Friday, February 23, 2024

Spain celebrate but Olga Carmona’s tragedy mars their World Cup triumph | Sid Lowe

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How do you even begin to get your head around this? How can you comprehend the layers of feeling and meaning, already many and deep? Amid the celebrations in the hours after Spain lifted their first World Cup, the footballer who scored the goal to win it and dedicated it to her friend’s mother who had just passed away, was told that her own father had died. Tomas Carmona didn’t see the moment his daughter made history but she didn’t know that yet. He had passed away while her mother and brother flew to Australia for the final and they had chosen to leave her to live this, everything she had ever wanted.

“This is a dream, but literally: when you go to bed and dream of things that can happen in life, you dream of this,” Carmona said after the final, an added poignancy later lent to every word, every act, heartfelt anyway, by the news of her father’s passing. She had already scored in the semi-final; now her low, precise effort went past Mary Earps’s hand at 98km/h and she set off almost as quick in the other direction.

Usually Carmona celebrates her goals by kissing a tattoo on her wrist dedicated to her mother, but this time she raised her shirt to reveal a message written in black pen on the red fabric. “Merchi,” it said: the name of María Benjumea’s mum, “our star” as Carmona put it. “The first thing I want to say,” the goalscorer insisted afterwards, “is that this victory, what we have achieved, is for the mum of one of my best friends who passed away recently. They were very present in my mind. I dedicate this to the whole family with all my love.”

“We had a feeling we could do it,” Carmona added.

What they had done was gigantic, the culmination of a journey and the start of one too. There were so many elements to it, so much to hold on to, so many players to celebrate, so many significant little snapshots, full of significance. Jenni Hermoso, forced out of last summer’s Euros through injury and “retired” by too many, there with the cup, her and Alexia Putellas, with whom she has shared so much, wearing each other’s shirts. Cata Coll, the Barcelona reserve keeper, clinging on to the ball as the whistle went. Teresa Abelleira singing happy birthday to her mother in the stands: some present. Salma Paralluelo, Spanish under-20 record holder at 400m and football world champion at U17, U20 and senior level. Aitana Bonmatí, a glorious footballer whose father is a famed Catalan separatist.

Asked to sum it up, for now Hermoso could only say: “Whoah! … we’re champions of the fucking world!” Football is never just football, and this time still less, the symbolism and legacy powerful if far from simple. Ivana Andrés dedicated it to the “pioneers” who first played and “all the girls that will now”. There is in this success a social and political message, a cause, a fight, although too easily forgotten is that it is not the girls who just wanted to play football that obliged it to be so; it is those that would not let them.

Spain fans celebrate at final whistle as England fans left heartbroken – video

“We have opened doors without the keys,” Hermoso said. On the eve of the final Irene Paredes said: “Most of us that are here have grown up feeling like this isn’t our place; that football doesn’t belong to us.” Now, with screens erected across the country, 5.5 million people had watched them win the World Cup; it led TV bulletins and radio broadcasts and front pages. “They put obstacles in your way. They gave you the worst times. You were coached by people who weren’t qualified for it,” Paredes had said. “And as the years passed, we’ve increased the level, so we have been given those [right] conditions but we know that in amateur [women’s] football it still doesn’t happen. So if this serves for people to know that it’s possible, that this is our place too, that you can play a World Cup final, that they can follow our example, well, then that too is history and it makes us truly happy.”

With Spain there is an extra, contemporary dimension to that message. Paredes had been left out of the squad after 15 players wrote a letter to the Spanish Federation (RFEF) withdrawing from the national team as they pushed for changes in the setup. The letter was made public by the RFEF, the players told they would not return unless they apologised. Paredes was not one of those who sent the letter but, like Putellas and Hermoso, she backed the demands. As captain and figurehead, responsible for representing the squad and leading discussions with the federation, she paid for it. The armband taken from her – none of the three official captains started on Sunday – she eventually returned in the spring.

Of the 15, only three made it to the World Cup: Aitana, Mariona Caldentey and Ona Battle. “It will hurt not to be there, but I have my principles,” centre-back Mapi León had insisted. There is a lot of talk of sacrifice in sport; here it was. Much of the focus was on Jorge Vilda, the coach, who the federation accused them of mobilising to remove, although there were other changes the players felt needed to be made too – and in the wake of the fallout, some of those were; additional support staff brought into the get-together, greater professionalism.

Did Spain’s triumph happen in spite of Jorge Vilda rather than because of him? Photograph: Andy Cheung/Getty Images

The confrontation led to a weakened team and key players missing out on the greatest achievement any career can offer, yet it may well have played a part in this success too. There is a universal message there too: after the final, Putellas urged Fifa to act, too many female footballers forced to fight when they should be able to just play.

Some found it hard to watch Spain succeed because it served as an implicit vindication of him, and he cut an often isolated figure. If there was symbolism there, worse was the federation president Luis Rubiales not just grabbing Hermoso and kissing her but then describing all those who complained as “dickheads”. These had not been not the conditions in which to prepare a World Cup; in the beginning the atmosphere was not good. The disconnect was real. After the Japan defeat, though, the players spoke, common cause reasserted. When they won the quarter-final, something shifted: a feeling that, yes, despite everything, they could do this.

“There are things that have to improve and this can be part of that,” Paredes said after the final. For her, there was a personal dimension too, another layer to it all. Her father had passed away just before the pre-tournament get-together. She had travelled to Australia with her little son. “It has been a sensitive time,” she admitted. “He won’t remember this but I will tell him one day how he helped us, how he got a smile from us every day. It is going to be hard for me, but I am going to try to celebrate this.” On the pitch in Sydney, she rose her medal to the sky.

No tengo palabras para agradecer todo vuestro cariño.

Ayer fue el mejor y el peor día de mi vida.

Sé que tú querrías verme disfrutar de este momento histórico, por eso estaré con mis compañeras, para que desde donde estés sepas que esta estrella también es tuya papá🌟 pic.twitter.com/U0FKunGdml

— Olga Carmona (@7olgacarmona) August 21, 2023

At the end of the team talk on the morning of the game, a curtain was drawn back and the players’ families walked in. There were tears and embraces, smiles and song; this was the emotional strength they needed to see then through. Carmona’s mother and brother didn’t tell her the terrible news, not wanting to deny her this or anyone else either; they wanted Olga to have her moment, her dream, which was everything, the chance to make herself and an entire country happy. At the end of the final, she climbed into the stands, a World Cup winner handed a new shirt with a star on the chest, an idol whose life had changed for ever already, and hugged them. Watching the footage now it is impossible to comprehend what was going through their minds, how they felt, how they wrestled with what to do and when.

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When Carmona arrived in the press room soon after, she jokingly complained that journalists were “not letting me celebrate”, but her mum and her brother were. “You think about your family, in the people who love you, all those people who did their little bit to get you here since you were little … and now we have got the whole country out on to the street,” she said. “My mum is going mad: I’m going to have to get her a herbal tea to calm down. It’s going to be a long night, it’s never going to end. It’s time to enjoy being champions of the world.”

As the night closed, it was announced. “Without knowing it I had my star before the game began,” wrote Olga Carmona, who had taken them all to their highest and happiest point. “I know you gave me the strength to do something unique. I know you were watching tonight and that you’re proud of me. Rest in peace, papa.

Talking points

Even Vinícius Júnior is copying Jude Bellingham. When he clipped in Madrid’s third at Almeria, Viní did the same celebration as the Englishmen produced when he scored on his debut against Athletic, standing there arms wide, like a man controlling all before him. It didn’t look quite as dramatic at the Power Horse – yes, that really is what the ground is called and, yes, in English – as it did at San Mamés, but the players have been doing it in training too, enjoying messing about with their new teammate, and Vinícius also put a picture of it up on Twitter, linking Bellingham in. And why not? After all, Bellingham had scored the first two and provided the assist for his goal (even if it was a simple pass), making him the league’s top scorer and the team’s leader already. El País’s match report opened on: “Welcome to Jude Bellingham’s Real Madrid.” Carlo Ancelotti praised his personality. And Marca said that Madrid danced to “Bellingham’s beat”, which may or may not be even better than last week when they said he “cuts the cod”. Which, yes, is a very good thing. As for AS’s mad Madridista Tomás Roncero, he wrote: “Goals speak English.” (Well, more than he does, certainly), adding: “Bellingham has already got into the skins of the Madrid fans as if he was born on the Paseo de la Castellana.”

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La Liga results

Real Mallorca 0-1 Villarreal, Valencia 1-0 Las Palmas, Real Sociedad 1-1 Celta Vigo, Almería 1-3 Real Madrid, Osasuna 0-2 Athletic Club, Girona 3-0 Getafe, Barcelona 2-0 Cádiz, Real Betis 0-0 Atlético Madrid

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Cristhian Stuani has now scored more than a third of all the goals that Girona have ever scored in the first division, after he got two in their very impressive 3-0 win over Getafe. “I hope he never gets tired of giving us moments like this,” coach Míchel said. The Getafe coach, Pepe Bordalás, meanwhile was complaining that referees blew up for “every little foul we make”, after all the fuss over last week’s game against Barcelona when they didn’t even blow up for every big foul they made.

This Sunday Santi Cazorla came home.

So, sort of, did Barcelona. They had their first league game at Montjuïc. A ground for which they have less than 20,000 season ticket holders, which is fewer even than Espanyol. Oh, and Oviedo. There were 39,603 people there to see them just about beat Cádiz 2-0 with two goals inside the last 10 minutes and the place – which really is a bad place to watch football, but really isn’t the millions miles from anywhere that many seem to think – looked a little sad, the match played out to wide spaces of empty seats.

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Rafa Benítez was going to the old short blanket theory to explain why Iago Aspas is sometimes up front for Celta Vigo and sometimes further back creating but can’t be in both places at the same time. What, he was asked, is the solution? “A bigger blanket,” he said.

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