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Athenea Dazzles In 1-1 Draw vs. Sweden

9 Madridistas featured against the backdrop of an ugly rift between the RFEF and 15 players who declined to be called up.

Spain v Sweden - Women´s International Friendly Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images

Before we get to the football, let’s backtrack for a second: when Spain last played on the international stage, they did so under the shroud of a fractured dressing room and wafts of a player revolt. There was a press conference to address the issue, but very little was clarified. Coach Jorge Vilda took an unlimited amount of time to tell his side of the story. Captains Irene, Patri, and Jenni were given less than 10 minutes to answer four questions and denied that a group of players had directly asked for Vilda’s resignation.

Then, Spain defeated Hungary 3-0 and Ukraine 5-0, with things looking surprisingly normal on the pitch. Never underestimate athletes’ ability to compartmentalize, I suppose.

If you thought that would be the end of it, however, you would be very wrong. With the next international break on the horizon, fifteen of the team’s best players each wrote private emails to the RFEF refusing to be called up, arguing that the current situation was untenable and had affected their health and emotional state.

Irene Paredes and Alexia Putellas were absent from the communication due to injury (meaning that they wouldn’t have been available for selection in the first place), but it quickly became apparent that both of them were very much on the side of the 15.

The RFEF decided to respond publicly, saying that the players would need to apologize if they ever wanted to return. The federation also described the situation as “unprecedented,” which is an interesting word to use, given that the last coach, Ignacio Quereda, was ousted by a player a revolt due to his sexist, racist, homophobic, controlling, and bullying behavior.

Little has come out since about the exact dynamics between Vilda and his players, besides a Mundo Deportivo report that alleges extreme controlling behavior identical to Quereda’s in the past:

Vilda forced the players to keep the doors of their rooms open until midnight to check that they were there before going to sleep...In fact, these sources point out, it was Vilda himself who was in charge of closing the door after verifying that the internationals were there. This measure was corrected a couple of years ago, after the players complained about it.

They also claim that [Vilda] controlled them when they went shopping, to the point of checking their bags and their contents, and they even had to say who they were going to have coffee with. All movement was always subject to strict surveillance that made the players feel disturbed and self-conscious on many occasions.

Instead, much of the media focus has been on why no Real Madrid player stood with the 15. Of course, many have leapt to assumptions, and there is already an ugly rift forming between Spanish WoSo fans over this situation. The most we know is that the club itself advised the players against sending the email to the RFEF, putting them in an impossible situation. Why Madrid chose to do that has been subject to more rumors, with an Onda Cero article noting a link between Las Blancas Sporting Director Ana Rossell and Vilda back in the former’s playing days, when Vilda was her coach.

There may very well be some Real players who don’t agree with the 15, but we have no evidence of that at the moment. Jenni Hermoso is the one figure outside the rebel group who has spoken up, posting a long and somewhat unclear statement that can be interpreted either as a declaration in favor of or partially against her compatriots, depending on how you read it.

Regardless, she did not end up being selected, unlike the record number of Madridistas.

Thus, Spain took on Sweden in an environment that has never been more publicly toxic or complex in the history of La Selección. Yet, somehow, we got a relatively normal match, with Spain even looking like the better team after a poor opening ~15 minutes. Never underestimate athletes’ ability to compartmentalize, I suppose.

Vilda’s XI was predictably filled with those who wear the All-White kit at domestic level (eight, to be exact).

Spain lined up in a 4-3-3 of sorts, although Teresa Abelleira’s and Irene Guerrero’s roles were rather loose, leading to different shapes in midfield and an ambiguous responsibility in the pivot position (Tere was nominally the DM, although Irene is considered to be an actual DM on paper).

Peter Gerhardsson deployed Sweden in an interesting 3-4-3, placing Fridolina Rolfö central and Asllani on the right.

The Blue and Yellow started off the match as the superior side, pressing high and possessing most of the ball against an uncharacteristically conservative Spain. Vilda, no doubt, had looked at his new lineup and decided to sit off and boot it long. Initially, it didn’t work out. Spain’s directness engendered new possessions for Sweden and pushed La Furia Roja back.

Asllani, who spoke about Spain’s situation before the game (in Spanish, if you were curious), was ever-present in this period, finding pockets to receive with ease and pressing well.

In the 14th minute, she burst onto a ball from Rolfö and squared a pass to Rebecka Blomqvist, nudging Sweden into the lead.

Spain’s defense was poor on this sequence, perhaps displaying their discomfort in such a passive stance. Irene failed to stay with Rolfö, inducing a mistimed move from Ivana and, thus, a breakdown that Asllani exploited. No one could cover and it led to a high-value opportunity.

From a more general perspective, Ivana, along with Rocío, struggled in the early going, failing to keep track of markers in the box and slinging wayward passes. However, the activity of that player Asllani warned about, in addition to the likes of Olga Carmona and Alba Redondo, helped provide an outlet over the top and brought Spain back into the game.

Sweden had their own troubles defending the box — both in open play and on set-pieces. Redondo was a menace with her movement and aerial ability (striking woodwork once), while Rocío was nearly unstoppable on corners. This theme continued into the second half and it only felt like a matter of time before Spain would score.

Athenea, for her part, just kept getting more audacious, taking on three players at a time on more than one occasion.

In the 63rd minute, Maite Oroz came on for Teresa, preceding two more subs in the 75th, which saw Marta Cardona and Nuria Rábano replace the excellent-but-unfortunate Redondo and Olga, respectively.

Unsurprisingly, Maite added silky quality in midfield and helped her side continue constructing dangerous attacks. Finally, in the 82nd minute, Spain got their reward:

It is fitting that the goal came from a set-piece, considering how poorly Sweden had dealt with these moments all match. In this instance, Irene Guerrero was able to find Cardona in the box, who would’ve had a harder time missing than scoring.

After a final Sweden sub in the 90th minute, the game came to an end, leaving me (along with others, I’m sure) in a rather melancholic mood. If Spain could out-compete the likes of Sweden with 15 (technically 18, if you include Paredes, Alexia, and Jenni) of their best players missing, what does that say about how good they could be with a complete squad guided by the best coaches and a competent federation?

Spain should be a non-negotiable, generational powerhouse in women’s football.

Instead, here we are.

Spain play the US next on October 11th at 20:30 CET (2:30 pm ET).

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