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.