Women’s Euro 2022: Can Spain’s pre-tournament dark horse still dazzle

The rise of the national team from a place where it has always won to a constant presence in major competitions over the past decade has been one of the most notable successes in the international women’s arena.

Euro 2022 was to show how a growing domestic league, historic payout deal and dedicated youth system culminated in Spain, which entered the tournament undefeated and became an international force.

In the first leg against Finland, Spain impressed with a 4-1 win, but Tuesday’s clash of hippos, when La Roja faces Germany in Group B, will be a bigger test for the team without two of the world’s best players.

On the eve of the tournament, Spain suffered its second major blow in as many weeks. After it was announced in June that top scorer of all time Jenny Hermoso would miss Euro 2022 with a knee injury, La Roja received the devastating news on July 5 that totem midfielder Alexia Putellas had torn her left anterior cruciate ligament.

It’s hard to overestimate how important Putellas is to this team: a prolific goalscorer, a mercurial playmaker and a player of individual brilliance who can single-handedly win any game.

Spain will now have to try to compete without the world’s two best players, with Putellas and Hermoso finishing first and second respectively in the 2021 Ballon d’Or standings.

“Alexia is a very strong word, but she is everything,” said Amalia Fra, football pundit for the Spanish sports newspaper AS. CNN Sports. “She is the whole team, because she is like a compass in the middle of the field, which distributes and moves the opposing team.

“On top of that… she gets up and puts herself at number 9 and scores a goal for you. She does it in such a way that La Roja’s entire acting is based on her, but we shouldn’t underestimate the rest. team because we have amazing centre-backs, Mapi Leon and Irene Paredes are some of the best in the world.

Alexia Putellas will miss Euro 2022 due to an ACL tear.

“In the center of the field Aytan [Bonmatí] and Patri [Guijarro] are also the best and her performance with them, with whom she plays every day at Barça, keeps the team going.”

Now, in the absence of Putellas and Hermoso, the likes of Paredes, León, Bonmati and Guijarro will have to lead the Spaniards to their first major international trophy.

‘Exponential Growth’

Prior to the 2015 World Cup in Canada, Spanish women’s football was unrecognizable by the standards it sets today.

Frah recalled that the players had to travel hundreds of miles each day for training and said that no nutrition plan existed.

“It was after the 2015 World Cup, when Spain qualified for the World Cup for the first time, that Spain really got into women’s football and the players turned pro,” Fra said.

“They started getting cash benefits, and then [the federation] also relied on the creation of a more powerful league and its professionalization, which, one might say, is something unprecedented.

Spain were eliminated from the 2015 World Cup finishing last in their group.

“Since then, there has been an exponential growth of the team in terms of players, physique, resources and even the fact that the players, as the national team coach Jorge Vilda said, are now professionals and can make a living from it. “

Back in early 2020, the Women’s First Division players reached a historic league-wide deal that guaranteed every player a year’s salary.

The minimum wage for a full-time player negotiated for a 40-hour work week was €16,000 ($18,000) and for a part-time 30-hour work week it was €12,000 ($13,600), including vacation maternity, injury pay and paid leave. .

The deal was the culmination of years of incremental improvements, which also included a deal with television and major title sponsor renewable energy company Iberdrola.

The Historic Women's Deal is a reward for all the hard work we've put in over the years & # 39;  says the star of spain

But the path was not easy. In November 2019, after their minimum wage demands were not met, footballers boycotted all eight First Division matches in one weekend after 189 representatives from 16 clubs in the league voted 93% in favor of the strike.

However, when the deal was eventually made, first division players could begin to dedicate their working lives exclusively to football.

“Today there are still many players from the Spanish national team who are still learning because they think their careers are too short and what they earn is not enough to live the rest of their lives,” Fra said.

“So they keep learning, they keep learning… but today a player of any team in the league can live off what he earns with his team and the national team.

“In addition, they have a bonus that with the euro they will receive some allowances and image rights that will complement these salaries.”

“The Essence of Barça”

Negotiations for a new deal coincided with the start of Barcelona’s meteoric rise to the top of European football.

Earlier in 2019, Barça became the first Spanish team in history to reach either the semi-finals or final of the Women’s Champions League, eventually losing 4-1 to Lyon in the final.

Two years later, Azulgrana finally got their hands on the most coveted prize in European football by beating Chelsea 4-0 in the final announcing what they had hoped would be a power shift in the European game.

Barça reached the final again this year, where they lost to Lyon, and many of the players involved in Barcelona’s rise were integral to Spain’s rise to a record high of seventh in the world rankings.

Alexia Putellas celebrating victory over Chelsea in the 2021 Champions League final.

There are certainly parallels to be drawn to the men’s national team that dominated world and European football between 2008 and 2012, mostly with players from Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona.

Eight players (there were nine before Putellas’ injury) from the current Barcelona women’s team have been called up to the 23-player squad for UEFA Euro 2022, with six starting in the team’s opening game.

Like Guardiola’s Barça and the Spanish national team of the time, this team’s style was heavily influenced by the Catalan giant.

“Barcelona has a singing voice,” Fra explained. “Spain play basically the same as Barça: tiki-taka, touching and verticality in attack. So it’s a great honor that Barça have invested so much because the national team has grown thanks to it.

“The styles are very similar. Moreover, the players who have weight in the national team are the three midfielders Aitan. [Bonmatí]Alexia [Putellas] and Patri Guijarro – they have the essence of Barça, they are from the academy.

“Their references when they were little were Javi and [Andrés] Iniesta. They looked up to these players, they created this style at Barca, they play like that, and they are the ones who carry the dominant weight and they are the ones who make this team work. Basically, I would say it’s exactly the same as Barça in 2010.”

Barcelona’s pulsing, fleeting style of football has recently led club legend and current head coach of the men’s team Xavi to describe the team as a “mastermind”.

Barcelona has a big presence in the Spanish national team.

moderate expectations

Vilda took over after former head coach Ignacio Quereda was sacked after 27 years in charge of the team due to Spain’s disappointing performance at the 2015 World Cup in Canada.

This was the first time the women’s team had qualified for the World Cup, but after finishing last in their group, the players subsequently came out and denounced the lack of professionalism in the setup.

After failing to qualify for the 2011 World Cup, La Roja qualified for every major international tournament and has already secured a spot at next year’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

This record contrasts sharply with the previous 26 years, when he only managed to qualify for one major tournament between 1987 and 2013, Euro 1997.

Vilda was appointed after leading the Under-17s and Under-19s to numerous European Championship titles and many of the players who played a key role in these teams’ success are now an integral part of the senior team.

Jorge Vilda was named head coach of the senior women's national team following his success in the youth system.

In qualifying for Euro 2022, Spain won seven and drew one, scoring 48 goals and only conceding once, but Fra urged caution.

“To reach the semi-finals, of course, would be a success,” Fra said. “We must not lose sight of the fact that Spain has never reached a final, not even a semi-final. They don’t have the experience that other teams like Germany, England, France, Sweden or Norway have.

“It is true that the path of this team in recent years has made [fans] to believe and invite them to dream, but Jorge Vilda lowered the atmosphere of expectations a bit because he finds it negative that people come with such high expectations that there is too much faith in something that we have never done.

“If they don’t reach the semi-finals, it won’t be a failure. It would be a failure, for example, not to pass the group stage, because I think that Spain have such an opportunity and they should pass, but another thing is that we already require the team to be at Wembley on 31 July.

It will no doubt be difficult to compete against some of the best teams in the world without two star players, but this team still boasts a plethora of talent that few teams would be happy to take on.