With the 2023 World Cup in the rear-view mirror, it’s time to take a look back at the breakout stars of the tournament. Spain had a number of players step up on their way to the World Cup title.

It’s hard to argue with a pick from the champions, but in a tournament where the rising parity of the global women’s game was on full display, many players showcased why they are the best in the world. Some of those highest performers represented a changing of the guard, as the next generation of soccer players introduced themselves to the public.

Let’s take a look at who is deserving of the highest individual prize, and who else was in the running.

Our pick for Golden Ball

Aitana Bonmatí, Spain

Bonmatí was the main playmaker on the championship team, earning the official Golden Ball award after the World Cup final. She also earns our top award both for scoring and facilitating Spain’s excellent ball movement as they put together their most complete performances ever at the senior level.

Spain has been known to falter in big moments and overly rely on their passing abilities without being dangerous in front of goal. Bonmatí refused to let that reputation hold them down, dismantling Switzerland in the Round of 16 before handling the Netherlands and Sweden on their way to defeating England in the final.

Honorable mentions

Linda Caicedo, Colombia

The 2023 World Cup served as the world’s introduction to one of the most exciting young talents in South American soccer as Linda Caicedo took the group stage by storm. Caicedo was clearly the focal point of Colombia’s attack, but her individual quality made her impossible to stop.

The 18-year-old put the world on notice in Colombia’s upset of Germany in the group stage, scoring one of the best goals of the tournament to put her team ahead in the first half. She also showcased a relentless willingness to defend from an advanced position, buying into her team’s gritty ethos that helped Colombia advance to the quarterfinals.

Millie Bright, England

It’s a testament to England’s team mentality that they came very close to their first World Cup title without one single player taking the team on their back. Midfielder Keira Walsh battled injury and had a rough World Cup final, while Lauren James’ two-game suspension for a red card offense in the Round of 16 halted her momentum from the knockout rounds.

But the Lionesses’ defense was excellent, and the team’s center-backs handled a mid-tourney formation change with ease. Jess Parker, Millie Bright and Alex Greenwood all deserve credit, but Bright as captain anchored the team’s defense and sent important long-ball passes forward to spring the England attack, most notably against Australia in the team’s semifinal win.

Teresa Abelleira, Spain

The only mark against Bonmatí’s right to the Golden Ball is that she might have been outplayed by her teammate in Spain’s midfield. Teresa Abelleira dominated through possession, never allowing opponents to grab momentum by taking control of the tempo of the match. Her finest hour may have come in the World Cup final, as Spain slowly squeezed the life out of England after taking a 1-0 lead in the 29th minute.

Spain’s ability to hold and progress the ball has become such a key part of their identity that one might begin to take it for granted, but combined with clinical finishing at the right times, it became their superpower. Abelleira’s performance in the World Cup’s biggest moments set the foundation for the team’s success.

Hinata Miyazawa, Japan

The Japan forward took home the Golden Boot Award for most goals scored in the tournament, with five goals and one assist despite Japan’s quarterfinal exit. Miyazawa represented the final piece of Japan’s puzzle as the Nadeshiko slashed through defenses with ease, most notably in their 4-0 group stage takedown of eventual champions Spain.

The one criticism of Japan’s play going into the World Cup was a lack of clinical finishing. But the team’s free-flowing, counter-attacking style of soccer was some of the most enjoyable to watch throughout the tournament, and Miyazawa led the way.

Salma Paralluelo, Spain

Named the World Cup’s Young Player of the Tournament, 19-year-old Salma Paralluelo was also crucial in Spain’s run to the World Cup final. Scoring off the bench in both the quarterfinal and semifinal, Paralluelo provided width and blazing pace to exploit gaps behind opponents’ defenses.

Paralluelo went on to start the World Cup final and cause so many issues for England’s wingbacks that the Lionesses made a formation change at halftime, sacrificing their dynamism in the attack. With a bright future ahead of her, Paralluelo represents the best of Spain’s developmental pipeline.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

Now that the 2023 World Cup has crowned a first-time champion in Spain, many will remember the tournament for team accomplishments. But over the course of the past month, individuals rose to the occasion to keep their teams alive, showcasing their talents on the biggest international stage.

This Best XI will favor teams that did particularly well in the knockout rounds, but there are also arguments to be made for selecting stars of the group stage at almost every position.

So, let’s take a look at which players stood out throughout the World Cup with our Best XI.

Zećira Mušović's heroics helped Sweden eliminate the USWNT in the Round of 16. (Ulrik Pedersen/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)


Zećira Mušović (Sweden)

Sweden’s run to third place was a culmination of a number of factors, including the team’s ability to command space on set pieces and in defensive transition. But they also benefited greatly from the stellar play of goalkeeper Zećira Mušović, who kept Sweden in their Round of 16 matchup against the USWNT and ultimately helped knock out the 2019 World Champions in a penalty shootout.

Overall, the World Cup was an incredible display of gains made in goalkeeping in the women’s game. Deserved honorable mentions go out to Jamaica’s Rebecca Spencer, Nigeria’s Chiamaka Nnadozie and England’s Mary Earps, the 2023 Golden Glove winner. Stout performances between the posts kept a number of teams in games during crucial stretches of the knockout rounds (not to mention the penalty shootout heroics of the USWNT’s Alyssa Naeher and Australia’s Mackenzie Arnold). The position is in good hands worldwide.

Michelle Alozie and Nigeria nearly knocked England out of the World Cup. (Sajad Imanian/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)


Amanda Ilestedt (Sweden), Allyson Swaby (Jamaica), Millie Bright (England), Michelle Alozie (Nigeria)

The 2023 World Cup was marked by three-back systems, making a four-back Best XI defensive formation somewhat difficult to choose in an attempt to honor four of the best at the position. Any of England’s center-backs could have taken honors here, or members of Japan’s excellent bend-but-don’t-break defense. The three-back renaissance also meant that many traditional fullbacks moved into wingback positions and essentially functioned as midfield additions in the attack. Spain’s Olga Carmona also deserves a mention, as the hero of the World Cup final with her strike from an advanced position.

Amanda Ilestedt fits that description of creating attack from defense perfectly. The Swedish defender carried both defensive and attacking responsibilities, contending for the Golden Boot award as the focal-point of many of Sweden’s set pieces. Allyson Swaby anchored a Jamaica side that reached the knockout rounds for the first time thanks to their staunch defense, which held both France and Brazil scoreless. Millie Bright captained England to a final appearance as the core of their three-back defense, and Michelle Alozie contributed greatly to the Nigeria defense that almost knocked the Lionesses out of the tournament in the Round of 16. Another defender deserving of an honorable mention is the USWNT’s Naomi Girma, who played every minute as part of a defense that gave up just two shots on goal in four games.

Spain's Aitana Bonmatí earned World Cup Golden Ball honors after capturing the title. (Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)


Aitana Bonmatí (Spain), Teresa Abelleira (Spain), Hayley Raso (Australia)

Spain’s midfield trio could take up this entire position, and it would be difficult to argue against them. Aitana Bonmatí earned FIFA’s official Golden Ball award for her work controlling possession and contributing to Spain’s World Cup-winning attack. She dominated Spain’s Round of 16 clash with Switzerland, scoring two goals, and forced opposing defenses into poor decisions as the knockout rounds became increasingly competitive. Bonmatí was matched in quality by teammate Teresa Abelleira, who was the motor behind Spain’s ball possession and passing. Spain’s midfield excellence was never more apparent than in the tournament final, where they held onto the ball and a 1-0 lead for much of the match to stave off England.

Hayley Raso, a wide player who spends as much time in the attack as she does sitting in midfield spaces, deserves honors as a key part of Australia’s 4-4-2 formation. The Matildas finished in fourth, the co-host’s best-ever result at a World Cup, not least because of Raso’s endless work rate on the wings in tandem with Caitlin Foord on the opposite flank, especially in the absence of forward Sam Kerr for much of the tournament.

Hinata Miyazawa finished as the World Cup leading scorer despite Japan's quarterfinal exit. (Maja Hitij - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)


Salma Paralluelo (Spain), Linda Caicedo (Colombia), Hinata Miyazawa (Japan)

Picking only three forwards for this list is almost impossible. Talent at the forward position has possibly never been deeper, with young stars rising to take over for the established legends of the game. Many of those players are known for exploiting wide spaces, and few traditional No. 9s stood out in the grand scheme of the tournament (Germany’s Alexandra Popp and France’s Kadidiatou Diani, who earned the Silver and Bronze Boot Awards, are perhaps the exceptions).

Diani and Popp are strong candidates for a Best XI, as is England’s Lauren Hemp, but the particularly stellar play of other wide forwards adds credence to leaning into the trend. Salma Paralluelo was a key spark in Spain’s run to the title, scoring in the quarterfinal and semifinal before earning a start in the final. Linda Caicedo was one of the best individual talents in the entire tournament, spurring Colombia to a quarterfinal finish. And Hinata Miyazawa’s Golden Boot-winning tally (five goals) held firm despite Japan’s exit in the quarterfinals. As the most clinical finisher working in a high-risk, high-reward system, Miyazawa almost helped take the Nadeshiko all the way.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

Millie Bright is proud of what England accomplished in this year’s World Cup.

A plethora of injuries to some of the team’s biggest stars – including Leah Williamson and Beth Mead – meant questions surrounded the Lionesses. But they never stopped believing in themselves, even throughout their 1-0 loss to Spain in the championship match.

“Yeah it’s hard but it’s football. It can go either way,” Bright said after the match. “A lot of emotion but, really proud of the team. To come this far, to play in the World Cup final, not many players do that so really proud.

“At first you feel you’ve failed, we’ve not won. But to still come second, I think in a couple of weeks when it settles in we’ll be really proud. This is not it from us. We’ll bounce back, I’m sure. But for now it’s hard to take.”

Ultimately, Spain proved too difficult to overtake after jumping out to a first-half lead. Momentum shifts in the second half led to some chances for the Lionesses, but they couldn’t capitalize.

Even still, they fought to the end. And even keeping Spain to one goal is an accomplishment.

England head coach Sarina Wiegman didn’t have much to say to the team in the moment, but as Bright noted, there’s not much to say. While the players feel as if they’ve “failed,” Bright said, a time will come when it sits a little bit sweeter than it does now.

The achievement of reaching the championship match is “massive” in and of itself, Bright said. It was England’s first World Cup final after having lost in the semifinals in each of the previous tournaments. The Lionesses now have won their first World Cup silver medals after finishing as Euros champions last year.

But for Bright, the trip to the final meant a little extra, as well.

“I think we had a lot of critics at the start of the tournament,” she said. “Probably a lot that wrote us off and didn’t think that we’d get here. We’ll bounce back. We’ve been through numerous challenges this tournament, on and off the pitch, and to be able to stand here today and say we’ve played in front of this incredible crowd in the final, it’s a proud moment.

“The goal is always to win. Our mentality is always to win. We’ll never stop trying to be successful and be champions. We’ll definitely bounce back.”

Two days after Leah Williamson was ruled out of the 2023 Women’s World Cup with an ACL tear, England dealt with another injury scare on Saturday when Lucy Bronze went down in the 65th minute of Barcelona’s Champions League semifinal versus Chelsea.

Bronze clutched her knee and then hopped off the field, a concerning sight. But she returned to the pitch at the conclusion of the game, which Barcelona won 1-0, to shake hands with Chelsea players.

In his post-match comments, Barcelona manager Jonatan Giraldez said Bronze was “feeling much better.”

“Initially Lucy was a bit worried about her injury, she felt her pain in her knee, but now she’s feeling much better about it,” Giraldez said, per SkySports.

“She felt pain in the knee but I think she’s fine right now. I was talking to her immediately after the game. It was scary at first but right now I think she’s fine.”

Bronze, 31, has a long history of knee injuries and subsequent surgeries, resulting in lingering pain.

“I’ve just got to play through it,” Bronze said last year. “There are plenty of players who are having to play through pain in their career and I’m now one of them.”

England has seen multiple players go down with injury in the last year, dampening the squad’s World Cup prospects. Beth Mead’s World Cup chances are doubtful after the 27-year-old ruptured her ACL in November, while Millie Bright’s status is also up-in-the-air.