- Spain outperformed everyone across all women’s youth categories in 2018
- The nation has 42,000 registered players, far fewer than established powerhouses
- We explain the reasons behind the Spanish success
"What we’ve achieved hasn’t sunk in yet,” said Spain’s U-17 women’s coach Tona Is, who was still on a high after returning from Uruguay, where La Rojita were crowned world champions in the age group on 1 December.
Those words could just as easily refer to the amazing 2018 that Spanish women’s football has enjoyed, a year in which the senior national team won all their qualifying matches to reach their second FIFA Women's World Cup™, while also lifting the Cyprus Cup.
In the meantime, the country’s youth teams have been in a class of their own, with the U-20s being crowned European champions and finishing as U-20 Women's World Cup runners-up in France, and the U-17s outdoing their elder compatriots to become European and world champions.
"I think this world title – the first for Spanish women's football – will be a turning point,” Is told FIFA.com.
"The biggest success is achieving consistency," said Jorge Vilda, coach of Spain’s senior women’s team and technical director of all the country’s national women’s teams. "It’s not going to be easy to repeat the kind of year we’ve had, but we’re working on how to keep reaching semi-finals and finals, on maintaining the standard."
As Spain’s record over the last five years shows, their stunning 2018 has been no overnight success:
|2014||European Championship and World Cup runners-up||European Championship runners-up||Did not qualify|
|2015||European champions||European Championship runners-up||No competition held|
|2016||European Championship runners-up and third at the World Cup||European Championship runners-up||Sixth|
|2017||European Championship runners-up||European champions||No competition held|
|2018||European and world champions||European champions||World Cup runners-up|
"From the very first day I started working with the Spanish FA, when Germany beat us 7-0, we’ve been looking at how to do things the best we can," said Spain’s U-20 women's team coach Pedro Lopez.
Despite the fact Spain have only a little over 42,000 registered female players – 15 times fewer than Germany, for example – they are doing more than just hold their own. La Rojita’s 2-0 defeat of the Germans in the final of this year's UEFA European Women’s U-17 Championship proved that point.
So what lies behind Spain’s phenomenal success?
- A style of play that is non-negotiable
"For the last 12 years we’ve been working on the same methodology, which is based on a philosophy that everyone knows,” explained Vilda. The golden age enjoyed by Spain’s men’s national team was founded on a possession-based passing game, the very same recipe for success that its women’s teams have used to great effect.
"We play in a way that the players really enjoy. They understand it and believe in it,” said Is of a style in which talent takes precedence over physical fitness. Patri Guijarro and Claudia Pina, the respective adidas Golden Ball winners at this year’s U-20 and U-17 Women’s World Cups, are two prime examples of that.
Guijarro and Pina showed their goalscoring prowess against Paraguay at this year's U-20 Women’s World Cup in France
- A system for unearthing talent
Vilda, Is and Lopez work in unison and are the visible head of a system that seeks out the right players. "The Spanish FA and the regional federations make a structure available to us, so that we can reach any of the 42,000 registered players," said Vilda.
That structure includes people who, in many cases, act as scouts but expect nothing in return. "They might spot a player who’s playing mixed football in a village and who we might not otherwise be able to reach, and they tell us about them," he continued.
The next step up is the regional representative teams. "They’re our youth academies, if you will," said Lopez. "We’re there at every regional championship, where the best U-12, U-15 and U-17 players from every autonomous region play," added Vilda. "We select the best of them for the national team."
- A professional league and increased visibility
Spain’s appearance at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015™, and the professionalisation of the domestic league shortly afterwards, gave Spanish women’s football the kind of profile it had never enjoyed before. As a result, the number of registered women's players has risen nearly 30 per cent since 2014, with the biggest increase coming in the five-to-13 age group. Those numbers can be expected to grow even more.
"The triumphs of 2018 are having a big impact," said Lopez. "We’re reaching out to every household in Spain now. Young women can see that women’s football is in vogue, which is only going to help us keep growing."
The question is, with six months to go before France 2019, to what extent can Spain's seniors tap into the success of the youth teams? With Spain having failed to get past the group phase on their Women's World Cup debut in Canada, Vilda is taking a realistic view. "They can tap into it, yes, but we need to keep our feet on the ground. We're currently 12th in the FIFA Ranking and fifth in UEFA’s."
There is no question, however, that progress is being made: "The great thing is that in the race to improve, we are running faster than other national teams. They may have put their faith in women and sport at an earlier stage, thanks in the main to their national cultures, but the gap between them and us is shrinking all the time."