Extra Time: The Stakes Are Set For England vs. Spain

15 minute read

This story first appeared in Extra Time, our pop-up newsletter about the 2023 Women’s World Cup. Get it in your inbox by subscribing here.

Expert analysis

After a pair of scintillating semifinals, it’s time to crown a champion. 

The final is set: England vs. Spain, on Sunday in Sydney, at 6 a.m. ET. Spain and Sweden played a thriller on Tuesday in Auckland, scoring a flurry of goals in the final minutes of the second half: La Roja prevailed, 2-1. And in Sydney on Wednesday, Australia’s Sam Kerr equalized the game against England with a stunning goal in the 63rd minute. The Matilda faithful were feeling mighty good. But England soon got the goal back, and a perfectly-placed Alessia Russo shot in the 86th minute—off a no-look touch from Lauren Hemp—sealed the 3-1 win for the Lionesses. 

Both England and Spain are making their rookie appearances in a women’s World Cup final. Australia faces Sweden, in Brisbane, in the third place game on Saturday at 4 a.m. ET. 

Aly Wagner, the former U.S. women’s national team (USWNT) midfielder and two-time Olympic champion now analyzing games for Fox Sports, had a stadium seat for both these classics—and so many other games during this World Cup. Wagner, along with Fox Sports play-by-play announcer JP Dellacamera, will call her 14th game of this World Cup on Sunday. Wagner bounced around Australia and New Zealand throughout the tournament, and just counted up her flight tally: 14 different trips for this tournament. She was up for 24 hours straight this week, rising at 4 a.m. New Zealand time—and 2 a.m. Sydney time—Wednesday morning to catch a flight to Sydney for England vs. Australia on Wednesday night, and staying up past 2 a.m. in Sydney Thursday morning following the adrenaline rush of that second semi. 

After catching a few winks on Thursday, Wagner hopped on the phone with Extra Time to preview the final, share some thoughts on USWNT, and offer travel tips she’s learned over the past month.  

What has been your favorite moment of the World Cup so far?

Probably watching Sam Kerr score that goal [against England, in the semifinals]. She’s such a magnanimous personality. She was the player who changed what I thought was possible in women’s football, with how dynamic she is. She’s the next generation of football in the women’s space. 

Watching that moment of magic, where the odds are against her (the distance from goal, two defenders), the technique, the thought to do it, the ability to finish it off, and the ecstasy that permeated through that crowd, was something to remember for a lifetime.   

What are some key things, away from the ball, that fans should watch in the final on Sunday? 

From an England standpoint, watch number 4, Keira Walsh. There is this great quote, and it’s about Sergio Busquets on the men’s side: “you can watch a whole game, and never see Sergio Busquets. You can watch Sergio Busquets, and you can see the whole game.” That to me is Keira Walsh. Watch how she moves into space, gets herself free. Every team marks her. Or they shield her from receiving a pass so she can’t be a conductor in midfield. But she always manages to get herself into an area where she can dictate and control the game and possession. 

Spain is going to press high. They’re the number one team in the tournament in regaining possession. The way they go and attack the opponent after they lose the ball is the best and most efficient in the tournament. That’s one of their superpowers.

Who are some of your players to watch from Spain? 

Salma Paralluelo, number 18 from Spain. She’s exceptional. The timing of when [Spain coach Jorge Vilda] uses her will be interesting. The last few matches, where she’s had those important goals, he’s brought her in late in the game. And that’s typically when the game has opened up. She’s got space to exploit. She has such an advantage over England. You saw what Kerr did. She can cause some serious problems for England’s back line. 

Jenni Hermoso [No. 10 on Spain], she’s probably been the difference maker, aside from [left winger Salma] Parraluello. There’s likely going to be a pass, which we call our assist, that leads to the goal. She is likely not playing the assist. She’s likely playing the ball before the assist. That opens everything up. Watch the passes that Jenni Hermoso makes, and the opportunity that springs from that moment.  

So who do you like to win?    

This is England’s game to win. They’ve got the experience in big matches, coming off the Euro 2022 win. They’ve got so many different weapons. They’ve got depth. They’ve got game-changers off the bench. When you play Spain, you’re likely going to give up a goal. Which means you need to score multiple goals to win, if you’re England. They have the players, they have the personalities, they have the capabilities, they have the balance in how they attack their opponents, to be able to score multiple goals.

A few quick things on the USWNT. Vlatko Andonovski resigned as U.S. coach. What do you think of England’s Dutch coach Sarina Wiegman taking his place? 

I would absolutely love Sarina to be our next national team coach. But with one caveat there: if we can’t get her at Bay FC first. 

I’m messing around. She’s a great candidate, being able to take a team, back-to-back, to a World Cup final. So many of these successful programs you see internationally, yes it’s about the manager. It’s also about their staff, and who they have with them. She’s got a very loyal core that she’s traveled with. So many times that’s the secret sauce.   

Your former teammate and Fox Sports colleague, Carli Lloyd, has argued that the U.S. players’ focus on branding and commercial success has taken some of the focus off on-the-feld performance. What did you think of Carli’s remarks? 

I don’t think anything is a singular answer. It’s usually a confluence of events that leads to results. Part of the beauty of the U.S. women’s soccer team over the years has been its ability to brand itself. There is a reason that the United States fell in love with this team, and it was because of the brand that these players put forward. That’s part of the reason why people started to invest in women’s soccer. I absolutely think branding is paramount to the success of our program.

Having said that, juxtapose the visuals. I’ve witnessed this, first-hand, sitting in that booth watching the national team players coming in their suits. The suits look sharp, that’s awesome. But they’ve got sunglasses on, and it’s an 8 p.m. game. And I just went, “gosh, that feels off.” Especially when you haven’t put together a very good performance in this tournament. There is a humbleness that also started this program. And that was lacking.

I saw it with England walking in [Wednesday night]. Guess how they walked in? In sweats, hair in messy ponytails, no sunglasses, all business. To me, that was a very, very relevant juxtaposition.     

Any travel hacks you’ve learned from all this flying around Australia and New Zealand?

Do not listen to anyone on arrival time at the airport. You do not need to get there three hours ahead of time for international travel. 

We actually had no wi-fi on any of our flights. So think ahead, and download whatever you’re going to need for your travel, to be efficient in flight. That was a big one for me to learn. I have my ritual. I grab my sparkling water from whatever shop is there. I need a salty snack, I need a sweet snack, and I need a lounge pass. I’m a big travel snob.

Any last thoughts that are important to bring out? 

This tournament has been something special. We’ll look back on 2023 and realize that this was the moment that the women's game shifted globally. With attention, with execution, and with entertainment value. The England-Australia game was the best game of the World Cup, given everything that was on the line and the performance of both teams. We’re probably going to see some of the next major superstars in this final. It could be riveting.

A nation’s mood

Esteemed “Friend of Extra Time,” TIME’s Yasmeen Serhan, takes England’s temperature from from London:

Being an England soccer fan is a notoriously miserable affair. So miserable, in fact, that they even have a song about it. It’s not just that their men’s national team hasn’t won a major trophy since 1966. It’s that during seemingly every major tournament, be it a European Championship or a World Cup, England fans manage to lull themselves into the belief that maybe, just maybe, this will be their year—only to have their dreams crushed (and often in the most brutal of forms: penalties). 

England fans did get a reprieve from their decades-long doom loop in 2022, when their women’s team, known affectionately as the Lionesses, won the European Championship at Wembley Stadium against Germany in extra time. This Sunday, they may yet get another reprieve when England face off against Spain in the final of this year’s World Cup.

Should the Lionesses defeat Spain on Sunday, they will not only secure England’s first-ever Women’s World Cup victory, but they will also be credited with bringing football home for a second consecutive time. 

Would that mark the end to England’s soccer misery? 

I’m dubious. Despite the fact that the popularity of women’s soccer has surged in recent years, men’s soccer remains dominant in England, particularly in terms of overall viewership and media coverage. Plus, there’s the fact that England fans are gluttons for the agony of defeat. As one England fan introspectively put it to me, “We love wallowing in self pity.”

The irony, of course, is that if the Lionesses are successful, they will have achieved something far greater than their male counterparts have. Unlike the men’s game, women’s soccer in England has had to endure a 50-year ban and disproportionately less investment and resources, and yet despite competing against historically stronger teams the women have still come out on top. It’s little wonder that England’s soccer governing body is openly tipping Lionesses coach Sarina Wiegman as a candidate to replace the England men’s manager Gareth Southgate, if and when he decides to move on from the role.

Win or lose, I’d argue that the Lionesses have already won. But for England’s sake, here’s hoping they come home with a trophy anyway.

Shootout scholarship

Few soccer fans want to see a World Cup final come down to penalty kicks: the run-of-play should determine the winner. 

But darn if the shootouts aren’t exciting. 

We witnessed this on August 12, when Australia and France needed 10 pressure-backed penalty rounds to finally determine the winner (the Matildas prevailed). As for all the consternation about the USWNT performance at this World Cup, remember that Sophia Smith had an opportunity to clinch the round of 16 game for the Americans in the penalty shootout against Sweden. But her shot sailed wide right, and the U.S. eventually lost. 

Penalty shootouts unfold in a sort of psychological laboratory, with the shooter and keeper staring each other down before the shot, looking for some mental edge. So it comes as no surprise that academics have devoted a fair amount of brainpower to studying penalty kicks. They’re an academic’s dream, a set of controlled actions—kicker kicks, deeper dives—with a finite set of results: goal or no goal. 

After perusing the literature, here are a few things the players might want to keep in mind for Sunday. 

Go nuts after scoring. This might be my favorite finding, from a 2010 study in the Journal of Sports Sciences, and evident in the title, “Emotional contagion in soccer penalty shootouts: Celebration of individual success is associated with ultimate team success.” The researchers studied the association between the degree of celebration after netting a World Cup or European championships penalty and the team’s likelihood of winning, and came to the following incredible conclusion: “Players who engaged in certain celebratory post-shot behaviors were more likely to be in the team that ultimately won the penalty shootout. In particular, celebrations including both arms were associated with winning the shootout.” The study attributed the phenomenon of emotional contagion—essentially, positive vibes spreading from you to to your teammates and enhancing future performance—to the findings. 

So on Sunday, be nervous if your player keeps cool after scoring her penalty. Or heaven forbid, raises just one arm.      

Shut up, coach. Also be nervous if you see a teammate or coach from your favorite team yapping to a penalty kicker before her shot. According to a 2019 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, players who received instructions on where to place the ball before shooting a penalty kick reported higher levels of anxiety, and were more likely to miss, than those who made the decision on their own. “Findings indicate that increased self-control helps coping with the debilitating effects of pressure and can counter performance deteriorations,” the authors write. 

Keepers need to kick. We’ve already seen two goalkeepers take shots in shootouts at this World Cup: Alyssa Naeher of the U.S., who made her attempt against Sweden, and Mackenzie Arnold of Australia, who hit the post, but still managed to stave off Sweden while doing her day job on defense. A 2022 study supports such a strategy, and proposes that even if Spanish goalkeeper Cata Coll and England’s Mary Earps don’t take actual shots in the final, they at least practice scoring goals before Sunday. In a paper published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers propose that practicing what an opponent does will help you better read and react to that opponent’s action. “Based on this notion,” the authors write, “we ran a series of studies on soccer goalkeepers and novices, who predicted the intended direction of penalties being kicked at them in a computerized penalty reading task. In line with hypotheses, extensive practice in penalty kicking improved performance in penalty reading … in sum, it takes practice as a penalty kicker to become a penalty killer.”

Recommended reading/viewing

Meerkats predicted England’s run to the final. (ESPN)

Nearly a year ago, Spain’s players formed a mutiny against coach Jorge Vilda. Amazingly, La Roja are in position to win a title. A good primer on what went down. (Bonus points to the writer for using the word “refusenik”). (AFP)

Can World Cup fever fuel the popularity of Australia’s women’s soccer league? (The Guardian)

Fans are turning to “revenge” video games to engineer the World Cup outcomes they want. (Kotaku)

How to turn a World Cup star into a global brand. (The Athletic)

Parting thought

Australia’s semifinal against England became the most-watched program—sports or otherwise—in the county’s history since the current ratings system was established in 2001. It reached 11.5 million viewers nationally. The game fetched solid numbers in Great Britain too: Australia-England drew a peak audience of 7.3 million to the BBC, while an additional 3.8 million people streamed the game on BBC platforms.   

The Spain-Sweden semi peaked at 3.7 million viewers on Spain’s RTVE’s La 1 channel. At one point, 53.6% of all Spanish TV viewers were tuned into the game. 

The 2023 World Cup continues to set live attendance records. The average crowd for the games across Australia and New Zealand has been 28,900, more than 7,000 above the average for games at the 2019 World Cup in France and more than 4,000 above the average attendance at the eight previous women’s World Cups.

Aly Wagner’s right. The U.S. might be long gone from this tournament. But this World Cup will be remembered for its milestones. The event has marked an undeniable arrival of the women’s game, throughout the world.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com