Spain secure spot in World Cup semi-finals with extra-time win over Netherlands

Finally, after pounding at the door for two hours, throats dry and knuckles bleeding, Spain got an answer. And of course it was what they deserved, but they knew too that what you deserve and what you get are often two different things. A few long white clouds and a brilliant blue sky looked down over Salma Paralluelo as her yellow-soled boots ate up the clear green turf. And perhaps it was Spain’s ultimate fortune that the chance to make history should fall to a woman with no sense of history, with no baggage to carry. Just two feet and a ball, and the pure minimalism of youth.

In crashing the winning goal past the luckless Daphne van Domselaar, the 19-year-old Barcelona winger salvaged a lot more than Spain’s tournament. She redeemed their idea of who they are, the idea that this great generation can still be great, that the scars of the past need not sting in the present. Spain will play a World Cup semi-final for the first time, and for the first time they will feel fate is on their side.

It had been a game of the most gut-wrenching tension, in which Mariona Caldentey’s late penalty was really only the first act. Spain had a goal disallowed and the Netherlands had a perfectly good penalty disallowed but on the balance of proceedings Spain were superior by a distance. Stefanie van der Gragt’s injury-time equaliser forced the game into extra-time, wherein Lineth Beerensteyn missed two of the best chances of the match. Do you receive your luck or do you make it yourself?

There was a light earthquake in Wellington about an hour before the game. Some people felt it, some only noticed when they got the push notification on their phones. Sunlight dappled the harbour as the long column of mostly Dutch fans pounded the road to the stadium, beating their drums, waving their flags. Many of the locals appeared to have attached themselves to the Dutch for the sole reason that orange is a bright colour and kids like wearing it. Inside the air was still, bordering silent. A reverential hush had descended on the place, somewhere in between “concert recital” and “Crucible world snooker”. They talk a lot in these parts about honouring the ancestors. Here they had decided to do so by making as little noise as possible. That would only change later.

The Netherlands had scored early in each of their four games so far, and in truth we could probably have done with another early goal here. Spain took a grip on the ball and refused to share it, a secret the Dutch could only catch in whispers and rumours. Still no Alexia Putellas. Caldentey auspiciously came in on the left wing. Danielle van de Donk, the Dutch player best equipped to disrupt this Spanish midfield stood glumly at the back of the stand with a tracksuit on. Four minutes in, Esther González with a chance from eight yards. Six minutes, Alba Redondo missing at the near post. Seventeen minutes, Redondo hit the post twice. By 25 minutes Van der Gragt was screaming at her colleagues so loudly they were beginning to avoid eye contact.

Stefanie van der Gragt hammers home the equaliser.
Stefanie van der Gragt hammers home the equaliser. Photograph: Molly Darlington/Reuters

And in possession the Dutch were a DJ with only one song to play. Hit Lineth. But Oihane Hernández and Irene Paredes had the aerial bombardment covered and Cata Coll in the Spanish goal was sharp enough to sweep up the rest. And in between Spain kept passing and kept passing. On the left flank Ona Batlle began to grow in audacity and Caldentey waltzed inside to make space for her. There was a goal, and then it disappeared: González putting the ball in at the back post after Redondo’s knock-back, but offside. All of a sudden the strains of a new song were striking up: the one where Spain play like queens all over the pitch before turning into court jesters when the goal appears.

The theme continued into the second half. An hour in, with the Netherlands having just withdrawn Jill Roord, another ball for Beerensteyn to chase, jetting past Paredes, feeling a light shove in her kidneys, taking the plunge. Referee Stephanie Frappart gave the penalty, examined the footage, changed her mind. There were more passes, more dizzying triangles, more half-shots from distance. And then with 10 minutes remaining, Van Domselaar finally ran out of miracles.

All afternoon she had sprawled and thrown and bent and contorted herself in defence of the Dutch goal. All afternoon it had been her against the world, the town’s only remaining soldier. Finally the sandbags crumbled. Finally the gates fell. Finally, after 80 minutes of pounding at the door, Spain got an answer. Substitute Paralluelo put in the cross, Van der Gragt put out her hand. Caldentey’s penalty thudded against the post, teetered on the brink of fate for a second, and then decided to creep over the line.

And so finally, the Dutch started to play. What if they had shown this kind of enterprise earlier? What if they had tried to play through midfield rather than simply launching the ball over it? First Beerensteyn broke free down the left, three on two, going herself and putting a shot straight at the goalkeeper. Then the same run, the same throttling energy, the shot curled just wide. The board showed 12 (twelve) minutes of injury time.

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Aniek Nouwen at the final whistle in Wellington.
Aniek Nouwen at the final whistle in Wellington. Photograph: Aaron Gillions/AAP

The 91st minute. Victoria Pelova slid the ball through, more in hope, out of the reach of Katja Snoeijs, harmlessly into Spanish territory. But what was this? Van der Gragt trooping out of defence, the retiring centre-half seeing the seconds of her career leaking away, and deciding to go up front to feast on a tiring defence. She picked the ball up, took a look, took a shot. And truly this was a central defender’s finish, a shot of all consonants and no vowels, a thud so agriculturally primal it really belonged in a museum next to some cracked pots and a prehistoric medieval plough. Van Domselaar sprinted a full 75 yards from her goal to join the celebrations. Jorge Vilda shrugged sadly, like there was a tune ringing in his head that he couldn’t quite place.

Extra-time was played on the head of a pin. Spain again tried to force things, failed to force things. Beerensteyn, her tank still full of fuel, ran through and shot just wide. In the 110th minute she hooked a bouncing ball clean over the bar from six yards. That was the moment. Beerensteyn was still holding her head a few seconds later when Jennifer Hermoso held the ball up and played a perfect through ball into the path of Paralluelo.

And so finally, Spain could have their moment of grace. Paralluelo’s shot was left-footed, as sweet as song, as sweet as youth itself, hitting the net a couple of inches above the ground. No longer would this be Austria on penalties in 2017 or the United States in 2019 or England in 2022. No longer the great underachievers. No longer so nearly. The time for fretting over the past is over. Now is a time for grand dreams and beautiful visions.