Spain’s Women’s World Cup controversy explained: Why coach Jorge Vilda is under fire despite getting to final

Spain will play in their first Women’s World Cup final on Sunday, but will do so without a handful of top players because of an ongoing protest against the Royal Spanish Football Federation.

In September 2022, 15 players sent the federation separate but identical emails asking not to be called up to the national team, citing a lack of professionalism that each player wrote had an “important effect on my emotional state and by extension my health.” They demanded “a clear commitment to a professional project with attention paid to all the aspects needed to get the best performance of this group of players” in the email.

The 15 players were Aitana Bonmati, Mariona Caldentey, Ona Batlle, Patri Guijarro, Mapi Leon, Sandra Panos, Claudia Pina, Lola Gallardo, Ainhoa Moraza, Nerea Eizagirre, Amaiur Sarriegi, Lucia Garcia, Leila Ouahabi, Laia Aleixandri and Andrea Pereira. Three additional players who did not send emails voiced their support for the others: Alexia Putellas, Jennifer Hermoso, and captain Irene Paredes.

According to The Athletic, among the players’ complaints was insufficient preparation for matches, from arriving to host cities too late and traveling by bus when planes would be considered the practical choice. The players also reportedly had issues with several coaches, alleging they were asked them to keep their hotel room doors open until midnight and inspected their bags after they went on excursions during camps. The players never explicitly asked for head coach Jorge Vilda or his coaching staff to be fired, but it was clear the relationship between them was fractured.

Instead of taking the players’ complaints seriously, though, the federation instantly backed Vilda and criticized those who protested. Ana Alvarez, head of women’s soccer at the federation, said that players would need to apologize before they were welcomed back onto the team, and added that “the federation comes first.”

Those 18 players missed a handful of Spain friendlies that fall, including an October friendly against the U.S. women’s national team that a depleted squad eventually won, but things started to change in the winter. Hermoso returned to the team in February and then talks between the players and Alvarez began in March. Paredes then rejoined the team in March, and Putellas returned soon after recovering from an ACL tear in April.

A handful of players felt optimistic about the progress in discussion with the federation, which included hiring more support staff and improved travel conditions plus more freedom during camp. Eight of the 15 players who sent emails in September, as a result, made themselves available for selection on the World Cup team. Three eventually made the cut — Bonmati, Caldentey, and Batlle.

Three players — Leon, Guijarro, and Pina — notably said the changes were not enough for them to change their stance. “Mapi Leon has a way of life and values,” Leon said in June, per RAC1. “I can’t go back if the situation doesn’t change … There has to be changes. I’m not saying that they’re not doing it, but I don’t see them. What saddens me the most is that I really have to miss out on something when I could have earned it and contributed. It’s a shame.”

It is unclear if and how the protest will evolve after the World Cup, or whether the Spanish federation and Vilda took away the necessary lessons from the pre-tournament protest. The latter seems unlikely after federation president Luis Rubiales backed Vilda on Thursday and said the coach has “forgotten the people … who wanted to destroy him.”

The protest and limited resolution hangs over Spain’s World Cup run as a sign of how much the players have had to overcome in order to achieve a historic moment. Some, like former USWNT forward Christen Press, hope Spain’s accomplishments afford the players more leverage in a country that has historically disregarded women’s soccer. Others fear that the World Cup success will allow the federation to undermine the players’ original complaints. It will always be worth asking, though, how much more this talented Spain team could have achieved if the players were adequately supported throughout the process.

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