As journalists waited near the mixed zone at the DY Patil stadium in Navi Mumbai to speak with German and Nigerian players after their bronze medal match at the Fifa U-17 Women’s World Cup 2022, the team buses carrying the finalists Colombia and Spain rolled into the stadium as the match went into the shoot-out.
The South Americans were first to alight from their bus and filed out one after the other with a focused and determined look on their faces. But when the doors of the Spanish team bus opened, we were greeted with Spanish pop songs blasting at full volume. The Spaniards, as the youngsters say, were chill… with the talismanic Vicky Lopez leading her teammates as they sung along.
Perhaps it was the familiarity of playing on big occasions but Spain looked like a team which was confident and self-assured enough to not let the pressure of the day bog them down. For them, it was just another match.
“The pressure wasn’t high because we are the Spanish team and we are always in it to win. We were defeated in the Euro final and we knew we had to make up for that final and take this World Cup to Spain,” coach Kenio Gonzalo said after his side beat Colombia 1-0 to become the first team to successfully defend its Fifa U-17 Women’s World Cup title.
Sunday’s 1-0 win was Spain’s fourth 1-0 win of the tournament. Even as Nigeria, Germany, Japan, Brazil and the USA banged in goals in entertaining matches, Kenio’s wards dominated teams in a way that has become synonymous with the great Spanish sides over the years – possession.
In more ways than one, Kenio’s U-17 women’s team mirrored the men’s senior side which won the 2010 Fifa World Cup. They suffocated their opponents by keeping the ball and ended matches with just a solitary goal.
“It was a very tight tournament. All the teams were very tough to win against. In football, you have to think about how to play in attack and find the spaces in the build-up to come up with opportunities. It was hard to find those opportunities. It was the World Cup at the end of the day,” Kenio said.
“In communication with the players during the training sessions, we worked on this. They are great football players and very talented. They were convinced that we were going to win this. That helped to ease the pressure. We were nervy in the group stages but we understood that football has to be played with patience, with a clear mind and being calm,” he added.
And like the 2010 World Cup-winning side, Kenio’s team had a core of players hailing from Barcelona and Real Madrid and yet playing with synergy and camaraderie that often goes missing when playing against each other for their clubs.
Kenio credited the women’s football department in the Spanish FA for its crucial role in developing the side. The 21-member squad was made up of players from eight different Spanish academies that each play with their own distinct philosophies. Even as the pandemic slowed the game down in Spain, the women’s football department, said Kenio, ensured that the players were thoroughly scouted in each position while also ensuring they could fit the possession-based football that Spain are known for.
“One of the roles of a Spanish U-17 coach is to produce that talent and that group of players in a gradual and progressive manner so that they reach the elite level. This is an effort that has been carried out for the past 15 years. I am just another cog in that system. The key part of all this is to teach the players different concepts that they can implement in the elite categories. So that when they reach that level, they play exactly the same way we play at the lower levels,” he said.
Vicky and Sandy
At the heart of Spain’s title win lies Vicky Lopez. The 16-year-old was discovered by then Madrid CFF forward Alba Mellado while playing on a beach. The youngster signed for the team and made her debut in September 2021, becoming one of the youngest players to play in Spain’s top-flight.
A gifted player who can play as an attacking midfielder as well as across the forward line, Lopez scored over 50 goals for Madrid CFF’s youth team in the 2020-’21 season. At the beginning of the 2022 season, Liga F champions Barcelona came calling and signed the talented teen on a five-year deal.
While she made her name back home by scoring goals day in and day out, in India, Kenio preferred to deploy Lopez in midfield giving her the big task of creating chances from the middle of the park. While it looked off to see a player wearing the number nine jersey playing in a deeper role, Lopez oozed class as she dictated the tempo in matches and still found a way to get on the scoresheet as her two late goals helped Spain beat Japan in the quarterfinals.
“We are very fortunate because Vicky adapts really well to several positions. I have talked to her about this for a long time. She is working very hard at her club and she knows that she needs to find the position where she can hurt the opponent. She’s one of those players who are able to take a deep breath, look around, looks at what’s happening and then be able to generate great football,” Kenio said.
Don’t discount Sandy The Dragon
If Vicky represented the talent in the Spanish side, Sandy The Dragon represented the strong bond which has formed in the team over the past two years. Sandy is a soft toy with its own little La Rojita jersey which became ever present in Spain’s victories in India.
“Sandy is an icon, a luck charm we have in our team. It represents all the players in our team who could not be here but they are a part of our victory. In particular, Nina Pou, who was injured in training. It represents our strength on the pitch,” Lopez said.
Indeed after Sandy was adopted as the team mascot after the group stage, Spain had luck on their side in the knockout stages. They came back from a goal down against Japan with Lopez scoring in the 87th and 93rd minute of the match.
In the semifinals, they extracted revenge against Germany who had beaten them in the 2022 U-17 Euro final with yet another 90th-minute winner. In the final as well, fortune favoured them as Laia Martret’s scuffed attempt bounced off a Colombian defender and into the net in the 82nd minute.
Spain now hold the U-17 and U-20 Women’s World Cups. Even if the senior side fails to win the title next year in Australia and New Zealand, Spain can rest assured knowing that Vicky and the team – with a little help from Sandy – are on their way to the top.