5 things to know before the World Cup final

Spain will play England on Sunday for all the global marbles, and here's some quick facts to stuff in your pocket before kickoff.

The nerds believe it’s going to be very very close

The wonderful number heads at Opta Statistics have put all their data into the pot and cooked up some win percentage numbers for the big match. Perhaps unbelievably the results gave Spain a 50.48% chance of winning, and England 49.52%.

It’s hard to think of a World Cup final in recent memory with the likelihood of a winner being essentially a coin flip. When England played Germany in the Euro 2022 final, at Wembley Stadium, that match saw the Lionesses’ win percentage favoured at 57% to 43%.

Only one women’s World Cup final since 2003 was decided by fewer than two goals. That was the 2011 edition when Japan won via a penalty shootout over the United States after it finished 2-2 in normal time.

Jorge Vilda doesn’t want to talk about it (or apologize)

Sitting in Sydney’s Olympic Stadium the day before the World Cup final, there was severe anticipatory energy before Jorge Vilda walked out for Spain’s press conference. Sadly, but somewhat necessarily, so much of La Roja’s journey to a first-ever World Cup final has been clouded in the conversation surrounding the maligned head coach.

In the end, it was pure panto.

Legendary Spanish centreback Irene Paredes, who has played in every single on of her country’s women’s World Cup matches between 2015-2023, was asked to take questions first.

The media asked Paredes about how this Spanish team wants to play their football, whether they are intimidated by England, or does the 2-1 Euro 2022 defeat to the Lionesses play on their mind, and if they are aware of their impact back home in Europe.

The defender answered with passion and excitement for a new wave of interest and support in women’s football. And how the past was the past. She and her teammates are essentially built different when it comes to handling the pressure and trying to play beautiful football.

Then came Vilda. A mug smile, a feverish energy. Gazing out at the room, scanning corner to corner. Right off the bat, the first question referred to the issues of last September’s Spanish player protest and the reported discontent in the dressing room during the tournament.

Vilda refused to answer. Saying in Spanish “next question please” and then breaking into a smile before darting his eyes left to right.

The question from the Brazilian journalist in full: “We are listening to the news, there's certain unrest amongst some of the players. Despite this, Spain has reached the final. So can we consider this as part of the Spanish anarchism? And how are you managing this as a coach? The crisis that exists between some players who are not supporting you, what do you do? What is the formula to reach the final after all this?”

Moments later, Tom Garry of the Daily Telegraph probed Vilda about whether he would apologize to some of the world’s best footballers not being at the tournament based on the lack of accountability and trust issues in the Spanish football that led to three players choosing not to play at the World Cup.

The Spanish head coach consulted with his head of communications and then said: “What we want to do tomorrow is to be the best in the world and we’ll do this by winning the final.”

Sarina Wiegman has never seen ‘Sliding Doors’

Have you ever had that dream where the England manager stares blankly at you and doesn’t understand your question, thus igniting a rapturous round of laughs from the congregation?

Well, dreams became a reality when I asked Sarina Wiegman what her ‘Sliding Doors’ moment was ahead of the World Cup final.

The 1998 film, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and John Hanna, explores how different someone’s life would be if they missed the tube. As protagonist Helen is running to catch the Piccadilly Line in London, she splits her being into two. One version of herself who made the train, and one who didn’t. It’s all very multiverse.

It didn’t seem like it was a particular out-of-the-box reference but fair play to Sarina for not chatting any shit and moving on with her trademark honesty. I do hope at some point, after this tournament is done with, her and her family can curl up and watch the film with a nice bowl of popcorn (and a World Cup winner’s medal).

You can read my feature on England’s World Cup eve media event at Equalizer Soccer here.

Oh, and we were given no clues about Lauren James

Several times Wiegman reiterated that she will have all 23 of her squad players available for the World Cup final. And how much this would help England on Sunday and make the group stronger.

Included in this concept of collective strength and praise was Lauren James. The Lionesses’ most creative player will be available for selection after serving a two-match suspension for stamping on Michelle Alozie against Nigeria. Or, as Wiegman described it, “walking on her butt.”

Wiegman revealed that James hasn’t missed a beat in training and has been included in all group activities outside of matchday stadium events. But she didn’t elaborate on whether James would win back her starting position. She deflected by emphasizing how happy she was to have all 23 players - not just James - ready to go for the biggest match of their lives.

Replacing James, Ella Toone has been in good form. The Manchester United midfielder scored the opening goal against Australia. A fierce shot with the outside of her boot that cracked the top corner like a heat-seeking missile.

By scoring that goal Toone also became the only England player (men’s or women’s) to score in a major tournament Quarterfinal (Euro 2022), Semifinal (World Cup 2023) and Final (Euro 2022).

I would be very surprised to see Sarina make changes to her starting XI. But there’s no doubt James is a magnificent player to have back in the fold. And should definitely see the pitch in Sydney on Sunday.

The Americans won’t stop inserting themselves into the narrative

Ahead of England’s semifinal against Australia, I wrote about American Tori Penso and how she had been given the job of refereeing the match and therefore kept the USA involved in the World Cup despite their national team being eliminated.

It’s deja vu for the final. The Floridian will once again be the person in the middle to take charge of the biggest match of her career. (Don't worry I won’t be re-writing my piece).

I have mixed feelings about this. Not because of Penso’s ability, or how she handled the semifinal or any of her other three World Cup matches. It’s more so because she will have refereed England twice in the span of five days.

The fact that is has never happened before in the past three decades of the World Cup feels odd too. Why did FIFA move away from their usual pool selection process and give Penso two big matches in quick succession? Usually, they pluck one of the four referees from the Quarterfinal stage to be used in the final and leave the Semifinal refs be.

Could England have an advantage by knowing Penso, her communication style and calls, better than Spain?

Oh, and the Americans cannot stop being in the World Cup final. Give it a rest.