By whatever scale you choose to measure, this has been the largest Women’s World Cup in history: breadth of entrants, depth of talent, height of achievement, volume of observers, width of impact. Now, though, that amounts to nothing more than the wake. All that’s left is this.
By Sunday night in Australia, there will be a new women’s world champion. For the first time, that status will be bestowed on either England or Spain, both making their debuts in the final. Whichever way it falls, it will represent the advent of Europe — or, at least, the moneyed major leagues of Western Europe — as the game’s pre-eminent force. This is the culmination of one journey, and the start of another.
It feels, instinctively, as if England should be the favorite to take that final step. It’s not just that Sarina Wiegman’s team is unbeaten in this tournament. It’s that it is the reigning European champion, too, the taste of that victory last summer still fresh. It’s that, while injury has robbed England of a handful of its best players, the squad is not in a state of simmering enmity with its coach. It’s that it is not held together by some uneasy, and distinctly temporary, truce.
England’s advantage is sufficiently slender, though, that the final outcome may yet be affected by how the dice are rolled. Both coaches have major selection decisions to make. Wiegman had lost Lauren James to suspension for both the quarterfinal and semifinal; her replacement, Ella Toone, opened the scoring against Australia on Wednesday. Wiegman now must decide whether to stand by her, or to restore James to the team.
Jorge Vilda, her Spanish counterpart, has an even more delicate selection. Alexia Putellas, the player they call la Reina (the Queen), started in Spain’s semifinal win against Sweden, but seemed more than a little out of sorts, a spectator to the game rather than much of a participant. She is still, as Vilda has consistently pointed out, recovering from the knee injury that cost her much of the past year of her career.
It was only when she was replaced, by the dynamic Salma Paralluelo, that Spain had the impetus to trouble Sweden. Paralluelo, 19, has been one of the breakout stars of this competition. On form, on impact, she should start the final. Putellas’s experience, though, but also her status, her quality and — not irrelevant — the fragility of Spain’s collective morale, means she is the more likely choice.
It is not impossible that the game will turn on those two choices. There is, in truth, very little between these teams. England carries more menace. Spain possesses greater gifts. This has been the biggest, the broadest, the deepest, the widest World Cup in history. The differences, now that all that remains is here, are very small indeed.