For a global soccer power boasting a men’s world championship and thriving domestic leagues, Spain’s long years in the wilderness of the women’s game seemed a curious anomaly even as European rivals pushed hard for the major trophies.
On Tuesday, “La Roja” shrugged off that record of underachievement with a rousing 2-1 win over Sweden to reach the final of the Women’s World Cup for the first time.
Having failed to even qualify for the World Cup until Canada in 2015, Spain have electrified Australia and New Zealand with 17 goals and a lively, attacking game.
Their rise has mirrored the revival of European football at a tournament once dominated by the United States.
With Sweden having ended the US dynasty in the first knockout round, the continent produced three of the four semi-finalists and will lock up the final if England beat co-hosts Australia in Sydney later on Wednesday.
Now brimming with confidence, Spain will fancy winning the final against any opponent.
“It is something that is fabulous for Spanish football, everyone who’s worked throughout so many years,” said coach Jorge Vilda.
Spain’s women have long toiled in the shadow of the men’s team, whose golden era yielded a 2010 World Cup triumph sandwiched by a pair of European Championship trophies.
Yet La Rojas’ trip to this World Cup final has generated headlines in Spain and sent fans into a frenzy on social media.
“It’s very emotional for me because it’s the culmination of your profession. It’s marvellous to make so many people happy,” said Vilda.
Now the genie is out of the bottle, it may be hard to put back.
Spain have momentum on their side, and not only at the World Cup. Belated investment in women’s soccer is now paying dividends and the future is bright.
Liga F, the top women’s domestic competition, has become a top destination for global talent while Barcelona have become the benchmark in European club football, claiming two of the last three women’s Champions League titles.
Already blessed with world class playmakers Alexia Putellas and Aitana Bonmati, the national squad boasts such depth that even last year’s revolt by 15 players proved unable to derail their World Cup preparations.
The next generation is also eager to make its mark as shown by super-substitute Salma Paralluelo.
The 19-year-old Barcelona winger ignited Spain with the opening goal in the semi-final against Sweden, days after dumping the Netherlands with an extra-time winner.
Though reports of disharmony between Vilda and some of his players have endured through the World Cup, the team have been united on field and responded well to pressure.
Their ability to score has managed to cover for defensive lapses that have cost goals and for the absence of centre back Mapi Leon, one of the players who refused to reconcile with Vilda.
In beating Sweden, Spain not only eliminated the highest-ranked semi-finalist and broke down one of the world’s most stingy defences, they won a new fan in opposing coach Peter Gerhardsson.
“I hope Spain win because I always like that kind of football,” said the Sweden boss.