It was the second half of extra time and the legs of the Spain players felt heavy.
But while others wilted, substitute Salma Paralluelo stepped up. Despite her youth, the 19-year-old has been regularly counted on by Jorge Vilda, who has bet heavily on her since last year.
She’s been a regular starter at this World Cup but the decision to keep her fresh for the later stages of the game proved key against the Netherlands. In the 111th minute, after receiving the ball in the middle of the field, she ran like a gazelle and no one could stop her. Alone against the world, she was on the verge of making history. Her strike hit the post and then found the back of the net to give Spain a 2-1 lead and, ultimately, the victory.
Netherlands did not have the capacity to come back and Spain knew it. The players on the bench ran down the sideline to celebrate Salma Paralluelo’s decisive goal who, despite coming on in the 70th minute, would be MVP of the match.
Salma Paralluelo may have sent her country to their first-ever #FIFAWWC semi-final 🤩
— ITV Football (@itvfootball) August 11, 2023
WHAT A WAY TO SCORE YOUR FIRST FIFA WOMEN’S WORLD CUP GOAL, SALMA PARALLUELO 🇪🇸 pic.twitter.com/1DI0Vtszxi
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) August 11, 2023
Stephanie Frappart blew the final whistle and the Spain players went wild. They were in the World Cup semi-finals, they had just made history.
“All I can think about is that we’ve worked so hard for this. I remember now when my grandfather used to take me to the park when I was 5 years old and I started kicking the ball,” Jennifer Hermoso said with tears in the mixed zone.
Hermoso is 33 years old and this may be her last World Cup. She has seen the national team go through many eras in which they either did not qualify for the World Cup or did not get past the group stage or round of 16.
“I was on the bench sitting with Alexia Putellas. We have gone through so much over the years. We’ve struggled a lot. We have lived through a lot. To reach a moment like today, to sit on the bench and be able to say ‘we are in the semi-finals’. People think it’s easy, but it’s not. It’s half a lifetime. You have to go far away from home, then you have to come back. When the criticism comes, we suffer it. We are human beings first and foremost. We have worked hard for this. I feel very proud”.
“What do you feel right now?” veteran Irene Paredes was asked a little later. “That question makes me cry,” Paredes responded, before tearfully leaving the mixed zone.
Spain dominated possession, especially in the first half: they had 26 shots to Netherlands’ nine. They had the ball, the ideas, the pressing intensity and everything that had been demanded of them in their previous matches.
There was only one change from the round of 16 match against Switzerland, their best game to date – eventual matchwinner Salma Paralluelo being replaced by Mariona Caldentey, with Vilda opting for experience and more defensive stability.
It was a brilliant display from the Barcelona midfielder. She almost made a superb assist for Alba Redondo early in the game before opening the scoring herself from the penalty spot after Stefanie van der Gragt handled in the box. Van der Gragt atoned for her error in the 91st minute to take the game to extra time.
Spain didn’t crumble and, in winning, have broken many barriers. The first was to make the semi-finals. The second was to win in a knockout round against one of the great powers in the FIFA rankings. The third, overcoming a goal against at the end of the match and succeeding in extra time.
They had fallen short in the European Championship last year after a very close match against England in which an extra time goal by Georgia Stanway knocked them out. It seemed as if the team had given up afterwards, but today was very different.
“We thought a lot about whether this World Cup would be like it always is, whether it would happen to us like it always does,” Hermoso said after the match. “It’s a gift, we’ve worked hard for it,” she added before bursting into tears again.
The players paraded excitedly through the mixed zone. Especially the older ones. They were used to answering more tricky questions that responded to internal crises than to successes.
“Today you are not going to ask me?”, Paredes joked. She’s one of the players that always talks to the press in the bad moments.
A certain sense of relief could be felt from a team that was coming from a turbulent year, with many doubts after arriving at the World Cup without solving the existing problems.
It has been the year of ‘Las 15′, of the revolution of the players against Vilda, the year of going to the World Cup without some of the best players in the world in their positions.
It has been the year in which many problems within the RFEF have exploded in their women’s team.
Before the match, Spain were so focused that they didn’t even notice the earthquake in Wellington just before the game. When asked about it at a press conference, Jorge Vilda didn’t even realize it had happened.
“The earthquake today was Spain,” he said with a chuckle.
(Photo: Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)