#ItsOver: Playing ban by Women's World Cup champions rocks Spain

August 31, 2023
Spanish women's football team
The Spanish women's football team celebrate their victory at the FIFA World Cup. Photo: FIFA Women's World Cup/Facebook

After the August 20 World Cup win over England by the Spanish women’s football team, before a worldwide TV audience, Luis Rubiales, the €900,000-a-year president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), planted an unwanted kiss on Spanish striker Jennifer Hermoso, slung forward Athenea del Castillo Beivide over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, and grabbed his crotch in a gesture signifying that his women’s team and trainer (Jorge Vilda) have got balls.

Rubiales’ performance provoked a storm of outrage, which culminated in 80 leading women players, including the whole successful World Cup squad, refusing to play for Spain while he and other RFEF leaders remain in their roles.

In an attempt to shrug off the controversy, Rubiales told COPE radio: “Come on, let’s not pay any attention to the idiots and the stupid people. It’s a kiss between friends celebrating something. Forget the stupid nonsense! What with everything I’ve been through, no more stupid nonsense, no more fuckwits, please!”

Since that moment, Rubiales’ efforts at damage control and his refusal to resign as RFEF president have only created more damage. It will not only end his career as football supremo in ignominy, but also make it impossible for Spanish soccer to carry on as if nothing happened.

The incident prompted United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk to tweet on August 29 that “we all have the responsibility to denounce it [sexual harassment and abuse] and struggle against it, and we unite with Jennifer Hermoso and all those who are working to put an end to sexism and abuse in sport.”

Football’s governing body, FIFA, has suspended Rubiales as president of its Spanish affiliate. The Spanish sports regulator has submitted a case for his dismissal to the Sports Administrative Tribunal, and National High Court prosecutors have opened an investigation into whether there are grounds for charging him with sexual assault.

Most of the RFEF’s regional federations had deserted their leader by August 31.

Path to doom

Rubiales’ end will come because of the refusal of the Spanish women’s team and other leading women players to put up with sexual harassment and humiliation from their RFEF bosses any longer.

Behind their defiance stands Spain’s strong feminist movement and the main gains it has achieved in law — the “Only Yes is Yes” legislation against sexual harassment and a new Sports Law, which stipulates equality of treatment and representation in sports bodies for women and men.

A step-by-step account of Rubiales’ journey to perdition shows how these factors helped end his patriarchal, clientelist rule and shook the football establishment to the core.

Rubiales’ first shot at damage control, made on the August 21 flight back from Australia, was to suggest to Hermoso that she do a joint video with him at the Doha refuelling stop, to “clarify any misunderstanding”. Hermoso declined the offer, saying on Instagram “I didn’t like it, but what could I do?”.

Rubiales then recorded a solo video in which he made a pseudo-apology after Spanish sports minister Miquel Iceta criticised his behaviour. He said: “If there are people who are offended, I have to apologise”, but insisted his unwanted kiss had been consensual.

Rubiales also got Vilda to pressure Hermoso’s family into convincing her to issue some sort of declaration of conciliation, but without success.

That didn’t trouble the RFEF communications department. If Hermoso wouldn’t utter the right phrases, they would do it for her. When the team’s flight arrived in Madrid, an RFEF communiqué appeared with these words attributed to Hermoso: “The president and I have a great relationship, his behaviour with all of us has been excellent and it [the kiss] was a natural gesture of affection and gratitude. You can't go over and over a gesture of friendship and gratitude, we have won a World Cup and we are not going to be distracted from what is important.”

‘Worthless excuses’

The next reactions came on August 22 from acting Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and acting Deputy Prime Minister Yolanda Díaz (of the more radical Sumar coalition).

Sánchez said that Rubiale's apology had been “inadequate”, while Díaz called for his resignation over his “absolutely worthless excuses”.

Only an RFEF general assembly could sack Rubiales immediately, and when one was called for August 25, the expectation, based on RFEF leaks, was that Spain’s football boss would yield to the growing calls for him to go.

In the meantime, Hermoso decided to let her agent and the women’s professional football union FUTPRO handle a case in which the political stakes were rapidly rising.

Its media release announcing this decision said: “FUTPRO rejects any attitude or conduct that violates the rights of women footballers and from the union we are working to ensure that acts such as those we have seen never go unpunished.”

‘I won’t resign’

Rubiales' address at the RFEF special general assembly on August 25 was a bizarre affair. The federation’s minority of women employees were mainly seated in the front rows and Rubiales’ parents and children were also present. However, all major clubs stayed away, such that the quorum of 70 out of 140 affiliates was barely reached.

Contrary to expectations, Rubiales went on the offensive, repeating five times that he would not resign: “An agreed kiss is enough to throw me out? Is that so serious that I have to go, after having given Spanish football its best management?”

The only apology he made was for his “hardly edifying” crotch grab (especially in the presence of Spanish royal family members).

Rubiales' speech reproduced all the themes of the cornered macho man: the perpetrator set up as the victim (“they are trying to publicly assassinate me") and victim-blaming ("it was she who brought me close to her body").

He also claimed to be victim of a “witch hunt” and “social assassination” by the “false feminism that wants neither equality nor justice”.

Who are the true feminists? Rubiales turned to his daughters: “Don’t cry. You have to be proud about who your father is. You must differentiate between truth and lies, and I am telling the whole truth. You indeed are feminists, not like the false feminism that’s around. They don’t care about people. As a Spaniard, I believe we have to reflect on where we’re going.”

‘It’s over’

The response from the women players was immediate. Hermoso’s fellow team member Alexis Putella was the first to tweet: “This is unacceptable. It’s over. With you, teammate!” From then on #ItsOver (#SeAcabó) became a Spanish variant of #MeToo, the hashtag of a growing movement demanding the resignation of Rubiales, Vilda and their appointees.

Hermoso said in an August 25 FUTPRO media release that “at no moment” did she consent to Rubiales’ kiss and that “I do not tolerate my word being doubted, even more so when words I never said have been invented”.

The RFEF, which had issued photos “proving” that Hermoso had consented to Rubiales’ attention, then announced it was taking legal action against her.

The FUTPRO media release also stated that 80 leading women players, including the whole successful World Cup squad, would refuse to play for Spain “if the present leaders continue”. That ban has already forced the resignations of most of Vilda’s technical team.

It has also forced notables and entities in the sports world to declare which side they are on in what has become the most debated topic in years in Spanish bars and on social networks, especially after Rubiales’s mother declared she was going on a hunger strike — which lasted two days before she was admitted to hospital.

In this atmosphere, silence — adopted by Spanish sports notables such as tennis star Rafael Nadal and former Barcelona FC players Gerard Piquet and Carles Pujol — is rightly being read as complicity with Rubiales.

On the party-political front, only the far-right Vox has sided with the suspended football boss. Commenting on August 30, the anti-feminists said that “it is clear to us that all this controversy has been generated by the Sánchez government and its media outlets to hide the big problems in which Spain is immersed”.

By contrast, commentator Antoni Bassas summed up what Rubiales and his supporters represent: “People who think themselves very clever but are so dumb they themselves have wrecked the biggest success of their career. People who are driving in the wrong direction on the world’s highway but think that the problem are the others.”

[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent.]

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