Around the World in Women's Soccer: La Roja (Spain)
Around the World in Women's Soccer is a series that explores women's soccer in other countries. Each country will get two stories: The first will explore the country's national team, while the second will explore the country's domestic league.
In 2019, the Spanish women's national team (WNT) shocked the world. Some fans knew about the new wave of European talent looking to make a mark at the 2019 Women's World Cup in France. But few expected Spain, who were playing in just their second-ever World Cup, to go toe-to-toe with the United States.
Spain has had a women's national team since the 1970s, but the Spanish federation recognized the team only after the death of Francisco Franco in 1975. La Roja were being considered to compete in the UEFA Women's Championship (now the UEFA Women's Euro) as early as 1987, but they didn't appear in their first tournament until 1997, when they made it to the semifinals.
Despite their success at the 1997 UEFA Women's Championship, Spain didn't earn a Women's World Cup slot until the 2015 tournament in Canada, where they failed to make it out of the group stage. They didn't qualify for another UEFA Women's Championship until 2013, where they made it to the quarterfinals and finished with one win, one draw and two losses.
For most of their history, Spain had the same head coach: Ignacio Quereda, who coached the team from 1988 to 2015. He left following their poor performance at the 2015 Women's World Cup, and Jorge Vilda took the reins.
Under Vilda, the Spanish national team won the 2017 Algarve Cup and the 2018 Cypress Cup. But the team had their eyes on bigger prizes. They opened their 2019 Women's World Cup tournament with a 3-1 win over South Africa, including two goals from Jennifer Hermoso, their top scorer in the tournament. They held their own against Germany in their second match, losing 1-0 despite having more shots and more possession. Their final group stage match ended in a scoreless draw against China.
Unfortunately for Spain, their results in the group stage meant they faced the unstoppable U.S. WNT in the Round of 16. Many expected the match to be a walk in the park for the United States, and those expectations seemingly were confirmed when Spain gave up a penalty in the 7th minute and Megan Rapinoe converted.
But Spain wasn't out of the game yet. Just two minutes after Rapinoe's penalty, Jennifer Hermoso scored a jaw-dropping goal. A bad defensive giveaway by the U.S. left room for Spain to capitalize, and Hermoso lifted the ball out of the reach of goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, slotting it into the top left corner.
Ultimately, a late penalty handed the 2-1 victory to the United States. But Spain's message was clear: They could compete. They carried that momentum into the 2020 SheBelieves Cup, where La Roja earned victories over England and Japan and finished as runners-up in the tournament.
Many of Spain's best players still play with the national team, although Marta Torrejón, who is the most-capped player in the team's history, retired from the national team after the 2019 Women's World Cup. Their roster is dripping with talent, from strikers like Hermoso to defenders like Irene Paredes, who has captained La Roja and her club team, Paris Saint-Germain.
One notable absence from Spain's roster has been Vero Boquete, whom NWSL fans will recognize from the roster of the Utah Royals. A skilled attacking midfielder, Boquete is the team's top goal-scorer of all time. Yet Vilda hasn't called her up since 2017.
The 2021 UEFA Women's Euro (which will be played in 2022 because of coronavirus) will be the next major test for Spain's WNT. They arrived on the international stage with a splash. But they don't want that to be a one-time thing. They're hoping to make their soccer-crazy country a force to be reckoned with in the women's game for generations to come.