Spain should not have been in contention to win the World Cup. It did not make any sense. Its finest players spent most of the last year on strike. A dozen of them were not invited to the tournament as a consequence. Those that are here are part of a squad held together by an uneasy truce, working under a coach who can count on the loyalty — at best — of a relatively small fraction of his team. These are not the circumstances in which success is forged.
And yet, and yet: Spain is champion of the world, testament to an enduring truth of soccer, of sports. Talent can conquer absolutely anything. It can even take a team, one that had prepared for this World Cup in arguably the worst possible way, to the biggest game of all, the grandest stage, and then sweep it past England, the European champion, the favorite, the game’s new heavyweight, by a single goal, 1-0.
Spain, put simply, shone too brightly to be dimmed: the drive of Olga Carmona, the intelligence of Mariona Caldentey, the burning possibility of Salma Paralluelo and, most of all, the brilliance of Aitana Bonmatí. Bonmatí, the Barcelona midfielder, is the player who, more than anyone else, coaxed and fought and thought her way through the World Cup final, producing a performance that will rightly be considered a masterpiece.
Spain had spent most of the opening 30 minutes of this game painstakingly trying to pry open England’s defense, thoughtfully piecing together moves of intricate beauty and delicate complexity. Alba Redondo should have put her team ahead from one. Paralluelo might have done so with two.
But the breakthrough came not from Spain’s brilliance — or not just from Spain’s brilliance — but from England’s carelessness. Lucy Bronze had wandered into midfield, the ball at her feet, in search of something to do with it. Spain’s players saw what was happening and may as well have licked their lips.
Three of them relieved Bronze of the ball. There was, now, a vast expanse of space — a plain, a savanna, a tundra — on the right side of England’s defense. Teresa Abelleira, brilliantly, picked out Caldentey, drifting unaccompanied into the yawning gap. She waited until Carmona, charging beyond her, was in just the right place. Her pass was weighted perfectly. Carmona’s finish was unerring.
Spain deserved its lead. There had been times, in that first half, when it appeared to be putting on a technical clinic. Paralluelo hit the post just before halftime and there was just a sense, as the players departed for the changing rooms, that, perhaps, England had escaped just a little.
England Coach Sarina Wiegman is not the sort to stand on ceremony. Something needed to change, so she changed it. Chloe Kelly, the player who had scored the goal to win the European Championship last summer, and Lauren James, England’s best player in this tournament until a rash red card in the round of 16, came on. There was no time to waste.
Both substitutes made a significant difference, offering an injection of energy, a burst of purpose. Spain, previously so composed, so assured, started to teeter, only to be delivered just when it needed the intervention of fortune.
Keira Walsh gently, involuntarily brushed the ball with a hand as Caldentey attempted to slip past her. After what seemed an interminable delay, the American referee, Tori Penso, decided it was a penalty. Jenni Hermoso had the chance to settle it, to turn the rest of the game into a procession, but her shot was weak, easily smothered by goalkeeper Mary Earps. England had its reprieve.
For the first time in this tournament, it could not make the most of it. Wiegman urged her players forward. Earps did the same. The game ticked into 13 minutes of injury time. Spain started to seek whatever respite it could find: players falling to the floor, desperate to rob the game of whatever momentum it could muster.
England sprinted to take throw-ins and goal-kicks and corners, any and every opportunity to force its way back into the game. It could not find a way. Spain did not buckle. It has been through so much in this tournament, on the way to this tournament. It was not going to let it slip, not when it was so close. In the unlikeliest circumstances, it would have its prize. It would be the champion of the world.