“I currently do not see myself in a position to be a player eligible for selection for our national team and for this reason I request not to be called up until the situation is reversed.”

That was how 15 identical emails written by Spain players and addressed to the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) began in September last year.

The players who sent the emails were Patri Guijarro, Aitana Bonmati, Mapi Leon, Mariona Caldentey, Sandra Panos, Claudia Pina, Lola Gallardo, Ainhoa Moraza, Nerea Eizagirre, Amaiur Sarriegi, Lucia Garcia, Ona Batlle, Leila Ouahabi, Laia Aleixandri and Andrea Pereira.

They also received public support from three players who did not send the email themselves. Before the group sent that email, they met with the RFEF 20 days earlier to express their misgivings with the national setup. When details of the meeting appeared in the media, Spain captain Irene Paredes was one of the players who showed her face at a press conference. But she was left shaken after that public appearance and did not send the email, feeling singled out for being the leader of a movement that was not just hers.

The other two players to back the protest without sending the email were Jennifer Hermoso and Alexia Putellas, the reigning Ballon d’Or champion who was recovering from a long-term ACL injury suffered just before the start of Spain’s Euro 2022 campaign.



Spanish women’s football’s implosion: Players’ rebellion, Vilda refusing to quit, ‘world embarrassment’

‘Las 15+3.’ That’s what the media called them.

Of the 18 players who protested, only Putellas, Paredes, Hermoso, Bonmati, Caldentey and Batlle have made Spain’s final squad for this year’s World Cup — the three who gave their support to the movement without sending an email and three of ‘Las 15’. The issues are deep-rooted and go far beyond the pitch. The extent to which they have been solved will determine how well Spain perform in Australia and New Zealand.

So, what has happened to bring six players back and why did some still not want to be selected for football’s most prestigious event?

Follow theWomen’s World Cup on ** ** The Athletic…

The initial complaints from the 18 Spain players centred on a series of structural changes they believed were necessary to help unlock the full potential of the country’s most talented generation.

Reports at the time suggested ‘Las 15+3’ wanted head coach Jorge Vilda to resign. While Paredes denied they had asked for this at her press conference on September 1, the majority of their complaints were directed at him.

Spain head coach Jorge Vilda (Photo by SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images).

Publicly, the players did not give many details. But, as The Athletic found out from sources close to the players — who, like the others in this piece, asked to remain anonymous to protect relationships — they complained of a lack of professionalism from the team’s technical staff and the RFEF. They pointed to how Spain did not travel early enough to competitions, a lack of preparation before matches and in training and repeated use of buses when it was possible to travel by plane.

They also complained about the behaviour of certain coaches. They said they were asked to keep the doors of their rooms open before midnight in hotels where they were based, made to tell coaches where and with whom they were going if they went out for a walk and forced to show the contents of their bags if they bought something during a training camp. Those are behaviours the RFEF was aware of, but which they say changed after Luis Rubiales took over as president in 2018.

The turning point was Euro 2022. Spain reached the quarter-finals and went 1-0 up against the tournament hosts England, only to crumble and lose 2-1 after extra time. Since Vilda was appointed manager in 2015, Spain have failed to win a single official knockout game — going out in the quarter-finals at the 2017 Euros and the round of 16 at the 2019 World Cup before last year’s disappointment at Brighton & Hove Albion’s ground.

After the emails were sent, there was a total split. The RFEF gave its public support to Vilda, issuing a statement that said that if the 15 players wanted to return to the national team, they would need to send another email stating they were available. “Jorge Vilda is unquestionable,” said Ana Alvarez, the RFEF’s director of women’s football, in September.

FUTPRO, Spain’s women’s football union, stepped in to mediate. The majority of the 15 players were at Barcelona, and no Real Madrid players opted to be part of the movement.

Sources close to the Barca players say they felt betrayed by their Real counterparts. That led to some especially tense Clasicos, with Bonmati refusing to speak to Madrid goalkeeper Misa Rodriguez as she left the pitch after one match in November.



This Barca-Madrid rivalry is getting intense — and the dispute driving it remains unsolved

It took a few months for the situation to cool down and for both sides to find a compromise. The first sign of that was Hermoso’s return to the national team in February, which felt like a big step forward.

Then, in March, Paredes also returned. That was particularly significant for Putellas’ future — the midfielder has always been on Paredes’ side and was in the final stages of her recovery at that point.

Spain players hold up Alexia Putellas’ shirt at last year’s Euros (Photo by Nigel French/PA Images via Getty Images).

Between March and April, talks began between some of ‘Las 15’ and the RFEF’s Alvarez. Both sides stood firm on what had driven them apart last year during these long discussions, but they were able to find common ground and compromise to reach an understanding.

Divisions had also developed among the 15 players who had protested. Sources close to several of the players say they were badly advised and add that some felt they lacked leadership. That led to some of them taking individual decisions and the group becoming increasingly divided.

Sources close to the Barca dressing room say the players spoke about the subject so there would be no problems within the club and each individual’s decision would be respected.

“There are discussions, people have different opinions,” Barcelona and Sweden forward Fridolina Rolfo said in a recent interview.

“Others think that maybe not everything has been resolved, so it’s clear that there are discussions between one and the other. And honestly, there have been a lot of things happening in the team that have had to do with the national team. It’s a complicated situation.”

But the talks with the RFEF did satisfy some players, who felt they had been listened to and saw the federation as being open to dialogue and change.

On a sporting level, the players were assured that Spain had improved the technical staff with analysts, physiotherapists and physical trainers to properly prepare for matches.

The RFEF promised them less bus travel and more flights and chartered planes, with better travel and hotels. They said they would plan the team’s schedule better, with Spain flying to New Zealand, their base for the group stage, in good time to avoid jet lag and arriving on July 8.



A guide to Spain at the Women’s World Cup: Out to put a year of off-field issues behind them

In terms of training camps, the players were given the impression they would have more freedom and leisure time. It seemed as if the RFEF were also open to improving in the long term.

Meanwhile, there was a visit from Vilda to a Barca training session in mid-May. Sources close to the players who agreed to return to the national team say Vilda was very pleasant with them and keen to calm the situation down.

Some players spoke to team-mates who had continued playing for Spain during this time. They were told the atmosphere was more relaxed, positive and that small structural changes had been made.

All that — plus meetings between the RFEF, Vilda and players who were abroad at the time such as then-Manchester United full-back Batlle (she joined Barcelona last month) — led to eight of the 15 deciding to make themselves available for selection again between May and June (with Putellas, Paredes and Hermoso also available).

Some, such as Putellas and Bonmati, had considered the knock-on effect on individual awards. Bonmati is in with a chance of winning her first Ballon d’Or this year after leading Barca to a Liga F-Champions League double — though missing out on the biggest international tournament could have damaged her prospects.

Aitana Bonmati (Photo by Buda Mendes – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images).

Putellas, Bonmati and Batlle also waited to see which players Vilda was set to pick for the World Cup and might have been more hesitant if they had felt they would not be surrounded by the best in Australia and New Zealand. Then there were commercial agreements that some players already had in place and that would have fallen apart had they not played in the World Cup.

Those arguments did not convince everyone. Some players preferred to stay away despite hopes of individual awards, lucrative commercial deals they had agreed and the possibility of playing in football’s most prestigious event.

That was the case for Guijarro, Leon and Pina, who all publicly said they would love to go to the World Cup but explained that the changes were not enough for them. They stood firm in their decision.

“Mapi Leon has a way of life and values,” Leon said in an interview with Catalan radio station RAC1 before Barca’s Champions League final against Wolfsburg. “I can’t go back if the situation doesn’t change… There has to be changes. I’m not saying that they’re not doing it, but I don’t see them.

“What saddens me the most is that I really have to miss out on something when I could have earned it and contributed. It’s a shame.”

Barcelona’s Mapi Leon (Photo: Berengui/DeFodi Images via Getty Images).

“It’s for consistency,” Guijarro said in an interview with newspaper Mundo Deportivo after winning the Champions League. “I’ve had to bite my tongue. The idea we’re doing this on a whim when you’re giving up your career and defending your country? We only want to improve to win.”

Both players had been key in Barca’s Champions League-winning side — Guijarro was player of the match in the final, in which she scored a brace — and both had been undisputed starters for Vilda before the conflict. But they both felt the best way to fight for a better national team was to stay away until the changes they considered to be necessary were made.

Once the foundations for a partial resolution had been laid, those who wanted to return had to take the next step. Which brings us back to the RFEF having made things clear with its statement last September: if any of the 15 wanted to return, they had to ask for it.

Several players sent an email — but not all were called up. Bonmati, Batlle, Caldentey, Garcia, Aleixandri, Ouahabi, Pereira and Panos all made themselves available for selection again. Panos — Barca’s starting goalkeeper — was not selected by Vilda because of a “technical decision”.

Once some players returned, there was still the matter of what the atmosphere would be like around the camp.

Since the emails to the RFEF were sent last year, some players had told The Athletic of their anxiety about the situation and expressed concern for their mental health if they returned. It seems clear the process was rushed because of the World Cup being around the corner.

With the team now in New Zealand, sources close to some of the players have said the atmosphere could be better. The tension between some players was palpable at first — they had to coexist without having resolved their disagreements that had dragged on for months, with certain players not speaking to each other.



A guide to Group C at the Women’s World Cup: A mix of chaos, inconsistency and unpredictability

The division became clear when Spain’s World Cup squad was presented. With all 23 players on stage, more than half of them did not applaud when Vilda’s name was announced.

But as the weeks have gone by, sources in New Zealand say players have started to look out for the common good and ensured the problems they have experienced over the past year do not affect their chances of success.

They say the atmosphere within the camp has improved and that there is an agreed peace as the World Cup begins. Time will tell how long that holds.

(Top photos by Catherine Ivill – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images and Cristian Trujillo/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images. Design by Eamonn Dalton)