Maybe in FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s fantasy world, this is what transpired Sunday night: The Spanish and English women participating in the World Cup final harnessed their power and blasted a corner kick through the glass ceiling. But, no, it isn’t as uncomplicated as Infantino makes it sound. The world demands much from women in soccer; as athletes, they are chasing their dreams, moving the sport forward, rising as role models for young girls. And because that’s not enough, they’re also fighting against the forces that try to keep the women’s game on the undercard.
In this final, the players focused on a single objective and played a fine match in front of a rapt audience of 75,784 cheering inside Stadium Australia and millions more watching around the world.
There were no protestations against inequality. The grandest gesture was Carmona, after scoring what turned out to be the clinching goal in the 29th minute, pulling up her red jersey to reveal … her red Adidas undershirt. But scribbled on her shirt was “Merchi,” an apparent shout-out to her people back home. This game’s social and cultural statement was simple: 1-0, Spain. And it was powerful enough.
Spain, rising to the top of the world at warp speed, celebrated its first world championship in women’s soccer. La Roja had lost to England in a European Championship quarterfinal in 2022. Following that loss, several national team players confronted Manager Jorge Vilda over his management style and spent the rest of the year mired in an ugly dispute with their own federation. So this — and several other issues surrounding women’s soccer players and their space in the world — was the backdrop for Infantino’s comments two days before the final.
No one loves the spotlight — and police motorcades — quite like Infantino. He will break his hand while patting himself on the back for FIFA’s wins and, in the same speech, applaud himself for empowering the ladies to get their own. Granted, at this point if Infantino proclaimed, “Puppies are cute!” his message would be minced to pieces. He has revealed himself as such a self-aggrandizing oaf, comically off-key while trying to connect with real-live human beings — “Today I feel Qatari! Today I feel Arab! Today I feel African! Today I feel gay!” — that just about any statement he utters will land flatly on a distrusting public. But his recent comments, meant to sound like a rallying cry for women, were clumsy even by his low standards.
Gals, listen up. Infantino has some encouraging words to share.
“Pick the right battles; pick the right fights,” Infantino said. “You have the power to change. You have the power to convince us men what we have to do and what we don’t have to do. You do it — just do it. With men, with FIFA, you will find open doors. Just push the doors. They are open.”
Oh, and don’t waste time demanding more money, because who needs to prioritize her livelihood when equal pay is coming three or four years from now?
“Let’s really go for full equality — not just equal pay in the World Cup, which is the slogan that comes up every now and then,” Infantino said. “Equal pay in the World Cup, we are going in that direction already. That would not solve anything.”
But for women in sports, it’s never about just pushing open doors that in Infantino’s mind are already unlocked. What female athletes do on the pitch, on a clay court, on the hardwood or wherever else they can find a career in sports, that’s just half of the job description.
The other part is holding the people in charge accountable and rising despite lingering beefs with the governing bodies of their own sport, as La Roja accomplished before getting to the World Cup. Or shouldering the weighty responsibilities that inevitably get shoved onto them, such as helping to decide how to handle accusations of attempted rape lodged against a member of their parent club, as several English players are set to do after the World Cup.
No woman needs an arrogant ally like Infantino telling her to just keep opening the doors and picking the right battles, and soon — or at an undetermined date — everything will be okay. They do the heavy lifting on all the matters outside of the game because they have to.
On Sunday, however, La Roja of Spain and the Lionesses of England could focus on what they love. On a balmy night that was supposed to be winter here, the beautiful game was all that mattered.
“Am I in a dream? To play in a World Cup final is already very special, but this will be on another level,” Spain’s Aitana Bonmatí said before the final. “This tournament has been amazing for women’s football — the standard of football, the great games, the atmospheres. To get the chance to play in the final is something we’ve dreamed about for so long.”
For the next few days, England will wonder how it couldn’t break through despite chances that came as early as Lauren Hemp’s kick that clanked off the crossbar in the 16th minute. Then, after Earps gave England a boost by stopping Spain’s penalty in the second half, the Lionesses immediately went on the attack. Twice, Spain keeper Cata Coll made risky decisions in coming out of the box. However, England didn’t capitalize.
“I actually thought: ‘We had the momentum now. Now we’re going to get back and score a goal,’ ” England Manager Sarina Wiegman said. “I was actually convinced of that.”
On Spain’s side, just how fun will soccer be for years to come with talented 19-year-old Salma Paralluelo, who earned the best young player honor? Paralluelo had come off the bench previously, but she started against England and had a few scoring chances that kept the pressure on. Barring any more clashes with the federation, the future for Paralluelo and Spain looks as golden as the confetti that covered the pitch during Sunday’s elaborate trophy celebration.
The Spanish women held up their new trophy and shiny medals. They danced and jumped on the stage. They posed for photos with the queen of Spain and an American royal, Billie Jean King. They also might have opened doors and converted new fans, doing so without needing any patronizing advice from the wrong voices — who weren’t there to help during all the small, unnoticed battles they had waged to get to this point. They would have done so by being themselves — and becoming champions.