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Ken Early: Victory for the gifted Spanish due to their national coaching system – not the coach

The work of thousands of youth coaches is evident now in the textbook technique the Spanish have turned into a national style

One theme of the commentary at the Qatar World Cup was a sense of regret at the rapid erosion of national differences. As the game has globalised it has homogenised; critics complained that clashes of national styles, once the fascination of the World Cup, have grown much rarer. But they’re not yet altogether extinct.

The Women’s World Cup Final was far from the best game of Australia-NZ 2023, but England and Spain each managed to showcase what is best in their respective football cultures.

The magnificent anger of the English players as they chased an equaliser, especially the goalkeeper Mary Earps – who celebrated her second-half penalty save by roaring “FUUUCK OOOFFF!” at the world in general – embodied everything English football holds most precious. For England, these displays of warrior spirit are still what the game is all about.

Spain’s idea is different. Watch the midfielder Aitana Bonmatí – winner of the Golden Ball for best player of the tournament – and you glimpse the shadows of Andres Iniesta and Xavi . . . balance, two-footed dribbling, 360-degree awareness, intuitive understanding of how to spin away from trouble and into space. What everyone else calls textbook technique, the Spanish have turned into a national style.


It turns out Spain’s talent pool is now so deep and so rich that they can play a World Cup without several of their best players, led by a coach a significant proportion of their squad appears to despise, and still go on to win the whole thing.

In football we always end up talking about the head coach but the people whose work is making the difference in Spain are the thousands of youth coaches. When your national system can produce successive generations of players with such a high basic level of technique and tactical understanding, the question of who is standing there on the sideline during tournaments is of secondary importance.

Sarina Wiegman is the best coach in the women’s game while Jorge Vilda is widely regarded as a clown, but in the end coaches can only influence their players’ decisions, they can’t make the decisions for them.

It’s hard to imagine any Spanish-trained player doing what Lucy Bronze did in the 29th minute of the final. The English right-back, arguably the leading player of her generation, took off on a lead-by-example type of run, galloping up the wing then curving in towards the centre of the pitch. Stirring stuff from Bronze . . . but at the same time, where did she think she was going?

Rather than lay the ball off to a team-mate, she ploughed into a group of opponents in the centre-circle and was dispossessed. Spain’s swift counter-attack went through the gap Bronze had left down England’s right, and Olga Carmona’s precise shot into the far corner made sure England paid the maximum price. Individualists 0 Collectivists 1.

As Spain expertly closed out the game, you had to feel for the four members of Las 15 – the group of 15 Spanish players who pulled out of the national team last year, complaining of substandard management and conditions – who stuck with their protest against Vilda to the bitter end.

They should have been there, writing their names into history, and instead they had to watch as Vilda and his most important ally, Luis Rubiales, president of the Spanish Football Federation, were carried to triumph by their ex-team-mates.

Rubiales managed to hog even more attention at the medal ceremony, when he grabbed the forward Jenni Hermoso by the sides of her head and kissed her full on the mouth.

“Yeah, I didn’t enjoy that!” Hermoso remarked when video of the incident was played back to her in the dressing room after the match.

Marca’s headline on the story likened it to a famous scene from the men’s World Cup celebrations in 2010: “Rubiales re-enacts Iker Casillas’ famous kiss with [sports journalist] Sara Carbonero . . . with Jenni Hermoso!” The key difference being that Casillas and his now-ex-wife Carbonero were in a romantic relationship at the time.

The Spanish style has failed at the last few men’s tournaments since their golden age 10-15 years ago, but Spain’s opponents in the Women’s World Cup found it virtually unanswerable. Unless you can be like Japan, who managed to score every time they created a chance in their shock 4-0 group stage win against Spain, you’re probably going to lose.

It will be interesting to see how and when the rest of the world catches up. The challenge seems most likely to come from traditional European football powers led by England, with their high-quality domestic league, Germany, France, Sweden and the Netherlands, with Japan looking the strongest outside Europe.

Left out of this equation is the Americans, who enjoyed a unipolar moment in women’s football for the last decade but in New Zealand looked like the development of the game has passed them by. Will they ever reassert their former dominance, or will they regress towards something like parity with their men’s team?

Whatever happens, it will be accompanied by maybe the world’s funniest women’s football discourse. This is not a reference to the red-pilled political commentators who automatically despise the USWNT for embodying some vague concept of ‘wokeness’ and who rushed to gloat at their World Cup exit despite not watching a minute of the tournament.

More interesting are the former greats of the USWNT who appear to despise the USWNT, such as Carli Lloyd.

Lloyd (316 caps, 134 goals) is the classic retired legend who believes that the players of her generation and older were “proper” players, while the new players are all soft spineless degenerates.

Her comments to roughly this effect during the tournament prompted backlash from many fans of the team. Rather than be attacked for her supposedly toxic commentary, Lloyd should be celebrated as the sign of a mature football culture. In football, hammering the players is all part of the fun.