Opinion: What comes next for women’s soccer

Soccer Football - FIFA Women's World Cup Australia and New Zealand 2023 - Final - Spain v England - Stadium Australia, Sydney, Australia - August 20, 2023
Spain players celebrate with the trophy after winning the World Cup REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

Editor’s Note: Amy Bass is professor of sport studies at Manhattanville College and the author of “One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together” and “Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete,” among other titles. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

While the failure of the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) to capture an unprecedented (and wildly improbably) three-peat dominated headlines stateside, this time around really put the world in World Cup, a shift from the same old, same old. For the first time since 2011, a new champion in women’s soccer has been crowned.

Amy Bass

Spain came out swinging with vigor and poise in the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup final in Sydney’s Stadium Australia, spreading the field, finding gaps in England’s backline and posting early dominant possession percentages.

While an early shot by England’s Lauren Hemp that hit the crossbar and a powerful penalty save by goalkeeper Mary Earps reassured us that this was a battle fit for a final, Spain’s performance was that of a championship team, punctuated in the 29th minute by Spain’s Olga Carmona, who also scored the game winner in the semi-final against Sweden. She put her team on the board with a low, hard, far-post shot.

England brought renewed energy to the second half, with coach Sarina Wiegman making an unusual double change in lineup, bringing in Chloe Kelly and Lauren James, who had been benched after a red card in the round of 16. But neither they, nor Earps’s golden hands, could change the scoreboard: Spain downed England, 1-0, and as soccer fans everywhere process this result and look toward to where the sport goes from here, some key takeaways are clear.

New champ? New world

As the seconds of extra time ticked in the final, we already knew one result: no matter who won Sunday, the exclusive club of Women’s World Cup champions was about to have a newcomer. Until this final, Norway (1995), Germany (2003, 2007), Japan (2011), and the USWNT were the only teams who had climbed on top. Indeed, this was the first final not to feature either the USWNT, which went out historically early in a loss to Sweden in the Round of 16, or Germany, which failed to get out of group play for the first time.

The 32-team bracket had been expanded since 2019, meaning eight teams were at the big show for the first time. Of this, FIFA head Gianni Infantino congratulated himself with typical confidence: “FIFA was right” to add teams to the bracket, he said, dismissing criticisms of the move, “As it happens often, FIFA was right.”

Where many were looking for the kind of blowouts we saw four years ago (USWNT vs. Thailand comes to mind), matches across the bracket were close and competitive, with four of those debutantes winning their first game and others giving elite teams a scare, such as runner up England barely squeaking by Haiti back in the group stage. There was a wildness and an unpredictability to this tournament, moments when it felt like anyone’s to win. And the fans were there for it, with people in the stadium seats in host nations Australia and New Zealand setting new attendance benchmarks on an almost daily basis. The hometown Matildas’ semifinal loss to England broke all television records in Australia, with some 41% of the country tuning in – the most watched television event in Australian history.

The fact that the Americans and the Dutch, who faced off in 2019 for the crown, got nowhere near this final speaks volumes to the level of play of the women’s side. Just as important: Spain is now the first team to hold three World Cup titles at once: senior, along with U-17 and U-20 trophies landed last year. The electric Salma Paraluello, also a top track and field athlete who only committed exclusively to soccer last year, was part of all three teams. The bar, then, has not only been raised: Spain isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Love the player, love the game—but maybe not the federation

Spain’s newfound global dominance on the women’s side is not without controversy. Spanish players have been at odds with the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), including over the management style of Jorge Vilda. When 15 players, including Spanish star Mapi Leon, sent emails to the RFEF removing themselves from selection for the national team’s fall 2022 schedule, it was anyone’s guess as to who would be on the World Cup roster (ultimately, three of the 15 were, including Aitana Bonmati, who was named the tournament’s best player after Sunday’s final) .

During this final game, dislike of Vilda — whose success is now hard to dispute — was evident, with fans booing when his name was announced and players eschewing his attempts at high-fives and sideline celebrations.