Salma Paralluelo: Spain's teenage X-Factor who could ruin England's World Cup dreams

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The 19-year-old scored crucial goals against the Netherlands and Sweden to help La Roja reach Sunday's final against the Lionesses

Spain must've thought history was about to repeat itself. Last year, they were so close to beating England in the quarter-finals of the European Championship, but they conceded a late equaliser and then succumbed to defeat in extra-time. Earlier this month, it looked like that was going to happen again.

Spain dominated and led against the Netherlands in their Women's World Cup quarter-final, but a stoppage-time equaliser from Stefanie van der Gragt took the game to extra-time. Just as the Dutch were creating some huge chances to win it, though, Spain's teenage sensation Salma Paralluelo had her say.

Released down the left by Jenni Hermoso with only nine minutes remaining, the substitute raced into the space in front of her, easily shimmied past Dutch defender Aniek Nouwen and drilled a left-footed shot beyond Daphne van Domselaar that smacked the post and bounced into the back of the net.

She'd made history. Not only was she the youngest player ever to score for Spain at a Women's World Cup, a record that sits nicely alongside her being the youngest player ever to represent the nation at the tournament, but she'd fired in the goal that would send La Roja to the last four of the competition for the very first time.

Despite flying to New Zealand off the back of a wonderful season for Barcelona, Paralluelo struggled to shine in the group stages of this World Cup, dropping out of Spain's starting XI and onto the bench as a result. But as a substitute, the 19-year-old is thriving. After scoring that match-winning goal against the Netherlands, she also netted a late strike against Sweden in the semi-finals. It wouldn't decide the game, even if it looked like it would when it went in, but it still helped Spain book their spot in a first ever Women's World Cup final.

Now, as La Roja look to get revenge on England on Sunday after last year's defeat at the Euros, Paralluelo appears to have become an impactful bench player just like those that proved so crucial in the Lionesses' continental triumph. Could she be the difference-maker that allows her own nation to taste major tournament success for the first time?

Let GOAL introduce you to one of Spain's deadliest weapons going into the weekend's huge game...

  1. Where it began
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    Where it began

    Paralluelo was born and raised in Zaragoza and, after coming through at UD San Jose, it was with her home city's women's football club that she'd make her senior debut in the Spanish second tier, aged 15. That same year, the teenager became a European and world champion with Spain's Under-17 national team.

    But her football career was juggled alongside athletics, with Paralluelo proving to be a promising runner. The winger set several national records in different age categories and won two gold medals at the 2019 European Youth Summer Olympic Festival, in the 400 metre hurdles and the medley relay.

    Balancing her two passions is something the 19-year-old described as “complicated” but she also noted the benefits. "Athletics also helps me with football as it helps me build my endurance, which I really notice when I'm on the pitch for 90 minutes,” she said in an interview with Iberdrola.

    However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic and an ACL tear, Paralluelo hardly competed in athletics in 2020 and 2021, and the following year she chose to focus solely on football.

  2. The big break

    After showing a lot of promise in the youth national teams as a key part of that successful U17 team, Paralluelo’s incredible goal against Barcelona in April of last year announced her to a much wider audience and really marked her out as one to watch.

    After turning away from Alexia Putellas and Leila Ouahabi with an instinctive Cruyff turn, the Villarreal teen curled a beautiful shot beyond the reach of goalkeeper Gemma Font and into the top corner, giving her team a shock lead and earning herself a Puskas Award nomination in the process.

    The sheer disbelief on the face of Belen Martinez, her Villarreal team-mate, summed it up as the rest of those in yellow swarmed her. It was only Paralluelo's fourth appearance in the top tier for the club and she'd just scored one of the goals of the season.

    It came in one of eight league appearances she made for the club at the end of the season, after recovering from her ACL tear. A return of three goals and two assists in that spell was certainly impressive given the Yellow Submarine was fighting relegation, too.

    Once the season ended, things really took off for Paralluelo, with her first senior call-up for Spain in June followed by a move to Barca in July.

    Sadly, injury would cut her time with the national team short and she wouldn’t go to the Euros, but the teenager was able to regain full fitness in time to help Spain win the U20 World Cup in August instead. She proved to be decisive in Costa Rica, too, scoring twice in the final to round off a huge, breakout summer.

  3. How it's going
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    How it's going

    Paralluelo finished her first season at Barca with some truly fantastic numbers. In all competitions, the forward played 29 games, producing 13 goals and five assists despite starting just 15 times. Her contributions helped the club win the Spanish Super Cup, the league title and a second Women’s Champions League trophy.

    After having to withdraw from the squad on her first call-up, Paralluelo also made a real breakthrough with Spain's senior team, marking her debut in November with a hat-trick. While 15 star names chose to make themselves unavailable for selection due to concerns within the federation, the teenager was given a lot of opportunities and took them so well that she came into this World Cup as a starter.

    While her form didn't quite continue at such a level in the group stages, she's now thriving as a super sub, with those goals against the Netherlands and Sweden writing her name into history.

  4. Biggest strengths
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    Biggest strengths

    Nicknamed 'Usain Bolt' by her team-mates during the U17 Women's World Cup win back in 2018, it's not surprising that Paralluelo's speed is one of her strengths given her background in athletics. She's got great fitness and a fantastic ability to learn, which has helped her develop so rapidly.

    In terms of her footballing skills, though, the teenager’s speed is complemented by how well she times her runs in behind the defence, whether she is playing as a winger or in a more central role. The Spain star strikes a ball very well and her footwork is impressive, too.

    Since her move to Barcelona, Paralluelo's ability in possession has also got better, with her able to play in tight spaces and link-up with others for quick passing moves that can get her in behind a defence.

    The experience she is gaining at the very highest level is only helping to refine all areas of her game, while improving her decision-making and how well she is able to deal with pressure.

  5. Room for improvement
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    Room for improvement

    Given how young she is, it’s no surprise that Paralluelo can still improve her finishing. The forward’s intelligent movement means she is great at getting into the positions to score goals, but she can become more clinical in those situations. The same applies to her final ball in that attacking third.

    Impacting games at the highest level is another step forward she can make and is currently making, too. The 19-year-old only scored one goal in her nine appearances in the Champions League this past season, but her goals in the quarter-finals and semi-finals for Spain at this World Cup show that she is settling nicely on the biggest stages despite this having only been Paralluelo's first year at the very top level.

  6. The next… Lauren Hemp?
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    The next… Lauren Hemp?

    Paralluelo is a winger blessed with great pace, fantastic skill and a wonderful left foot. She can put in a great cross or get in behind full-backs and pick out passes in the box. She’s also deceptively strong and able to hold off defenders as a result. All of these elements of her game are reminiscent of a player that will be on the opposing side in Sunday's Women's World Cup final - Lauren Hemp.

    As well as that, it’s more common now to see Paralluelo appear in central positions. She’s a real goal threat and a versatile forward because of the way she can operate in the box as well as on the wing. Hemp can do this, too, and has actually excelled as a centre forward for England at this World Cup after a change of role in the Lionesses' new 3-5-2 system.

    However, Paralluelo’s move to Barcelona has, understandably, changed her game. While she can still show the raw qualities of her game that you relate to a pacy winger, she’s developed a lot with the Catalans’ iconic style of play to improve her combination play and ability in possession. It’s also less likely to see her being so direct because of how much Barca have the ball.

    So while there are elements of Paralluelo’s game that are like the Man City star’s, the Barcelona teenager is already becoming a different profile of player since her move to Catalunya last summer.

  7. What comes next
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    What comes next

    In terms of getting those top-level experiences under her belt, this summer has been huge for Paralluelo. Beginning the tournament as a starting player and then dropping into a substitute role, she'll have learned a lot about what it takes to make an impact on these big stages.

    Whether Spain lift that World Cup trophy on Sunday or not, Paralluelo has certainly left her mark on this tournament and she will hope to continue her rapid development by taking momentum into her second season with Barcelona. She looks primed and ready to now really establish herself as a game-changer at the very highest level.