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Salma Paralluelo and Cata Coll lead Jorge Vilda’s youthful World Cup revolution

The keeper, who made her international debut in the last 16, and the teenage forward, a former sprinter, have been key elements in Spain’s road to glory in Australia

Spain-England
Spain goalkeeper Cata Coll clears during the semifinal against Sweden. Associated Press/LaPresse Only Italy and SpainAssociated Press/LaPresse (APN)
Jordi Quixano

A little over a year ago, Salma Paralluelo had tears in her eyes when injury ruled her out of the 2022 European Championship. The teenager was forced to head home as her teammates were boarding a plane to England. She had been called up as a wildcard by Spain coach Jorge Vilda, before she had even made her debut for the national team. “He saw something different in her, speed and movement, unpredictability, a hunger and a conviction like few others,” say the coaching staff of La Roja. Salma has rewarded Vilda’s faith at the World Cup, scoring in both the quarterfinals and semifinals, earning the player of the match award in both. She only required 33 minutes to shake up the match against Sweden.

At the other end of the pitch, Cata Coll raised her arms, smiled, and let herself be swept away by her emotions, which she usually controls like no one else. She is “cold-bloodedness made goalkeeper,” as defined by midfielder Tere Abelleira. Coll was another of Vilda’s gambles: her international debut came in the last 16 match against Switzerland, when she replaced María Isabel Rodríguez. Three games have proven sufficient for Vilda’s decision to be vindicated. Coll is comfortable with both her hands and feet and has made the starting position her own. The two players command both areas at the World Cup. “They were a safe bet because they have shown their talent in all the youth categories and now they are doing it with the seniors,” say the coaching staff. “In addition, they are team players and mentally they are special because they can compete at the highest level, something not everyone can do.”

A couple of weeks ago, after the match against Zambia, Cata, Salma and midfielder Maria Pérez took advantage of a day off granted by Vilda to head to a bar in Wellington. Around a pool table, they laughed and bantered, rookies completely at ease with their elevation to star status. “Cata is lively, super-cheerful and carefree, but that changes completely when she steps onto the pitch,” says Salma. “She has a singular personality that changes when she pulls on the short because she calms down completely,” adds María. And, of course, she has great hands. “In training she’s amazing to watch,” her teammates say. “Her day-to-day performance has been extraordinary,” says Vilda. Cata excels under crosses and kept Sweden grounded in the semifinal. She has made six key saves during the knock-out stages, conceding three times. Rodríguez’s group stage return was three saves and four goals conceded, all of them in a 4-0 defeat against Japan that may have led Vilda to make the change.

Salma Paralluelo celebrates her goal against Sweden last Tuesday in the World Cup semifinals.
Salma Paralluelo celebrates her goal against Sweden last Tuesday in the World Cup semifinals.Pablo Garcia/RFEF (RFEF/EFE)

Successful changes

Cata also possesses a trait that is increasingly valued in a modern keeper: ability with the ball at her feet, which is ideal when playing with a high defensive line like Spain’s. She is able to break lines with the first pass, as well as cleaning up errors at the back. In three matches she has completed 76 passes with an 80% success rate, also initiating a couple of breaks under pressure from opposition attackers, notably against Sweden’s Stina Blackstenius, which provided her teammates and Spain fans with a good scare. “Every time she does that kind of thing, it makes my hair stand on end. I prefer not to watch,” says striker Alba Redondo. “But we know what she’s like and we’re not going to change the way she plays. Besides, if she trusts herself, then go for it.” Others, however, have less patience. “Irene Paredes occasionally yells at me to get a move on, not to play,” reveals Cata, who adds mischievously: “But I think I’m going to keep doing it...” Spanish Football Federation president Luis Rubiales takes the same view of many of Spain’s supporters: “Let her do whatever she wants because she has shown that she can play with the ball at her feet.”

The same applies to Salma, although with nuances... “With the right, with the right!” she shouted to Aitana Bonmatí after putting Spain ahead against Sweden. “I said that because during training I get a lot of jokes because my right foot is horrible. Although that time I hit it well and it went in... so I’ll keep working on it.” Aitana adds: “I always encourage her to try shooting with her right foot because that way she’ll be more complete and have more resources. And the truth is that she practices and wants to improve. She is a good student and a fabulous girl with great potential.” Vilda spotted that potential and exploits it by deploying her as an impact substitute so that her Bolt-like runs — the 19-year-old is a former sprinter — can break down tired defenses, as she did against the Netherlands and Sweden.

“The plan was to control the game, tire them out and save the talent and quality for the second half. She came on as a number nine when she usually plays as a winger and she did very well,” Vilda says. “The coach told me to go forward, to take advantage of the spaces behind the defensive line and when we got the ball, to stretch the team create spaces to attack.” And it worked like a charm, changing the course of a cagey match that had been leaden until Salma’s introduction.

“In the last two games she has adapted to the role of substitute. It is something we all have to accept because a World Cup is decided by details and this side has a lot of talent on the bench, which makes the difference,” says defender Laia Codina. “No one can beat her in a race but she also has a very good touch. She gives us so much,” adds Redondo. Salma has had nine attempts on goal and scored twice, both decisive strikes in 2-1 wins, an extra-time winner against the Netherlands and the opener against Sweden. “When she reaches her peak, nobody is going to be able to stop her,” Rubiales reflects. “She’s only been playing soccer for one season. We can’t put a ceiling on her because no one knows what she’ll be capable of doing,” Vilda adds. For the moment, she and Cata define Spain’s run at the World Cup, a team that bosses the midfield but is prone to errors in both penalty areas.

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