019 included just one player over the age of 30 and nine players under the age of 23, painting a pretty picture. The group stage will be a test, especially seeing as they’re placed with two powerhouses in the women’s game in the forms of favourites Germany and China. Other than those two, they also have South Africa to contend with.
In women’s football, the Asian and North American sides perform best, while Europe has been in the wait to present a formidable challenge. Now with France, Germany, England and the Netherlands well-established, and with Italy and Spain rising, there may be a power shift. Spain go into the World Cup in France as dark horses, and there may just be an era of dominance in the works if it all goes down well.
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