At the final whistle of the 2023 Women’s World Cup, Spain’s players ran into a joyous pile on the field, screaming and hugging each other. The staff, meanwhile, jumped up and down in a distinctly separate group half a field away. Head coach Jorge Vilda celebrated amongst the team for a few seconds, an unsubtle space clearing around him, then he quietly slipped away. The players continued cheering. It was a succinct reminder that sometimes it can be quite complicated to be a sports fan.
On the television show “The Good Place,” the character of Michael talks about the impossibility of moral purity for people who have to exist in the real world. “Every day, the world gets a little more complicated,” he says, “And being a good person gets a little harder.”
That’s been part of the dilemma for fans who want to cheer on Spain’s players but cannot stop placing this win in the context of other players protesting against RFEF and the accusations that Vilda and his coaching staff had created an unprofessional and overly controlling training environment. “I don’t want this to justify keeping on a coach who mistreats players” has been a common refrain among fans here at the tournament and on social media in the buildup to this final.
Before kickoff, fans at Stadium Australia cheered for Spain’s players as they were announced, then turned to boos for Vilda, continuing to boo him whenever he was shown on the big screen. They booed him again when he received his medal on stage, with an extra bit of booing tossed in for good measure as he gave a little wave to the audience.
While Aitana Bonmatí and other members of Las 15, who sent a letter of protest against Vilda, were reportedly convinced that enough change had occurred for them to return, others such as Patri Guijarro, Mapi León and Clàudia Pina continued to refuse to be selected — willing to miss out on a World Cup in order to stand by their principles.
The players who stayed behind made a statement that’s impossible to ignore, given how important and rare World Cups are.
“It’s possible these players will never be in this position again,” Sam Mewis wrote when describing what it was like to go to a World Cup final and the uniqueness of the moment, given the vagaries of injuries and coach decisions and timing. It’s nearly impossible to imagine working toward something for half your life or longer and then to give up on it out of principle.
How much can a person be expected to sacrifice? Real Madrid’s players did not join in on the protest against Vilda, reportedly due to pressure from the club, a move which caused months of tension with Barcelona players on the national team.
“I’m not going to hide that it’s been a complicated year,” Bonmatí told The Athletic in an interview after the semifinal. “At club level, it’s been an incredible year. But at national team level, it’s been tough. I’ve seen both sides of the same coin.
“I’ve suffered a lot, but now I’m focused on what’s happening. We can’t stay stuck in the past, we have to move forward.”
Vilda’s position with Spain is stronger – but World Cup win will embolden players too
It’s unspoken, but unavoidable: they will have to move forward with Vilda. Short of some kind of political gaffe from him, it seems he’s there to stay unless he chooses to leave on his own terms. Winning can smooth over a lot of ills. Bonmatí herself, the recipient of the Golden Ball for the best player of the tournament, is now likely the leading candidate for the Ballon d’Or.
After the game, Teresa Abelleira, a player instrumental to Spain’s win, was asked if she thought Vilda should resign. She refused to answer, instead telling reporters that it was a time to celebrate, and that it felt like an ugly question on such a beautiful day — a fair sentiment, given the magnitude of what the players had just achieved. That was emblematic of all the players who spoke; the vibe was one of celebration, and no one was going to interrupt that to dissect anything except perhaps how they’d taken apart England’s defense. Again, fair, given the Vilda issue was not going to be solved that night by the players themselves.
Solidifying their connection, Vilda name-dropped RFEF president Luis Rubiales several times in his postgame press conference, praising him and the federation for their support, saying via translator that they never said no to anything the players asked for.
And the federation itself tweeted pointed support of Vilda before the players could even walk through the mixed zone.
☝️ 𝗩𝗜𝗟𝗗𝗔 𝗜𝗡. pic.twitter.com/qmOJbNhAID
— Selección Española Femenina de Fútbol (@SEFutbolFem) August 20, 2023
As much as the players who were brave enough to voice their discontent have a right to be upset at the lack of support from their teammates, all of these things are exactly why labor solidarity is so hard to organize. Protesting is scary. Striking is scary. You only have to look at the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike, in which studio executives allegedly tried to intimidate laborers by saying they were willing to wait until they started losing their homes.
When the person who signs your paycheck tells you not to get involved, or your teammates are willing to cross a picket line, or the federation that controls your international career goes all-in on the guy you’re protesting, you can understand how someone would be too scared to put themselves out there — particularly in a business as mercurial as women’s soccer, where careers can end in one badly-timed tackle and only a few players are making enough money to retire on.
So as a sports fan, as a World Cup fan, a Spain fan, or as someone who wants the best for women’s soccer: how do you account for something that you love with the most vulnerable and soft parts of yourself being created by an imperfect process?
Honestly, it’s too late to hope that Vilda might somehow be denied credit and lose standing with the federation. Rubiales has praised Vilda more than once in this tournament, telling media before the final, “He is honest, hard-working, with bags of quality. I have always said it, he’s a world-class coach.” (Rubiales grabbed and kissed Jenni Hermoso on stage at the medal ceremony; later on Salma Paralleulo’s Instagram Live, Rubiales again was touching Hermoso, declaring that he would marry her in Ibiza. Hermoso could be heard on the stream saying “I didn’t like it… but what do I do, look at me” in reference to the kiss.)
Even if Spain had lost, Vilda evidently has built up plenty of support at the federation. It’s not the first time that someone who may not deserve the credit receives it in sports, and it won’t be the last. It won’t be the first time that fans have discovered that a team that they love has suffered behind the scenes and had to ask themselves if they can separate the players from the institution.
In the end, there are no perfect choices. If there is a footnote on this victory in anyone’s mind, that is fair. In this moment, it would be stranger not to have complicated feelings about the situation, which takes place in an ecosystem of player wellbeing that is interlinked with the strength of player unions, historical undervaluation of the Spanish WNT by RFEF, the growing power of women’s sports coverage, the relative dearth of elite women’s club environments creating less career security, and so on.
“The Good Place” doesn’t just posit that it’s hard to find moral clarity in our complicated world. It also asks us to consider that trying to achieve some ultimate designation of “good” or “bad” shouldn’t be the goal, but instead anyone can try to be better than they were the day before. You don’t have to make sense of things today. Just try to get to a better place tomorrow.
(Photo: Andy Cheung/Getty Images)