Jorge Vilda was derided by some of his players as a control freak who was not up to the job, but the coach now stands on the brink of making history with Spain at the Women’s World Cup.
His team face England in front of a sell-out 75,000 crowd in Sydney in Sunday’s final, and no matter who wins, it will be a first -- neither side has ever lifted the World Cup.
Spain had never even won a knockout game at the World Cup before their exploits in Australia and New Zealand.
Rewind to nearly a year ago and their success over the past four weeks would have been unthinkable.
Discontent between players on the one side and the Spanish football federation (RFEF) and Vilda on the other had been brewing for some time.
In September 2022 the situation exploded -- 15 of the squad emailed the RFEF to say they did not want to be considered for selection, citing their “emotional state”.
The exact nature of their complaints was never officially made public, but Spanish media had previously reported that they wanted the 42-year-old Vilda sacked.
The players later denied that, but they were reported to have a litany of complaints about how things were run on and off the pitch.
Reports said the players, many of whom were at Barcelona, accused Vilda of being “dictatorial” and did not approve of his training methods or tactics.
Mundo Deportivo and other publications said he would insist on the players keeping their hotel doors open before midnight while on national duty so he could personally check that they were asleep on time.
There were also claims that if the players went out, Vilda wanted to know where they were going, with whom and what they were buying.
Vilda said in the lead-up to the World Cup that the dispute was “practically over”, but of the 15 mutineers, he only called up three.
Suggesting that all was still not well, one of the refuseniks, Barcelona’s Mapi Leon, said: “I can’t go back, there has to be changes.”
At the World Cup, Vilda has been repeatedly asked by non-Spanish reporters about the controversy.
He is a typically guarded character, but following Spain’s 2-1 win in the semi-finals over Sweden, he said that the turmoil had “made all of us stronger”.
“The support of Luis Rubiales, the president of the federation, and everyone at the federation, means so much and will always stay with me, as well as that of my family because they have suffered this year,” said Vilda.
- Steadfast support -
Vilda was a promising player in his youth but was forced into coaching by injury.
He became involved in the national women’s youth football teams, entrusted with what they hoped would be a golden generation of Spanish players.
He was coach of the under-17 women’s team and assistant to his father, Angel Vilda, at the under-19s, then took over from him as U19 head coach.
In 2015 he was promoted to lead the senior side.
Spain were at a low ebb, having finished bottom of their group without a win at the 2015 World Cup.
With Vilda at the helm, Spain went out in the last 16 of the 2019 World Cup -- to eventual champions the United States -- and they also failed to get beyond the quarter-finals at two editions of the European Championship.
That lack of success despite the talent of the players at his disposal was also reported to be one of the players’ objections to Vilda.
Reports said that Rubiales promised to act on some of the complaints by bringing in a nutritionist and more physios.
There was also a bit more leeway for the players to see their families during camps, including at the World Cup.
But he was always steadfast in support of Vilda.
“Jorge is a top-class coach who gave up the chance with other teams for more money to stay with Spain,” Rubiales told Spanish television after the semi-final win.
“We deserve this.”
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