For Spain and England, a Swift Rise Is Also a Warning

Not long after he had taken up his post as president of the Spanish soccer federation, Luis Rubiales called a meeting with the organization’s head of women’s soccer, Rafael Del Amo. Like his boss, Del Amo was new to his role, but Rubiales wanted to gauge his first impressions. He wanted to know what the Spanish women’s team needed in order to succeed.

The answer he received was instructive. There was no effort to sugarcoat it for the new boss. The players, at that stage, did not have jerseys designed to be worn by women, let alone things like elite training facilities or a fully professionalized domestic league. Spain, Del Amo told Rubiales, needed “everything.”

That conversation took place in May 2018. It has taken only five years for Spain’s horizons to change utterly. The fitted jerseys arrived in 2019. The professional domestic league came in 2021. On Sunday, for the first time, Spain will take the field in a Women’s World Cup final, separated from the sport’s ultimate glory only by another debutante on the grandest stage in women’s soccer, England.

In one light, it is perhaps a slightly underwhelming denouement to a World Cup that has acted as a showcase for the breadth of talent now flourishing across the women’s game. The last four weeks have been illuminated, at various times, by Nigeria and Jamaica, Morocco and South Africa, Colombia and Australia.

That the last two teams standing should be wealthy European nations — and traditional soccer powers — is, though, a wholly fitting indication of the sport’s ascendant reality.

The axis of women’s soccer has been tilting inexorably toward western Europe for some time. As Jessica Berman, the commissioner of the National Women’s Soccer League put it in Sydney on Friday, “The game has leveled up.” The presence of Spain and England in a World Cup final is the culmination of that. It is hard not to read it as some sort of watershed, the moment one era shifted into another.

The finalists’ journeys to this point do not match exactly. The roots of England’s transformation run a little deeper, back to the launch of the Women’s Super League in 2011 and taking in the establishment of a second division (2014), the switch to a winter season (2012) and full professionalization (2018).

That triggered a rush of money into the game: from sponsors, broadcasters and, crucially, the megaliths of the men’s Premier League. That investment is a trickle compared to the sums on offer in the men’s game but a torrent compared to women’s programs elsewhere.

The Women’s Super League attracted a headline sponsor in 2019, in the aftermath of England’s run to the World Cup semifinals, a deal that has subsequently doubled in value. Two years after that, the W.S.L. struck a television deal worth more than $30 million. That money helped establish and finance youth academies, improve coaching and facilities, and attract the imports that have turned the W.S.L. into arguably the strongest domestic competition in the world.

Spain’s rise, by some measures, has been far faster. La Liga Femenina turned professional three years after England, and the national team had never won a World Cup game, let alone reach a final, until 2019. But its team has had the air of a coming force for almost a decade.

The country’s under-17 team reached the final of that age group’s World Cup in 2014; since then, Spain’s record at youth level has been unmatched. It has won the last two editions of the under-17 World Cup, and reached the final of the under-20 competition in both 2018 and 2022, winning the latter.

Most of Coach Jorge Vilda’s squad in Australia and New Zealand took part in one, or more, of those campaigns: Salma Paralluelo, the brilliant forward who ranks as this tournament’s breakout star, scored twice in the final of the under-20 World Cup last year.

It is difficult to trace that success, the emergence of the country’s golden generation, to the work of Spain’s national soccer authorities, given Del Amo’s assessment of what was lacking as recently as 2018. Instead, it tracks much more neatly alongside the growth of Barcelona into Europe’s dominant club team.

Barcelona turned professional in 2015, giving young female players full-time access to the expertise at its prolific youth academy for the first time. In 2019, after losing its first Champions League final to the all-powerful French team Lyon, it set out to ensure its players could compete physically, as well as technically, with any opponent they encountered. It has since won two of the last three editions of the Champions League.

It is not a coincidence that Barcelona should have provided not only the backbone of Vilda’s squad, but all of those Spain teams that have triumphed at youth level, too. Like England, Spain’s success demonstrates not only how central a robust club game is to the health of a national team, but what great strides can be made in a short space of time in women’s soccer with even a modicum of investment and purpose.

More striking still, though, is how uneven the gains have been. It is only a year since the vast majority of Spain’s squad withdrew from international contention because of a raft of deep-seated, long-running complaints about their treatment by the federation. Their list of grievances included the style and ability of Vilda, the coach; the lack of support staff provided on international duty; and the conditions in which they were expected to work while representing their country.

At the same time, budgets in La Liga Femenino continue to vary wildly: Though Barcelona has invested heavily in its women’s team — though even that, by the standards of the men, is a drop in the ocean — few of its rivals have been prepared to do the same. Real Madrid formed its first women’s team only in 2020.

Meanwhile, a major review of the state of women’s soccer in England — led by the former player Karen Carney and published this summer — found that a “major uplift in investment” was required across the game if it was to “fulfill its potential.”

“Despite the positivity and recent successes, the women’s game still finds itself in a start-up phase and a financially vulnerable position,” Carney wrote.

The report identified a range of issues that, if not addressed, threaten to undermine the progress women’s soccer has made in England. There was, Carney wrote, an urgent need to “fix the talent pathway” for young players who will eventually replenish and replace the current England team, and to introduce “minimum standards,” particularly away from the handful of teams at the top of the W.S.L.

England’s squad still contains players who remember the days, in the early phases of their careers, when they had to work second jobs in order to supplement the meager incomes they earned from soccer.

Their opponents on Sunday are still dealing with the fallout from their own fight to be treated as elite athletes by their own federation. They might not need “everything,” as they did five years ago, but that does not mean those battles are conclusively won. Both England and Spain have proved how quickly success can come, in women’s soccer, simply by doing the bare minimum. That should not disguise, though, how much there is left to do.

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