SYDNEY (AP) — Spain failed to qualify for the first six editions of the Women’s World Cup, but once La Roja made the tournament in 2015 they’ve made a steady climb toward joining the global elite.
Spain scored its first point with a draw in its World Cup debut. Four years later, Spain advanced to the knockout round before it was eliminated by the U.S. team that went on to clinch a second consecutive championship.
Now in their third World Cup, the Spaniards have reached a new level and face Sweden in the first World Cup semifinal on Tuesday at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand.
It is Spain’s first semifinal match in a major tournament since the 1997 European Championships, and the reward for making it this far? A match against the second-ranked team in the world that has already eliminated the U.S. and Japan in this tournament.
The Swedes are playing in a fifth World Cup semifinal: they were runners-up in 2003, finished third three times, and, just to note how consistently strong the Swedes have been, they lost the gold medal match to Canada two years ago at the Tokyo Olympics.
So is Spain nervous?
You better believe it.
“If we’re not nervous, something is not going right,” forward Jenni Hermoso said on the eve of the match. “We have to feel that nervous sense in our stomach and to have the willpower. To reach the final, just thinking about it gives me shivers. We are close to achieving this but we have (another) game. It’s another final as far as we’re concerned.”
Spain leads all teams in the tournament with 15 goals so far and is determined to showcase its offense against Sweden, which has so far allowed just two goals and beat the United States in the knockout round on penalties.
It’s unknown what Alexia Putellas will have in this monumental moment in Spain’s women’s soccer history.
Putellas tore her ACL last year and wasn’t a guarantee to even make Spain’s 23-player roster. The 29-year-old midfielder, a two-time Ballon d’Or winner as the sport’s best player, was a substitute in Spain’s first match of this World Cup, started the second match of group play, but has been used sparingly since.
The Barcelona star has played in all five of Spain’s matches, but hasn’t been on the field for more than an hour in any match and has logged just 155 minutes in total. She has no goals, but does have an assist, in the tournament.
Spain coach Jorge Vilda wouldn’t commit Monday to how Putellas will be used against Sweden.
“We are very happy with the level Alexia has reached. Since the first day of training we have noticed this,” Vilda said. “It is true that she is in the process of a recovery of nine or 10 months. We’ve adapted… and Alexia is ready for everything.”
Picking up the slack in Putellas’ absence has been Aitana Bonmati, who has scored three goals in this World Cup to tie teammates Hermoso and Alba Maria Redondo Ferrer as Spain’s most prolific scorers.
Sweden has its own player concern with forward Sofia Jakobsson battling an illness ahead of the match. Sweden coach Peter Gerhardsson wasn’t sure of Jakobsson’s status against Spain.
“Let me just say that everyone trained fully and Sofia Jakobsson is kind of climbing the walls currently,” he said. “I don’t know what that means, but I think that is a very positive sign. So, very mild symptoms of illness. I hope that we have everyone available — that’s the plan.”
The Swedes have been led offensively by centerback Amanda Ilestedt, who has never been considered much of a scorer at international level and yet has four goals in this World Cup and trails only Hinata Miyazawa’s five goals for Japan in the race for the Golden Boot.
Sweden eliminated Japan in the quarterfinals.
Before this tournament, Ilestedt had scored just eight goals in 64 appearances for Sweden’s national team in a decade-long international career.
“Amanda is amazing, but we have so many players that are really good in areas,” forward Fridolina Rolfo said while praising Sweden’s execution on set pieces. “I don’t think anyone cares who is the leading goal scorer. But obviously it is amazing that Amanda has scored so many goals on our set pieces, which is our strength.”
Vilda said because Spain has never beaten Sweden, the Swedes are the favorites to win the semifinal match and maybe the entire tournament. The winner in Auckland faces the winner of the semifinal match between co-host Australia and European champion England.
“About being the favorite team beforehand? I don’t know what team is the favorite in this game,” Rolfo said. “When you reach the semifinals, there are only good teams. I know they have a great team, and so do we.”
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/fifa-womens-world-cup