Dictionaries don’t speculate. They parsimoniously define history as a study of the past. No mention of how history can affect the present. Nor how it can affect states of mind. These were among the pre-match reflections as France and Spain took the field at the National Stadium in Belfast to engage in a déjà vu final. A year previously, France had prevailed 2-1 in a rain-disturbed final that ended four hours after it had kicked-off. And it spelled three successive defeats for Spain, who had lost the 2014 and 2015 finals to the Netherlands and Sweden respectively. “There’s a temptation to think that football is in debt to us,” Spain coach Pedro López mused on the eve of the game. “If that’s true, I hope the debt is paid tomorrow…” Seven of his players had lost the previous final, whereas the France squad featured only four of the defending champions – two of them goalkeepers. The coin had two sides. Spain had more experience – but was it positive experience? How heavy was the weight of history?
The questions hung in the Belfast air – which was cool enough to prompt a distribution of blankets in the main stand. Mercifully, the rain which had showered the tournament stayed away long enough to warrant pre-match pitch-watering aimed at providing an ideal playing surface for the two teams to display their slick combination football. The teamsheets revealed that Spain fielded the eleven who had started the semi-final, only switching the wingers: Paula Fernández from left to right; and skipper Aitana Bonmatí vice versa. Gilles Eyquem, who had previously kept trump cards close to his chest, opted to play them from the start, deploying Emelyne Laurent on the left and Christy Gavory on the right, with Catherine Karadjov shadowing striker Mathilde Bourdieu in a 1-4-4-2 structure. Whereas earlier game plans had focused on early containment and subsequent strikes, the set-up for the final hinted at plans for an early breakthrough followed by challenges for the opposition’s possession game to find a reply.
It took just under four minutes to work. A regain in midfield; a quick pass to Laurent; acceleration into the box; and a square pass for Mathilde Bourdieu to gleefully tap in from point-blank range. Depending on the colours of shirts, it was a dream start or a nightmare start.
To their credit, Spain refused to lower their flag. More to do with philosophy than with game plans, they moved the ball sweetly through the thirds with composed control and technique. Maite Oroz lived up to the No10 on her shirt by making herself available to receive, delivering neat passes, linking her team’s middle-to-front play. The two wingers trying to twist the full-backs’ legs; striker Lucía García testing the centre-backs with darting diagonal runs. They also competed. In the engine room, Damaris Egurrola excelled in the holding role; Patricia Guijarro was a commanding box-to-box presence. The team pressed high; used anticipation and toe-end interceptions to win the ball. And, when they had it, they turned and twisted their way out of trouble and into the final third.
France didn’t mind. Their coach had prepared them for life without the ball. They didn’t invest heavily in upfield pressing, focusing instead on re-assembling the defensive block and throwing down the gauntlet. Attacking strategy was to hit immediate passes to the front two or to the wide midfielders – especially the gazelle Laurent on the left. And this approach was hardly affected by Spain’s equaliser in the 18th minute. Although Spain’s deft combination play had threatened, it was a dead-ball situation which put them back on level terms. Paula Fernández delivered an inswinging right-footed corner from the left and Guijarro, making a diagonal run to the near post, hit it past Mylène Chavas who, after a sortie a few minutes earlier, had doubts about leaving her line and venturing into a pack of players where, as part of rehearsed strategy, four Spanish players started together, each with her hands on the team-mate in front of her.
Within minutes, however, France hinted that their defend-and-counter approach could prevail, Bourdieu racing forward and cutting the ball into the path of Laurent, whose shot, with Noelia Ramos a spectator between the posts, cannoned off the crossbar. At the other end, Chavas’ positioning allowed her to cope with a close-range finish by Oroz from a cross by Bonmatí. At half-time, it was hard to predict whether a fascinating contest would be won by Spain’s elaborate skills or by the more direct attacking style of France.
The first half of the second half was an extension of the first: Spain dominating the ball and the initiative with their attractive skill-based construction; France eagerly awaiting a chance to counter. Eyquem shuffled his tactical pack with two changes within the opening ten minutes, withdrawing Karadjov; injecting Cindy Caputo into the left side of midfield; and pairing Laurent with Bourdieu in the centre of the attack. Spain winger Fernández, leg-strapping hinting at physical doubts, was replaced by Laura Pérez and, later, Oroz, recently back from injury, was part of another like-for-like swap.
By the time she left, however, Spain were again behind. Again to fast counterattack with, again, Laurent bursting clear and, this time, planting the ball in the net herself.
At this point, history kicked-in. With the clock ticking through the final 20 minutes, Spain could see on the National Stadium scoreboard, the result that had condemned them a year earlier. How heavily would three successive defeats weigh on young minds? It justified questions about whether panic would set in, whether heads would drop.
It didn’t and they didn’t. With five minutes of the 90 remaining, Carmen Menayo raced across from her left-back berth to immaculately deliver an inswinging left-footed free-kick from wide on the right. Egurrola’s header sparked Spanish jubilation. Thoughts immediately turned to extra-time. But the closing minutes were to provide further drama. Within two minutes, France were awarded a free-kick. The Belarusian referee, keen to deliver a lecture to the offender, Egurrola, instructed Pauline Dechilly to wait for the whistle. She didn’t. And, having seen a yellow card for pulling back Fernández in the first half, the France left-back was sent to the dressing-room. Then, with the fourth official signalling that six minutes would be added, Caputo earned a booking for a foul on Pérez and cued-up another déjà vu moment. Across came Menayo; another brilliant left-footed delivery; and, this time, the head of Guijarro sending the ball into the net.
When the final whistle sounded, the Spain bench danced in a ring, while Gilles Eyquem shook his head in disbelief. The red-shirted champions danced and threw themselves to the touchline in front of their fans. As Pedro López later commented, “a lot of contained feelings and tensions were released.” Spain’s nerve and spirit had been tested. But they had remained loyal to their ball-playing philosophy and the ghosts of the past had been exorcised by the dead ball. The 3-2 victory lifted the weight of history from their shoulders.