- Posted by Amy Bell
- On October 27, 2023
By Tomás Hill López-Menchero
The writer explores the winds of change blowing through Spanish and English women’s football after celebrations were followed by outrage.
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When Spain lifted the Women’s World Cup in August, it should have been the crowning moment for the country’s most talented generation of players. Instead, it was immediately overshadowed by the actions of one man.
As Spain’s players went to collect their medals in Sydney, the president of the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), Luis Rubiales, hugged and lifted many of them. When it came to Jennifer Hermoso, the forward who had missed a penalty during the final, Rubiales gave her the same treatment before grabbing her face with both hands and planting a kiss full on her lips.
Rubiales had already been filmed grabbing his crotch while celebrating in the stands — standing metres from Queen Letizia and the Princess Infanta Sofia — but it was the seemingly unsolicited kiss on Hermoso that caused the biggest storm. It led to international backlash, an extraordinary speech in which Rubiales repeated five times that he would not resign and an attempted hunger strike by his mother.
Rubiales was eventually forced to resign in September, admitting in an interview on British TV “I cannot continue my work” after being provisionally suspended by the world governing body FIFA, but the consequences of the kiss continue. A criminal case is ongoing in which Rubiales and Hermoso have provided testimony. Hermoso maintains the kiss was not consensual; Rubiales has always denied this.
For Spain’s World Cup winners, the problems go further than the kiss. In September 2022, 15 Spanish internationals wrote to the Spanish football federation to say they were stepping aside from the team until changes were made to the set-up, with their complaints centred around an unprofessional culture under then-head coach Jorge Vilda. They were dubbed “Las 15” and called “spoilt brats” by some in Spain — only three of those players were present for the World Cup triumph.
Before that, there were even graver concerns during the reign of Vilda’s predecessor and longtime coach Ignacio Quereda. He was accused of intimidating, humiliating and making inappropriate comments about players during his 27 years in charge of the Spanish national team.
So it was no surprise when 81 past and present Spanish players, including the whole World Cup-winning squad, reacted in the strongest possible way against Rubiales, making themselves unavailable for selection in August and calling for “real structural change”. The statement was shared by the players on social media with the tagline “Se acabó” — it’s finished.
The support from women’s football contrasted with the silence from the men’s game. After Rubiales’ incendiary speech, England’s Lionesses put out a statement of solidarity with their Spain counterparts which stated: “Abuse is abuse and we have all seen the truth”. When their head coach Sarina Wiegman was named UEFA women’s coach of the year, she dedicated the award to the Spanish players. “This team deserves to be celebrated and listened to,” she said.
England know what it is like to be celebrated and listened to. They won the European Championship on home soil last year; since then, they have ensured the UK government make changes to give girls equal sporting opportunities at school and taken the FA to task over bonuses, reaching an agreement with the governing body in September. But it is easy to forget women’s football was banned in the UK for nearly 50 years from 1921 to 1970.
You only need to look at other World Cup teams to see Spain are not alone in railing against their own federation. Jamaica were forced to crowdfund to cover some of their costs, Nigeria coach Randy Waldrum accused his federation of not paying wages before the finals began and South Africa reached the last 16 despite a bonus row on the eve of the tournament.
There is a long way to go, then, but it seems as if Spain’s players are finally being heard. Vilda was sacked after Rubiales’ departure along with a number of federation figures close to the former president. Even that did not stop the World Cup winners being disrespected — Vilda was replaced by his assistant Montse Tome, who forced the striking players’ hand by calling them up — but long talks eventually led to the players being assured of systematic change and returning.
“I trust that the agreements we reached… will make our sport, women’s sport and, by consequence, society much better,” said Alexia Putellas, Spain’s two-time Ballon d’Or winner, last month.
In doing that, Spain will have achieved much more than just a World Cup.
Note on the author: Anglo-Spanish Tomás Hill López-Menchero was named the UK’s National Council for The Training of Journalists (NCTJ) student sports journalist of the year last year. He is Junior Spain Editor of The Athletic, the international sports website.