A surprise awaited Spain’s players as they reached their dressing room before facing Japan in the semi-final of the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup Jordan 2016.
In addition to their kit, laid out as normal, there was a message for them on the whiteboard. It read: “Anything you believe to be possible, is possible. Let's unite." It had been written by the team’s kit man, known as ‘Colli’. The message was his way of summing up the team spirit of a group that had stuck together through the good times, most recently when celebrating their quarter-final win against Germany, and the bad.
Sure enough, following their painful 3-0 semi-final defeat, the team once more gathered together on the pitch. There were tears, of course, but also words of encouragement and togetherness. At such a difficult time, it was the team’s three captains – Laia Aleixandri, Lucia Rodriguez and Noelia Ramos – who took the lead.
“Who else is going to pick the team up if we don’t do it?” Aleixandri told FIFA.com. “That’s why we’re here. We have to be strong because, at the end of the day, as captains we have to be an example for the others.” Although the initial sadness has progressively passed, a sense of disappointment still lingers. But the team still have the chance to win a bronze medal, which is now the midfielder’s main source of motivation. “This is a great team, and that’s why I thought we deserved to be in the final,” she explained. “But look, it wasn’t to be. Now all we want is third place.”
Rodriguez had more reason than most to be emotional in the huddle following the final whistle. During the match, she had been unable to hold back her tears after scoring an unfortunate own goal. But the defender was the first to draw a line under the episode. After all, this is not the first time that she has had to try to lift the group when things have gone against them.
As their chief motivator, capable of giving her team-mates goosebumps when she speaks, Rodriguez is better placed than anyone to tell us how the team are going about picking themselves up for the third-place play-off. “What we need to take from the Japan game, looking forward to the next match, is how well we’ve played,” she underlined. “Not everyone gets a World Cup bronze medal, and we’re only a step away from achieving that.”
Turning attention to Venezuela
This Spanish team naturally wanted to emulate their predecessors of two years ago, who reached the final, and were even dreaming of going one step further and lifting the trophy. But just as in Costa Rica in 2014, it was Japan who ended up dashing La Riojita’s hopes.
It is no time to dwell on what might have been, however, and Aleixandri is clear that her team cannot hold anything back against La Vinotinto. “We have to forget what happened against Japan, because the last thing we want is to leave empty-handed,” the Catalan midfielder emphasised. “We always give absolutely 100 per cent, and the Venezuela match will be no different, in order to make sure we return home with a medal.”
Ramos also shed more tears than most at the final whistle on Monday. Just as against Germany in the previous round, the goalkeeper had made a string of outstanding saves, but there was little she could do about the three goals she conceded. As the whistle went she cut a quiet figure, her head bowed, trying to come to terms with the defeat. Then having helped Rodriguez and Aleixandri to rally her team-mates, she left the stadium a different person, already focused on the next match.
As a means of aiding the healing process, there was music playing back in the Spanish dressing room that night. There will be more music this Friday, and perhaps even another message from ‘Colli’. For now more than ever, they need to stick together as a team. The three captains are determined that their next post-match huddle will be in celebration of a victory claimed, a bronze medal won. And a mission accomplished.