Salma Paralluelo might not have chosen soccer. It was not her only option, certainly. A 19-year-old Spain striker, Paralluelo was a bright prospect in track and field, too, such a gifted runner that she might even have represented her country at the Tokyo Olympics two years ago. Her chosen discipline was the 400 meters. She still holds the national under-20 record at the distance.
She is also, it turns out, just the person her country needed at the end of a marathon.
Spain’s meeting with the Netherlands on Friday in the quarterfinals of this Women’s World Cup was always likely to be close. As Spain’s draining, narrow, 2-1 victory proved, close may have been an understatement. There is barely a hair’s breadth between these teams: the Spanish, Europe’s great power-in-waiting, and the Dutch, famed for their talent but noteworthy for their resilience.
Four years ago, that mixture was enough to carry the Netherlands to the World Cup final against the United States. This year, it was starting to look as if a repeat trip might be in the cards. Andries Jonker’s team had advanced from the group phase in a style more impressive than spectacular. It had finished, most significantly, ahead of the United States. Thanks to the reflexes and concentration of Daphne van Domselaar, its goalkeeper, it had held South Africa at bay in the round of 16.
The Netherlands might have been missing its cutting edge — the star striker Vivianne Miedema is one of the many players absent from this World Cup because of a serious knee injury — but it had found a way to make up for that by dulling everyone else’s. The squad’s confidence was growing sufficiently that forward Lineth Beerensteyn could even afford to take a little swipe at the United States team when she met with reporters before the game. There had, Beerensteyn said, been too much talk from the Americans, who lost to Sweden in the round of 16. “You have to do it on the pitch,” she said.
For a while, it seemed as if she would be good to her word. In the bright winter sunshine of Wellington, New Zealand, Spain dominated possession, because Spain always dominates possession. Spain created chances, too, because Spain always creates chances.
But it could not breach the Dutch. Whenever it picked its way through the massed ranks of the defense, Spain found van Domselaar, as indomitable as ever, repelling whatever it could muster.
And when van Domselaar was beaten, Spain found that the physical infrastructure of the stadium was choosing sides: Midway through the first half, Alba Redondo hit the post twice in a matter of seconds. A few minutes later, Esther González had a goal ruled out for offside, though only after the referee, Stéphanie Frappart, had consulted a video replay.
It was that sort of game: one of slender differences and considerable what-ifs. For Spain — what if Redondo had scored, or if Frappart had noticed that Stefanie van der Gragt had handled the ball in the scramble to clear it; or if González had delayed her run a fraction of a second? But, more than anything, it was for the Netherlands.
What if the penalty won by Beerensteyn for what seemed a clear push from Spain defender Irene Paredes had not been overturned? The Netherlands might have led, rather than finding itself, barely a heartbeat later, falling behind after Mariona Caldentey converted the only penalty of three that should, or could, have been awarded.
And what if Beerensteyn had scored any one of the three clear-cut opportunities that fell her way as the game entered its dying embers? The Dutch had at least taken the game the distance, van der Gragt salving her conscience after her hand ball led to Caldentey’s penalty by unceremoniously drilling home an equalizing goal as the game ticked into injury time.
Beerensteyn twice might have won it, might have kept the Dutch in the tournament, but she could convert neither chance.
Paralluelo was more efficient. She picked up the ball from Jenni Hermoso, shimmied her hip and dropped her shoulder and burst clear into the Dutch penalty area, moving too quickly and too easily for the straining Dutch defense. She steadied herself and swept a shot, low and left-footed, past van Domselaar.
The Netherlands’ race is run. Spain’s might just be picking up speed.