There was 40 minutes to go before Spain’s first game since their World Cup victory. Sweden’s players had been warming up on the Gamla Ullevi pitch in Gothenburg for the opening Women’s Nations League (WNL) fixture. Some fans had come to the stadium early. When the Spanish players came on, it sounded like a full house.
The players emerged from the tunnel with their eyes fixed on the pitch, but they immediately looked up in surprise, staring into the stands.
The Swedish fans began to shout, to cheer the players, to give them a standing ovation – the one the World Cup-winning team deserve, the same team that eliminated Sweden in the semi-finals in Auckland.
Banners went up among the crowd of Swedish fans: “Se acabo (It’s over)”. “With you, Jenni and La Roja”.
It was an ovation beyond a star sewn onto their chest. It was the hero’s treatment they deserved for getting through another challenging week, the fifth successive one since the World Cup final on August 20. It was the first opportunity to receive recognition for their bravery and struggles.
Prior to the game, both sets of players had promised joint action and they delivered. After the national anthems, the Spanish and Swedish players came together, fists raised and a banner spread between them: “Se acabo (It’s over). Our fight is the global fight”.
The players on the bench wore the same slogan written on a wristband. The struggles of the week were reflected in their faces. Lack of sleep translated into deep, dark circles under the eyes of the Spanish players.
A small glimmer of light was beginning to appear, though. It came at the cost of Jennifer Hermoso, the unwitting victim of Luis Rubiales’ actions after the World Cup final; at the cost of Patri Guijarro, Mapi Leon and Claudia Pina, who were among the 12 players who missed the tournament over a long-running dispute with the Spanish football federation (RFEF); and at the cost of the players’ mental health.
Progress in Spanish women’s football has always been at the cost of something or someone. The players have felt alone all these years, but now they have political support — even that was slow to arrive — from other team-mates and other national teams. They are no longer alone.
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“From being without support, as we have been… now the CSD (National Sports Council) has come in forcefully, but until now we have felt alone,” centre-back Irene Paredes said at the pre-match press conference. “They were late. All that has to be corrected. Hopefully it won’t happen again, but if it does, there has to be a protocol.”
The most critical week for the RFEF in recent years began on Monday. The Friday before, Montse Tome was due to be presented as head coach. It was scheduled for 4pm. It was delayed and then cancelled. The players had not been convinced.
The players released a statement in which they warned that the changes proposed by the RFEF were not enough. Thirty-nine players signed it. From the World Cup, only Athenea del Castillo and Claudia Zornoza — who announced her retirement from the national team — did not sign the statement. Neither did Sheila Garcia, who was in the World Cup squad of 30 but did not make the final 23.
They said they needed departments to be restructured. They wanted everyone who had “held, incited, hidden or applauded attitudes that go against the dignity of women” out of the RFEF.
After the release of the statement, a meeting between Pedro Rocha, the president of the RFEF, and the players went on until the early hours of the morning. The players were not changing their minds. The RFEF was open to some changes but others were considered to be long-term and could not realistically materialise within the timeframe set by the players.
The players asked for an agreement in writing, but the RFEF did not agree. The players’ entourages have assured The Athletic they still did not trust the RFEF’s word.
Monday came and the RFEF released a statement: in the afternoon, there would be a presentation of Tome and a list of players called up for the upcoming Nations League fixtures.
The players waited at home, trying to guess the RFEF’s next step, but it was one they had not anticipated. The world champions were called up. Worst still, the list included Guijarro and Leon, who had previously withdrawn from the World Cup, as were some of the 15 players who had been in dispute with the federation. To add insult to injury, Hermoso was not called up to “protect” her.
During the announcement press conference, Tome said that when she had spoken to the players, none of them had told her they were not eligible for selection.
“She’s lying,” a source close to the players told The Athletic a few minutes later. “Neither Patri nor Mapi have ever spoken to Tome. Neither have the rest of them. They stand by their last statement saying they were not eligible for selection. That’s what they told the RFEF.”
The players panicked and began to mobilise, speaking to those closest to them for advice. They were aware that if they didn’t go to Sweden, there could be a financial penalty and next time, their licence to play international fixtures and for their clubs could be revoked. They had no choice.
They sought advice through the CSD and told them of their anxiety — that they did not feel strong enough to go. There were many doubts. There was a potential argument that the players should not go because the RFEF had not given them the required 15-day notice. They sought advice from lawyers. It was a particularly difficult time for Leon and Guijarro, who missed the World Cup.
The players issued a statement, saying they had not been given 15 days’ notice and that they condemned their call-up. Hermoso also released a statement saying that at no time had she been warned she was not going to be called up. Tome had said that not calling up Hermoso would protect her, to which she replied: “Protect me from what or who?”
On Tuesday, the players woke up to the news the RFEF had changed the venue for where they should report following the call-up. Usually, this takes place at Las Rozas (Madrid), but they were told to go to Oliva (Valencia). This was a manoeuvre they felt was just another ruse by the federation, a way of diverting media attention. Spoiler: it didn’t.
The called-up players — minus Gotham FC forward Esther Gonzalez (out with an ankle injury) — arrived in the Valencian city in batches. The Barcelona players arrived in the afternoon.
The national team is a mixed group, combining players who have lived through two protests (one in 2015 and the present one) and also younger members, such as 19-year-old Salma Paralluelo.
During the drafting of Friday’s announcement, there were several opinions among the squad. Older players wanted to name and shame the people they wanted out of the RFEF. The younger players wanted to be cautious.
In fear that the younger players would succumb, the team confronted Tome. The meeting lasted nine hours — it ended at 6am the next day. Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas, Paredes and Misa Rodriguez were the players at the forefront of the negotiations, serving as a bridge between their team-mates and the federation. Eventually, a decision was taken by the players to stay, except Leon and Guijarro.
Those supported by the CSD, such as Leon and Guijarro, were able to leave on the grounds their state of mind did not allow them to continue and they were able to do so with the guarantee of not being sanctioned.
The meeting with Tome, who was already rumoured to be ready to resign after her ‘no-show’, was tense and the immediacy of the Nations League games (as Olympic qualification matches) prevented any drastic decisions, but her time at the helm does not look set to be a long one.
After multiple meetings, backed by the CSD, the players were given some assurances that what they were asking for was going to happen. There was going to be a change in the RFEF’s organisational structure. The federation issued a statement apologising to the players and assured them that the change “was necessary”.
Wednesday dawned with the emotional hangover of what happened in the early hours of Tuesday. Guijarro and Leon returned to Barcelona after thanking the press for staying up to wait for them.
The players were initially told that, due to the late meeting, they were not going to train in the afternoon, but the RFEF called a training session later that day.
“We’re not staying because we’re comfortable,” Putellas said after the first training session.
Andreu Camps, RFEF secretary general, was dismissed — a non-negotiable for the players. He was Rubiales’ right-hand man, a man who once told players he did not want to put their names on their bibs “because it was too expensive”.
The national team travelled to Sweden on Thursday to prepare for the match against Sweden the next day. In the afternoon, Tome, Putellas and Paredes were noticeably emotional during the press conference.
“We’re tired, there are things that we understand are already happening and improving,” Paredes said. “But the light at the end of the tunnel still can’t be seen.
“This is very long and above all we’re conscious that now we’ve got the loudspeaker to be able to do it, we have a lot of people behind us — lots of team-mates from other national teams, from other sports and women in their jobs and lives who are suffering similar cases.”
On Friday, as the players were welcomed as heroes in Sweden, another RFEF sacking was announced — director of integrity, Miguel Garcia Caba.
The players said they had slept four hours a day all week, putting their bodies at risk, exposing themselves to injury. The captains were announced and they had changed from the World Cup – Paredes and Putellas, accompanied by Aitana Bonmati and Mariona Caldentey. The captaincy was voted for by the players.
Although Putellas was voted first, she gave the armband to Paredes. She was and would have remained captain of the team during the World Cup if she had not been vetoed by the sacked World Cup-winning coach Jorge Vilda.
During the match, players who were part of ‘Las 15’, such as Lucia Garcia, Laia Aleixandri, and Amaiur Sarriegi, returned.
“The call-up was a surprise and caused me a lot of anger,” Caldentey told The Athletic after the match. “It’s been days of nerves and a lot of meetings.”
Spain defeated Sweden in a pattern that resembled that of the World Cup. They were leading 2-1 thanks to a goal from Athenea del Castillo and a beautiful goal from Eva Navarro. Sweden equalised late in the game, then Caldentey scored the winning goal from the penalty spot in extra time. This was the first victory for the newly crowned world champions in a new era for the team.
The players celebrated the victory in a restrained way, opening up in a circle as they did after each goal. Licking their wounds, anxious but empowered.
They had just beaten the No 1 FIFA-ranked team and with a different coach — further proof that this squad is the best in the world.
The players feel they have suffered a lot of physical and mental exhaustion while fighting against the RFEF’s abuse of power and fighting for decent wages in La Liga F.
They have felt alone all this time. They felt lonely with Ignacio Quereda in 2015, when the players protested against their manager of 27 years; they felt lonely when ‘Las 15’ protested last year; and they felt lonely during the World Cup.
They learnt from all the protests. The protests that once divided them have now made them unite into a single entity with a coherent and well-organised discourse.
But they are no longer alone. The applause in Gamla Ullevi was proof of this. On and off the field, this is a timeless team.
(Top photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images)