Spain, in just its third senior World Cup, advanced to the final for the first time on Tuesday with a 2-1 victory over Sweden in the first semifinal of the 2023 World Cup.
The Big Story: Spain’s first final is the culmination of a decade of player development that has yielded some of the best individual talents in the world. La Roja made their senior World Cup debut in 2015, finishing last in their group with one point. They made the Round of 16 in 2019, narrowly losing to the United States. On Tuesday, led by teenage substitute Salma Paralluelo late in the match, Spain and Sweden traded goals in an explosive final 10 minutes of an otherwise cagey game.
Paralluelo came on in the 57th minute and scored in the 81st — the 19-year-old’s second goal off the bench in as many games — after Jenni Hermoso set up the play from a deeper role. Sweden equalized seven minutes later through Rebecka Blomqvist, but Olga Carmona struck the winner in the 90th minute, capping off a wild finale to the match.
The Big Moment: Paralluelo broke open the scoring in the 81st minute, but the game-winner came in the 90th minute, when Teresa Abelleira played a quick, short corner kick to Carmona at the top of the box. Carmona took a setup touch and fired a left-footed shot over Sweden goalkeeper Zećira Mušović.
What it means: For Spain, it’s a long-term plan paying off and confirmation of the program’s rise to the world elite. All of the signs pointing to that have been clear for even the most casual observer. Spain’s youth teams have been sensational, winning both the U-20 World Cup and U-17 World Cup last year, and winning four of the past five U-19 European Championships that have been contested. Barcelona, home to many of Spain’s top players, has set the bar in Europe (and largely, globally) at the club level in recent years, winning the Champions League in 2021 and 2023. This is Spain’s golden generation, and it is not by accident.
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There is, of course, necessary context about the players who are not here and should be. Fifteen players spoke out against the federation and, implicitly or explicitly, head coach Jorge Vilda last fall, calling for improved standards and changes within the federation.. Vilda responded by dropping them from selection and calling up a young Spanish side that didn’t appear to miss a beat, including a victory over the United States in October. Vilda remained in charge and had the backing of the federation brass as he demanded “respect” from the players. The federation threatened players with suspension from playing unless they apologized. Some did — Mariona Caldentey, Ona Batlle and Aitana Bonmati are three players on the World Cup squad from that group of 15 — while others, like center back Mapi Leon and midfielder Patri Guijarro, did not and have not returned.
For Sweden, it’s another exit at the semifinal stage. The Swedes have made it to the semifinals at five World Cups now, but only once have they made the final and never have they won the competition. They hoped that they were building into the tournament, and that their consistent, pragmatic approach — combined with experience at this stage — could prevail over a more technical, youthful Spain side. Sweden showed that grit when Blomqvist scored an equalizer seven minutes after Spain went ahead, but Carmona had the final say.
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