Spain should be among the favorites for the Women's World Cup but without several key players because of a dispute it's taking the hard path.
La Roja will still be a threat in Australia and New Zealand, but it's undoubtedly weaker for the absences of stars protesting against the Spanish federation (RFEF) and coach Jorge Vilda.
Patri Guijarro, who struck twice for Barcelona as they won the Champions League, and club teammates Mapi Leon and Sandra Panos are big misses, even as two-time Ballon d'Or winner Alexia Putellas returns after injury.
Three players who were part of a 15-strong protesting group have been selected -- Aitana Bonmati, Mariona Caldentey and Ona Batlle, all at Barcelona too.
They stepped down from their position, ostensibly satisfied that sufficient improvements were being made in the areas the players demanded.
Discontent between players on the one side, and the RFEF and Vilda on the other, had been brewing for some time.
Issues they were concerned about included the atmosphere around the camp, Vilda being too strict, the team's lack of success under the coach since his reign started in 2015, and disputes over travel arrangements and staff numbers.
In September 2022, the situation exploded -- 15 of the squad emailed the RFEF to say they did not want to be considered for selection citing their "emotional state."
"This is a farce, on the world stage," said Vilda at the time. "It's hurting women's soccer."
''Practically resolved.' The RFEF backed the coach and he omitted the protesting players for friendlies against Sweden and the United States in October, which Spain drew and won respectively.
Victory over the world champion Americans strengthened Vilda's position as lesser lights and younger players showed their quality.
Two further friendly wins, including a 7-0 trouncing of Argentina, cemented Spain's conviction they had made the right decision to back the coach.
Spain has lost just one game in 11 matches since the protest began, recording nine victories.
Vilda named a provisional squad for the World Cup in early June with Bonmati, Caldentey and Batlle returning. The other 12 players either stayed firm in their stance or were not selected despite making themselves available again. The coach maintained his loyalty to many of the players he had turned to in the interim.
"We've always been looking to solve this conflict and it's practically resolved," said Vilda. "We're focused on the players who are committed."
Putellas, who had backed the complaints but did not join the boycott because of a knee injury, was included in the squad. The coach confirmed his final list for the tournament on June 30.
'We are not rebels.' The RFEF has improved the players' travel arrangements, extra fitness staff and physios are available, and the players are less tightly monitored during call-ups.
However, some did not think the RFEF went far enough.
"It makes me sad as I deserve (to go) and I contributed to getting the team there," said Mapi Leon in May, reiterating why she was continuing her protest. "It's not a decision that you take lightly and it's not easy. My decision is clear. Mapi Leon has a way of living and she has values to stick to. I can't go back, there has to be changes."
Spanish reports suggested Barcelona's Putellas acted as a mediator between the returning players and the RFEF, and although she is not the team's captain, she is their leader.
Putellas did not like the tag of "rebels" some gave the 15 boycotting players.
"We are not rebels," she said in March. "It's exhausting having to constantly call for improvements to perform better."
With the double Ballon d'Or winner back in the team, Spain believe a first World Cup triumph is possible, even if they are missing other stars and bitterness lingers.
"We are sixth in the world rankings," said Vilda. "Spain has never had such a complete side with such good chances, we want the World Cup to start."
© Agence France-Presse
Top: Esther Photo: Brad Smith/ISI Photos
Bottom: Putellas Photo: Imago via ZUMA Press/ISI Photos