The players streamed from the substitutes’ bench and onto the field, the coaching staff not too far behind them, swarming around the teammates who had rescued their dream. At last, celebrating together, they could release all of the stress and strain of the last couple of days, the last three weeks of this World Cup, the last year or more.
And then, 95 seconds later, it all happened again. This time, though, it was not Sweden celebrating, but Spain. A minute and a half after they had believed Rebecka Blomqvist’s goal had saved both the game and their campaign, the Swedes, this tournament’s great survivors, were on their way out. They had barely had the chance to relish the sensation of relief before it was extinguished, cruelly and instantly.
It will be Spain, then, that takes its place in a maiden World Cup final — against either Australia or England — in Sydney, Australia, on Sunday, thanks to a 2-1 victory on Tuesday in the mist and drizzle of Auckland, New Zealand. Given the circumstances in which the team arrived at this tournament, on the back of a year of mutiny and recrimination and strife, two sides of an intractable divide uneasily and most likely temporarily yoked together, that in itself is a formidable achievement.
Spain’s talent has never been in doubt. There is a reason that FIFA’s technical committee, a collection of former players tasked with assessing the tropes and trends of the tournament, regard Jorge Vilda’s Spain as the most technically gifted of the World Cup’s final four.
That is no great surprise: It is, after all, drawn in no small part from the great Barcelona team that has emerged as European club soccer’s pre-eminent force in the last three years. It includes Alexia Putellas, the reigning Ballon d’Or winner as the game’s best player, and the teammate long assumed to be her heir apparent, Aitana Bonmatí.
Just as important, over the course of the last week, it has also proven to be in possession of the player who has emerged — in the blink of an eye, it seems — as the game’s brightest incipient star.
Salma Paralluelo, a potent blend of speed and technical accomplishment, had scored the goal that carried Spain past the Netherlands in the quarterfinals. With nine minutes to play of this semifinal, she appeared to have repeated the trick, sweeping home instinctively when a loose ball bobbled her way.
What has been much more difficult to discern is the squad’s morale, its fellow feeling, its unity. To what extent these players feel any commitment to each other, to their coach, to the federation their team represents, given all they have been through over the last year, remains — essentially — unknown.
The official line, of course, is that it is all water under the bridge: The complaints and the frustrations that, only a little more than a year ago, led 15 of Spain’s players — including several of its most prominent figures — to refuse to represent their country are not relevant, not anymore.
Quite why that is depends, admittedly, on whom you ask. The federation and the coaching staff would like to believe that those frustrations have been resolved, that a more relaxed approach from Vilda and a more suitable financial commitment from the Spanish authorities — the squad now has a full complement of support staff, including both a nutritionist and a psychologist — have addressed the players’ concerns.
Whether the players see it that way is not clear. At various points during this tournament, there have been whispers that the truce inside the Spanish squad might best be described as uneasy, that there remain open wounds, scars that are reluctant to heal. Several players, it seems, are only on the most brusque speaking terms.
What is certain, though, is that whatever divisions still linger have not impacted their performances. Winning helps, of course: Spain recovered from its eye-catching humiliation against Japan, at the climax to the group stage, to roll past Switzerland with a minimum of fuss.
Vilda’s team roused itself from the disappointment of conceding an injury time equalizer to the Netherlands to win that game, thanks to Paralluelo, in extra time. “This team has learned from difficult situations,” Bonmatí said. “We knew how to suffer. That’s what a team is all about.”
The semifinal was cast in the same mold, but this time took a distilled, pure, uncut form. The game had been finely poised, taut and skittish, until Paralluelo struck. Spain’s precise, technical style had, it seemed, eventually broken the defiant resistance that had carried Sweden past first the United States and then Japan.
With only three minutes of normal time remaining, though, Blomqvist had pulled her team back from the brink, conjuring a finish of remarkable composure, given the circumstances, to draw Sweden level. Spain’s players stared with glassy eyes at the grass, trying to summon the energy to go through it all again.
“We picked ourselves up again after they equalized,” Vilda said. “With soul, with magic, the team keeps overcoming obstacles.” What happened next, in Paralluelo’s mind, was proof not just of Spain’s ability, but its mentality. “We were able once again to come back from that,” she said, “because this is a team that can overcome anything.”
There was an irony to how it came about. Set pieces are Sweden’s not-especially-secret weapon, of course. A day before the game, Vilda had offered a paean of praise — one just ever so slightly tinged, perhaps, with the disapproval of the true aesthete — to his opponents’ efficacy from dead balls.
It was, though, a corner that gave Spain its moment. It did not heave the ball into the penalty area, hoping to play the percentages and weigh the odds in its favor. Instead, the ball was passed, crisply, quickly, out to Olga Carmona, the fullback. She took a touch, steadied herself, and then sent a fizzing shot looping over the outstretched arms of Sweden goalkeeper Zecira Musovic. It clipped the bar as it fell, rolling softly into the back of the net.
It had taken 95 seconds to clear the field of jubilant Swedish players, to restart the game, for Spain to work its way down the field, to win the corner, to score the goal that carried the country into the World Cup final for the first time. Spain’s substitutes raced onto the field. Members of the coaching staff embraced in front of the bench.
In that moment, it was very hard to look at Spain and see a team divided. “I have never experienced anything like that in soccer,” Carmona said. She might yet come close, of course. Spain is one game from the ultimate glory, from being crowned champion of the world.
Achieve that, striker Jenni Hermoso said, and she would bear a smile “that nothing would be able to remove.” She would not be the only one. Spain, for the first time in a long time, is united in that.