'Values come first': Spain stars will miss Women's World Cup

"It will really p--- me off not to go to the World Cup, but my values come first," Barcelona and Spain defender Mapi Leon said in March.

This week, she was one of the big absentees, along with club teammate Patri Guijarro, from the 30-player provisional squad announced by coach Jorge Vilda for this summer's Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. The list will be cut to 23 on June 30.

Leon and Guijarro were among 15 players who simultaneously wrote to the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) in September 2022, saying that the conditions within the national team had affected their health and mental state. Until there were changes and improvements, they did not wish to be called up.

The players have always maintained that they wanted their complaints to be dealt with privately, not played out in public in the press.

"It is an issue that should be handled and resolved internally because what has happened this year has not been nice for anyone," Barcelona midfielder Aitana Bonmati, one of the 15, told ESPN recently. "The only ones who know exactly what is happening are [the players] and the RFEF."

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However, the RFEF has not always been on the same page. Its initial response in September was to call the mutiny "unprecedented" and vow "not to allow players to question the continuity of the coach."

Sources consulted by ESPN at the time said it was not necessarily a matter of Vilda, who has been coach since 2015, remaining in his role, but of the whole setup around the national team being improved and professionalised.

The situation endured into this year until, in recent months, with the World Cup in sight, the players were forced to reconsider their positions and their priorities.

On Monday, Vilda named three of the 15 in his provisional squad for the finals. Bonmati, who was recently named the UEFA Women's Champions League Player of the Season, her Barca teammate Mariona Caldentey and Manchester United full-back Ona Batlle all returned to the fold.

Another five players, sources told ESPN, had also declared themselves available for selection, including Barca goalkeeper Sandra Panos. However, Vilda, emboldened by a run of one loss in nine games without the 15 -- including a first win over United States -- plus with a sense of loyalty to those who have come into the squad, did not pick them.

"It's especially difficult to understand why he's not picked [Panos]," said one source, pointing out that four goalkeepers have been named in the provisional squad, including Panos' understudy at club level, Catalina Coll.

There were various factors behind those eight players making themselves available for the national team at the World Cup. Sources say the RFEF has enacted changes since September 2022. Travel to camps and games has been significantly improved, the quality of opponents in friendlies has risen and new staff have been appointed to help with fitness work and injury prevention and rehabilitation. Players are also said to have more freedom during meetups, whereas before they felt there was too much control exerted on them.

For seven players, that was not deemed enough. Leon, named to the FIFPro World XI this season and a stalwart in the Barca side that has won two of the past three Champions Leagues, put her "values" before her dream of winning a World Cup. Midfielder Guijarro, who scored twice in Barca's Champions League final win over VfL Wolfsburg this month, followed suit.

Beyond the changes, sufficient or not, carried out by the RFEF, the players (some more than others) were also under huge external pressure to make themselves available for the World Cup. Agents, sponsors and brands all want to see the players they are associated with performing on the biggest stage in the game. Bonmati, fifth in Ballon d'Or voting this year, is being championed as a possible winner next year. A starring role at the World Cup, following a Liga F and Champions League double with her club, would support her case.

Financially, FIFA's new payment model guarantees every player that plays in the group stage $30,000, rising to a potential $270,000 for those on the winning team. Away from the hundreds of millions being thrown around in the men's game, that is a huge amount of money.

Spain will also have back-to-back Ballon d'Or winner Alexia Putellas at the World Cup. The Barca midfielder missed last summer's European Championship, when La Roja were eliminated by eventual winners England, with an ACL injury. She missed the majority of this season, too, returning for the final six games, which meant that, despite sharing their statement and supporting their cause, she was never officially part of the 15. She never made herself unavailable for selection and, therefore, never had to make herself available again. After a year of injury pain, the World Cup is the perfect stage to mark her return to fitness.

Also travelling to New Zealand, where Spain are based for the group stage, will be Irene Paredes. The Barca defender gave the initial news conference to voice the players' dissatisfaction with the conditions with the national team last year. She was not part of the 15, though, and returned to the squad in April.

Pachuca striker and Spain's all-time scorer Jennifer Hermoso also returned in February and was named in the 30-player provisional squad. Like Paredes, she supported the 15's statement, but did not officially join them.

It creates a complicated backdrop to Spain's World Cup campaign. While Vilda says the situation is now "practically resolved save a few details" following a series of meetings in the past nine months, the fact that seven players still don't feel they can return paints a different picture. There is also disappointment and surprise at how he has dealt with some of the other players who were willing to come back, such as Panos.

Sources, though, insist there is no friction between any of the players, regardless of any contrasting decisions they have made with the World Cup in mind.

It makes it difficult to predict Spain's chances at the finals, where they will meet Costa Rica, Zambia and Japan in the group stage. On the one hand, they massively benefit from the return of Putellas and Bonmati, two of the top five players in the world, according to the Ballon d'Or rankings, while they have also performed impressively without them. On the other hand, events of the past nine months leave a dark cloud over the team, no matter how much Vilda protests otherwise.

"Some [of the 15] are here and I am convinced they will work to be part of the group and that they will fight for the biggest thing there is in sport, which is to represent your country," Vilda said, "but I will not talk about those that are not here. The 30 who are here are sports people. They want to build a strong group; they want the best players alongside them. Sport unites you. I am convinced there will be concordance, calm and harmony.

"Since September, things have happened, but one of the best things is how we have played. We beat the U.S. for the first time, got to sixth in the world rankings and we want to climb higher -- which I am convinced we can with these players. It is absurd to think about what is behind us when what is in front of is so, so important. We won't waste our energy on that."