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Alexia Putellas facing crucial decision as Spain’s World Cup hopes hang in the balance

  • April 13, 2023

When you have best player in world for the last two years running on your national team, you would expect to head into a World Cup as one of the favorites.

Yet, even with consecutive Ballon d’Or Feminin winner Alexia Putellas on the verge of returning to the pitch after recovering from an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury she suffered in July 2022, Spain remain a team in turmoil.

In September 2022, just weeks after Spain had surprisingly crashed out of Euro 2022 at the quarterfinal stage against England, 15 of the team’s players announced they would be “unavailable for selection.”

It was the culmination of a messy, public back-and-forth after the Spanish football federation (RFEF) released a statement saying they had received an email from the 15 players in which they called for head coach Jorge Vilda to be sacked.

In response, the players, including Barcelona’s Mapi Leon, Aitana Bonmatí, Mariona Caldentey and Sandra Panos, shared a collective message on social media clarifying their position, stating that Vilda’s management style had been having a negative impact on their “emotional state” and “health” for some time and their concerns to date had fallen on deaf ears.

Putellas, who at the time was at the beginning of a lengthy recovery phase, was not one of the signatories and has not confirmed whether she too is unavailable for selection, but she showed her support for the 15, by sharing their statement on Instagram.

In March, Putellas spoke publicly on the topic for the first time, telling beIN Sports: “We are not rebels. It’s exhausting to have to be constantly demanding improvements to help us perform better. 

“I don’t think you have to use adjectives like that. It’s a problem between the players and the federation. Private conversations have been leaked and this situation doesn’t benefit anyone.

“We want the players to be able to focus 100% on performing. It’s exhausting to be constantly asking for improvements. The leaders should improve our conditions without us having to ask for it all the time.”

Stalemate with no end in sight

And so, over the past eight months the 15 players and the federation have remained locked in a stalemate, each waiting for the other to blink first.

The RFEF’s decision to back Vilda does not seem results driven, given the fact that since 2015, when the now 41-year-old took the job, the national team have only reached the quarterfinals of the Euros in 2018 and 2022 and bowed out of the round of 16 at the 2019 World Cup in France.

While the standoff has continued, Vilda was forced to call up several uncapped and less experienced players for the final two World Cup qualifiers last September and five subsequent friendlies.

Although Spain have won six of their seven matches without the 15 signatories to the email, the team looked far from world beating in their recent 3-0 victory over China in Ibiza, struggling for most of the game to break down the visitors, who offered far too many chances with defensive lapses.

Spanish player Athenea del Castillo jostles Wang Shuang for the ball
Spain struggled at times to break down a below par ChinaImage: Sports Press Photo/IMAGO

Vilda’s response to DW’s question on how he felt about the state of his current squad ahead of announcing Spain’s World Cup team in June was telling, as he chose to make an indirect barb at the 15.

“We want hope, cohesion, desire, motivation to be in the national team and above all pride. Pride to be part of the team, pride in putting on the training kit every time you come out onto the pitch,” he said.

“The days of the games, which are the special days and what we do everything for, pride in putting on the national team shirt, whether red or blue. Most of all pride in hearing the national anthem, being able to play for your fans, which is the best thing any athlete can do.”

Fans split on dispute

The views of the Spanish fans’s that DW spoke to for this story varied, but they all expressed the wish that the situation be resolved prior to the World Cup, which kicks off in Australia and New Zealand in July.

“I think it’s internal problems with the (coach). The federation says one thing, the players say something else. the people don’t know what really happened,” one male fan said.

“I think for the World Cup they can find a solution and the best players will be there. But the other players have played very well, so we have also have a good plan B,” he added.

“There has been a lot of fuss but nobody here knows the absolute truth. There are always people who defend it and people who do not but we always have to go with the national team to the death,” a female fan said.

Spain’s players hug each other after scoring a goal
Spain’s only loss since “the 15” have been unavailable came against Australia in FebruaryImage: Meng Dingbo/Xinhua/IMAGO

“It is good that they speak out but maybe they didn’t go about it in the best way, and it always should remain in private. It is always the best way but they will end up working it out, for sure.”

All agreed on how important Putellas’ return would be.

“I hope she doesn’t say no to the national team and returns with desire,” a young female supporter told DW. “She brings a lot of life to everything.”

Another fan admitted Putellas’ omission from the World Cup squad would cause a stir, saying: “I don’t think it would be the same, because she is a very good player.”

All are eager to find out whether Putellas will side with the 15 signatories that she has spent years playing alongside, or if she will indeed travel to what could well be her last World Cup.

The 29-year-old has only just returned to full training with Barcelona and while she may lack a little match fitness by June, when  the final World Cup squads must be named, she will undoubtedly be completely physically fit.

A lot rests on the decision facing the best female player in the world – not least Spain’s World Cup chances.

Edited by Chuck Penfold.

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