Photo: Getty
2019 Women's World CupPlayers to watch, dark horses, upset opportunities, and everything else you need to know for the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France.  

They say that when God closes a door, he opens a window, and that wisdom is knowing to stop worrying about the closed door and start taking advantage of the open window. The metaphor applies to the Spain women’s soccer team’s experience at their first World Cup four years ago. The closed door was their embarrassing last-place finish in their group, the opened window was the chance to use that disappointment to create a better future, and the players’ taking advantage of it was when they grabbed up their universally detested, incompetent, sexist, abusive manager and tossed his ass out the opening.

The Spanish players’ defenestration of their manager started almost immediately after they were bounced from the World Cup. From afar, Spain looked to be one of the tournament’s more promising new teams coming in. It was La Roja’s first Women’s World Cup ever, but a steady stream of encouraging youth tournament performances and an abundance of talent on display in the rapidly improving domestic league meant expectations were quite a bit higher for Spain than the usual World Cup first-timer.

And, putting aside the results, the team validated most of those expectations with their play. Spain looked very, well, Spanish in each of their three group stage matches, easily controlling possession and capering about the pitch with mesmerizing little one-twos, performance-wise failing only at the moment of truth when it was time to actually kick the ball into the net. The style of play was entertaining, attractive, but ultimately unsuccessful. Spain recorded one draw and two losses in the tournament, finishing at the bottom of a fairly easy group.

The real story of the Spaniards’ World Cup didn’t come out until after their defeat. Days after falling out of the group, the national team’s players released a statement to the public that tried to explain why they came up short in Canada in their own words. While admitting the part they played in the team’s poor results, the players exposed the Spanish soccer federation’s and the coaching staff’s lack of support and inadequate preparation for the team, and called for manager Ignacio Quereda’s head. And that was only the start.

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Soon the public came to realize what a piece of work Quereda had been for the duration of his 27-year tenure as manager of the women’s team. Through interviews with current and former players, a picture of emerged of an angry little man who got his job based purely on cronyism, who retained it in spite of decades of failure because his boss couldn’t even pretend to care about women’s soccer, and who ruled over his fiefdom like a petty tyrant.

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Players said Quereda would regularly berate his players during training sessions, offering no constructive criticism or instruction behind his outbursts, sometimes to the point of inducing tears. He showed his charges no respect, referring to them as “chavalitas” and “niñas” (“little girls”), and reacted only with anger when a player offered her thoughts on how he could go about things better. He called players fat if he didn’t like their fitness levels. If any player, no matter how good, talked back to him when he was being shitty, he would freeze them out of the team by refusing to call them up. His training sessions were antiquated, ineffectual, and unrigorous, and he was so disengaged that sometimes he’d take phone calls in the middle of them. During the tournament, Quereda and his staff provided so little research on Spain’s opponents that the players eventually had to resort to holding their own scouting sessions using YouTube videos. If anything it was a wonder Spain even qualified for the World Cup and did as well as they did under such an abusive halfwit.

Fortunately, the Spaniards’ public offensive worked, and Quereda was forced to resign. In his stead the Spanish federation hired Jorge Vilda, the long-serving, popular manager of the wildly successful U-17 team.

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That manager switch and the culture change that came with it, plus the continued growth of the domestic league, means Spain are in a much better position this time around than four years ago. The results on the pitch bear this out. Spain were the only European team to win every one of their eight World Cup qualifying matches. To test themselves further, Spain have played 12 warm-up matches (compared to just five last time) ahead of the tournament since qualifying. The results have been encouraging: wins over World Cup teams Brazil, Cameroon, and the Netherlands, creditable draws against Germany, Canada, and Japan, and one-goal losses to the USWNT and England, both of which enter the World Cup with legitimate chances to win it.

Though Group B isn’t exactly easy, Spain are still favored to finish second and qualify for the knockouts, where they’d likely face the U.S. in the first round. This Spain team isn’t perfect, so it wouldn’t be a total shock if they failed to make it out of the group again. Regardless, the Spanish players must feel much more positive and confident on the eve of this World Cup than they did on the last one. This time, spared from Quereda’s belligerence and dismal preparation, Spain can focus all their energies on what they actually came there to do: play, and win.

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Roster

Goalkeepers: Dolores Gallardo (Atlético Madrid), Sandra Paños (Barcelona), María Asunción Quiñones (Real Sociedad)

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Defense: Celia Jiménez (Reign FC), Leila Ouahabi (Barcelona), Irene Paredes (Paris Saint-Germain), Ivana Andrés (Levante), Marta Torrejón (Barcelona), María Pilar León (Barcelona), Andrea Pereira (Barcelona)

Midfielders: Victoria Losada (Barcelona), Marta Corredera (Levante), Alexia Putellas (Barcelona), Patricia Guijarro (Barcelona), Virginia Torrecilla (Montpellier), Silvia Meseguer (Atlético Madrid), Aitana Bonmatí (Barcelona), Amanda Sampedro (Atlético Madrid), Andrea Falcón (Atlético Madrid)

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Forwards: Mariona Caldentey (Barcelona), Jennifer Hermoso (Atlético Madrid), Lucía García (Athletic Bilbao), Nahikari García (Real Sociedad)

Nickname

La Roja (The Red)

FIFA World Ranking

13

Manager

Jorge Vilda

How They Play

Expect Spain to play like a Spanish team: quick, technical players knocking the ball from teammate to teammate for long stretches, swapping positions and looking for darting combinations to work the ball into the box and score. This team is heavily influenced by the current Barcelona women’s team, because 10 of the 23 squad members play for the Catalan club. Five more play for Spain’s other big club, Atlético Madrid (Real Madrid don’t even field a women’s team, adding yet more proof that they are world soccer’s bad guys), including star striker Jenni Hermoso.

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As the only Spaniard on the roster with more than 15 international goals to her name, Hermoso is by necessity the focal point of Spain’s attack. Which worked out well in qualifying, as she either scored or assisted 16 of Spain’s 25 goals. The Spanish league’s top scorer this season, Hermoso is a mobile forward who likes to wander all over the pitch to aid in both possession and creative duties. Hermoso knows how to calibrate her touches between soft and hammering depending on what the situation requires—

—and often causes just as much damage when she’s not scoring:

Spain use a variety of formations, but they tend to prefer the 4-3-3 and always stick Hermoso somewhere in the middle. And while Hermoso is great, Spain are probably even stronger on the defensive end than in attack. The key to Barcelona’s perfect qualification campaign was the defense, led by captain Marta Torrejón, giving up only two goals in eight matches. Keeping things tight in the back should be the easy part; it’ll be how many goals Hermoso and Co. score themselves that will determine just how successful Spain’s World Cup is by the end.

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Group B Fixtures

June 8, 12 p.m.: Spain vs. South Africa at Stade Océane

June 12, 12 p.m.: Germany vs. Spain at Stade du Hainaut

June 17, 12 p.m.: China vs. Spain at Stade Océane

All times Eastern