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Spain celebrates first Women's World Cup victory

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Photo by Amanda Perobelli / Reuters
Photo by Amanda Perobelli / Reuters

The most dramatic Women's World Cup wrapped up spectacularly this week. The semifinal matches saw four of the best teams in the world face off. They were evenly matched in skill, speed, and grit, but ultimately steadfast defenders determined who rose and fell.

Australia vs. England
The first semifinal match set home-team Australia against Europe's powerhouse, England. The Matildas excited the raucous crowd as star player Sam Kerr took to the field to start for the first time in the tournament.

Despite holding the home-field advantage, Australia started off in defensive mode when England began with deadly attacks. In the 8th minute, English midfielder Georgia Stanway got the first shot on goal. But her strike wasn't enough to get past Australia's legendary keeper Mackenzie Arnold, who used her toe to tap the ball away.

England dominated the first half, maintaining possession and passing straight around Australia's backline. In the 35th minute, forward Alessia Russo dribbled up the corner of the field. While the defense predicted a shot from her, the expert striker instead sent the ball behind her to teammate Ella Toone. With one touch, Toone sent it flying into the upper right corner of the goal.

Now down by one, Australia was not ready to give up. Two minutes later, they countered an attack with a brilliant shot at England's net. However, keeper Mary Earps was ready and waiting to catch the ball right at her chest.

Australia returned to the pitch in the second half, ready to make their comeback. In the 62nd minute, Kerr dribbled the ball up from half field. England's defenders tried to narrow in and snuff her momentum as she neared the top of their box, but Kerr expected that. She ripped a shot before crossing into the danger zone, rocketing the ball past two English defenders and right into the back of the net. The game was tied, and the Australian crowd erupted in cries of relief and pride.

Australia kicked their intensity up even more following Kerr's beautiful goal. The game quickly evolved into a Kerr vs. Earps showdown. In the 66th minute, Kerr crashed the box for another chance at getting the ball into the net. Her head made contact, but Earps was prepared and nabbed it out of the air.

England countered with an attack in the following minutes. Their forwards sent strike after strike in the direction of Australia's goal, but nothing was on target enough for Arnold to even touch the ball.

After several vicious attacks, Australia's defense seemed to lose its intensity. England forward Lauren Hemp took advantage of the lull. Scrapping around for the ball in the box, Hemp managed to get a quick touch on it despite being marked by two defenders. The defense overshot their runs, giving Hemp just enough of an opening to poke the ball into the net, right past Arnold's mitts. England was ahead again.

Desperate to recover, Australia initiated a new game plan: pass the ball to Kerr. In the 81st minute, the powerhouse forward made another attempt, connecting her head with the ball. Unfortunately, she sent it over the center post yet again.

The difference in the game ultimately came down to the defenders. When England's goalie spilled a save, their defense was ready in the blink of an eye to scoop the rebound before Australia could get another shot.

Kerr continued to receive the ball in front of the net, but the pressure of playing on the world's stage in front of her own country may have weighed her down. Every shot she got went over the goal. In the 85th minute, England's Russo got one last breakaway past Australia's defensive line. With her shoulders up, Russo sent the ball confidently into the far left corner of the net. With just a few minutes left until the final whistle, her point had secured England's 3-1 victory, sending them to the final match for the first time.

Spain's Salma Paralluelo — Photo by Andrew Cornaga / AP  

Spain vs. Sweden
The second semifinal saw Spain take on Sweden. The Swedes had built momentum in the tournament, knocking two former champions, the US and Japan, out of the competition. The team knew how to take on a confident challenger but could not have expected what lay ahead in their match against the underdogs, Spain.

Early on, Spain showed their dominance. They attacked with calculated plays. Passes glided to each player's feet like the stroke of a paintbrush. They seemed to be having fun as they teased Sweden's defense. Spain's strikers weren't afraid to take risky shots and rattled off several out-of-the-box strikes on goal. Their first shot, by defender Olma Carmona, went wide, but it was enough to put Sweden on edge and force the squad into a much more defensive lineup.

Sweden's emphasis on defense didn't last long. Immediately following Carmona's dangerous attempt, the team countered. Forward Johanna Kaneyrd made a run toward the goal and sent a header shot right at Spain's keeper, Cata Coll, who caught the ball more easily than a cold.

Despite maintaining a 0-0 tie in the first half, Spain played as if they were leading by double digits. The squad got too confident in the 41st minute, passing the ball back and forth in their defensive third. Sweden intercepted a defensive pass, leading to a powerful shot by Fridolina Rolfo. Luckily for Spain, Coll was ready for the interception and got her body in front of the ball before it made contact with the net behind her.

Sweden kicked up their aggression, using the same physicality shown in their previous matches against the US and Japan. Unfortunately for them, the ref was less willing to put up with their shoving and called a foul just outside the team's 18-yard box. In the 66th minute, Spanish forward Mariana Caldentey took the kick with members of both squads lined up on the 18-yard line for the rebound and just feet from the shooter to try and block her aim. Caldenty's shot smacked the middle of Sweden's defensive wall.

In the 69th minute, Caldenty received the ball and ran up the field. She sent a pass forward for Jenny Hermoso to run onto. Hermoso sent it to Alba Redondo, who slid a sneaky shot at the goal, falling to the ground as the ball left her foot, then dipped wide and rolled toward the out-of-bounds line. Out of nowhere, defender Oihane Hernández sped up and tapped it back into play. It slid back to Redondo, who was still on the ground. She flicked one more touch. The ball glided toward the net. The team celebrated before realizing the shot had hit the outside the net —not a goal.

In the 80th minute, Hermoso controlled an in-the-air ball right above Sweden's box. She blasted a shot at the net, but the expert defenders deflected it. However, Salma Paralluelo was in the perfect position to scoop up the rebound. Without a second thought, she tucked her shot into the far corner of the net, putting Spain ahead 1-0.

With just three minutes to go until the final whistle, it seemed to be Spain's game. However, Sweden wasn't ready to give up their dream of winning the gold. In the last minutes, Swedish star forward Lina Hurtig controlled the ball on a wild cross and then lobbed it to the feet of Rebecka Blomqvist, who sent a gorgeous volley right into the back of the net. The game was, once again, tied.

Spain countered hard, determined not to go into overtime play. Just one minute after Sweden's tying goal, the squad earned a corner kick. After a brief scuffle, the ball dropped back to Eva Navarro. On her toes, Navarro sent the perfect shot at the net from the top of the box. Sweden's keeper tried to hit the ball out of the air, but with a ricochet off the crossbar, the shot landed perfectly behind the goal line — mirroring Hurtig's winning goal against the US in penalties.

Spain celebrated in a roar of applause and jovial tackles. With just moments left, all they had to do was defend. The last play was called as soon as Sweden's final shot, on a corner kick, flew into the hands of Coll. For the first time, Spain would be going to the World Cup final.

England's Jessica Carter kicks the ball ahead of Spain's Olga Carmona — Photo by Alessandra Tarantino / AP  

Final match: Spain vs. England
The last match (after Sweden beat Australia for third place) saw two European teams face off — neither of which had ever made it to the final round of the Women's World Cup. Both had undoubtedly fought hard to make it to the pitch. Beforehand, experts predicted England would play a physical game while Spain would rely on the speed and agility of their midfield and attacking forwards.

England had the first dangerous attack on goal. In the 15th minute, English defender Lucy Bronze sent the ball into the box from the right side. Rachel Daly was waiting and ready to control it at her feet. Before Spain's defense could predict what Daly would do, she dropped a pass to striker Lauren Hemp, who rattled a shot right off the post. The ball bounced back into the fray, but before England's forwards could get another shot, Spain cleared it.

Spain used their momentum and took advantage of England's defenders in their half. They countered a quick attack with a cross to the feet of Paralluelo. She had a perfect opportunity on goal but shanked her shot. Redondo followed up behind, ready to scoop the ball and finish the rebound, but England's keeper, Mary Earps, pushed her body in front of the shot.

England regained possession and composure following Spain's dangerous attack. They connected crisp passes around Spain's defense but couldn't pass the ball into the net. Their passing game ultimately halted when Spain intercepted the ball and sent a pass to Olga Carmona, a defender on a breakaway run upfield. Carmona took her chance and shot low and hard. Earps dove to stop the shot but couldn't get in front of it before it blasted into the net.

Carmona celebrated by lifting her shirt and running around the field. A message scribbled on her red undershirt was revealed in her victory celebration. Some fans speculated that the word, "Merchi," may have had something to do with protests over the squad's coach, but after the game, Carmona revealed it was a special message to a dear friend who had recently lost their mother. (Unbeknownst to Carmona, Merchi wasn't the only angel watching her. Her father had just passed hours before the start of the game. Her family kept the news from her until after the match.)

In the final minute of the first half, Spain's aggressive offense showed yet again. Paralluelo blasted another shot at the net when the ball crossed her way, but, once again, it missed just barely.

England returned to the pitch for the second half with a much more defensive lineup. They stacked an extra player on their backline to prevent another Spanish goal and end the game with an attacking play. However, in taking numbers from their top line, England allowed Spain to get more chances.

When Spanish attackers got close to the net, England's defense responded with a double-teaming defense. Their strategy seemed to hold up, as each Spanish shot looked premature and failed to get close to the frame of the net. The only on-frame shot came from Parallelo, but Earps saved it with a dramatic dive and a pat of her glove.

In the 63rd minute, Spain crashed the box again. Stationed up front again, Carmona received the ball and cut it back to Caldentey, who settled the pass and pushed past England's defense. She shifted the ball to Paralluelo, who took a shot. English defender Alex Greenwood deflected it and shepherded it out of bounds. Instead of awarding a corner kick, the ref examined replay footage and found that before it settled, midfielder Kiera Walsh grazed the ball with her hand in the box.

The foul meant a coveted penalty kick for Spain. Hermoso was selected to take the shot. Predictably, she aimed for the lower right corner. Knowing Hermoso favored that side, Earps was ready to dive and caught the ball at her chest.

In the 89th minute, Paralluelo got possession and dribbled up the field. She sent a pass to Caldentey, who deposited the ball at the feet of Hermoso, waiting at the net. With a last chance to redeem her flubbed PK, she struck the ball but sent it wide.

England's last chance to tie the game came with a final corner kick. The clock ticked past the extended time as the ball curved in the air in front of the net. The entire English team pushed forward for their final attempt at a goal. The ball didn't even get a chance to rattle around the box: Coll caught it in the air and fell to the ground. As she hugged the ball to her chest, the ref blew the final whistle, and she exhaled a sigh of relief.

With emotions high, Spain celebrated, and England mourned their loss. Prior to this year's tournament, Spain had only ever won a single Women's World Cup match.

Paralluelo won the FIFA Best Young Player award for standing out on the field at just 19 years old. For defending Paralluelo's countless strikes, Earps took home the Golden Glove Award. Spain's star playmaker, Aitana Bonmati walked away with the Golden Ball Award for scoring three goals and two assists throughout the tournament.

Spain's victory was a team effort and could not have been accomplished without some of the squad's most skilled Queer players, including forward Alba Redondo, defender Irene Paredes, defender Ivana Andres, and midfielder Teresa Abelleiora.

On August 20, the entire team lifted their trophy for their country in a historic, first-ever World Cup victory for Spain.