Spain: Rubiales sexual harassment case detonates social explosion

September 13, 2023
Jenni Hermoso
Soccer boss Luis Rubiales’ unwanted kiss of Spanish centre-forward Jenni Hermoso (pictured) continues to shake up social and political life in Spain. Photo: @JenniHermoso/Twitter

Luis Rubiales, president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), finally resigned on September 10 after being suspended by the international football federation, FIFA, for his display of macho triumphalism following Spain’s women’s World Cup victory.

While the #ItsOver (#S’acabó) campaign against male supremacism in women’s soccer won a victory, the issue in dispute — whether Rubiales’ unwanted kiss of centre-forward Jenni Hermoso amounts to sexual harassment or assault — will continue to shake up social and political life in the Spanish state.

Hermoso gave a statement to National High Court prosecutors on September 6 and Rubiales has been summonsed by the court to give evidence.

The case is continuing to provoke debate over the issue of respectful behaviour by men towards women — and not just in the competitive world of professional sport. Unrelenting media and social network coverage, especially in Spain’s sports dailies, continues to fuel debate.

In this atmosphere, no one — certainly no public personality — can avoid taking a position on the matter. The evasive silence of many simply expresses their surreptitious solidarity with Rubiales.

Key to keeping the issue alive has been Rubiales’ continual defiance and vow to “establish the truth”. In his resignation announcement and September 12 interview with Piers Morgan, Rubiales repeatedly claimed that he, not Hermoso, was the victim: “My daughters, my family and the people who love me have suffered the effects of unconscionable persecution, as well as many falsehoods.”

Rubiales also claimed that reassuming the RFEF presidency at the end of his suspension by FIFA would be in vain, due to unspecified “powers-that-be that prevent my return”.

Far-right allies

Rubiales comes from a Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) background — his father was PSOE mayor of Motril (Andalusia). However, the most fervent supporters of his message are from Spain’s far right, and share Rubiales’ concern about where “feminism gone mad” is heading. Typical is an opinion piece titled “Don’t Forget to Show Rubiales’ Head to the Crowd” by Juan Manuel Rodríguez, in the ultra-right Libertad Digital.

It reads: “Probably because the women leaders [of left forces Sumar and Podemos] feel very strong thanks to the World Cup, a kind of revolutionary hysteria has taken hold in our women's football that threatens to reduce everything to ashes.”

The examples of “revolutionary hysteria” cited are the refusal of 81 leading women players (“blackmailers”) to play for Spain unless there is a radical shake-up of soccer administration and the ongoing pay strike by the players of the Spanish women’s league.

Further evidence is the refusal of all women players to accept the crumbs they have been offered so far, including the replacement of Spanish coach Jorge Vilda with his female number two Montse Tomé and a slightly improved salary offer to league players.

Former Spain international Verónica Boquete commented in Der Spiegel on September 11, that there is a long way to go: “Rubiales finally saw that it made no sense to continue holding on to his job. But we want a deeper change.

“Montse [Tomé] has tolerated too many things and she distanced herself too late from Rubiales. I don't doubt that she is a good coach. But is she the best you can find for the best team in the world?”

According to Boquete, the message the RFEF is now giving is that "because a woman is now coaching, the players can't keep complaining".

Feminist ‘terrorism’?

For Spanish chauvinism, this feminist “revolutionary hysteria” must be connected with other subversions, such as Catalan independentism and it fell to ultra-right shock jock Jimenez Losantos to unearth the link.

Losantos announced that the father of Aitana Bonmatí, the UEFA women’s player of the year, had been a member of the disbanded Catalan independentist military-terrorist organisation Terra Lliure (Free Land), and had been arrested at the time of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Bonmatí was among 15 players who rebelled last year against Vilda's coaching methods and refused to play for him. She was among only three players who, on return, were selected for the World Cup.

On receiving her UEFA award, she said: “We just won the World Cup, but nobody is talking about that much because things have happened I wished hadn't. I think as a society we shouldn't allow abuses of power in a work relationship, as well as a lack of respect. So, from my teammate Jenni to all the women who suffer the same treatment, we are with you.”

Phone hacking

The starting shot for far-right allies like Rodríguez was the leaking on August 29 of a video taken on the bus to Sydney airport, which showed the players joking about Rubiales’ kiss.

The message was that Hermoso herself didn’t take the incident seriously but was strong-armed into denouncing it by the “feminist mafia”, led by Sumar leader Yolanda Díaz and acting minister for equality Irene Montero.

Boquete claimed that, in the midst of the controversy over Rubiales' unwanted kiss, Hermoso’s mobile was hacked by those looking for material to compromise her and to exonerate Rubiales.

She said: “This is what war is like. We knew there were no rules. Jenni's mobile phone was hacked. They had access to photos and videos. Then they leaked things that could be used to attack the victim.

"There are also other moments on the bus where the players say that this is something very serious that cannot be tolerated.”

Fernando Palmero followed in Rodríguez’s footsteps in the August 29 El Mundo: “The harassment and demolition of Rubiales would not have been possible without the social networks and some media that, even while suspecting that what was being settled was a vendetta between corrupt football organisations [the RFEF and the Spanish football league], have presented the matter as an attack on the dignity of women in general, adopting the new feminist narrative that advocates positive discrimination and the criminalisation of men.”

‘Solidarity’ extracted

For those who just wish the whole Rubiales business would just give way to “normality”, the most common response has been belated distancing from the former RFEF boss, pathetic explanations of why this took so long, and unenthusiastic expressions of “solidarity” with the women footballers.

For example, it took the Spanish men’s soccer squad a whole fortnight to issue a statement of support for their female counterparts.

Boquete commented: "This statement is first and foremost an attempt to dodge the issue. The players don't want uncomfortable questions. The truth is that most of them don't care about the subject. Rubiales is not going to kiss them on the mouth. He's not going to humiliate them. They don't have to fight every day for equal treatment.”

Only one of the Spanish men’s squad, the unapologetically gay Betis centre-forward Borja Iglesias, acted immediately to condemn Rubiales, announcing that he would be unavailable for the Spanish squad while Rubiales remained in charge.

Media sexism

For many observers, the question most prompted by “Rubigate” is not why the RFEF president finally fell in disgrace, but why, given his scandal-ridden reign, this took so long.

In a heartfelt August 27 article on the web-based magazine Jot Down that went viral, sports journalist Gemma Herrero gave her explanation: “Because in sports journalism there are also many Rubiales. That is why we have not been able to explain matters, because the macho bias, when not directly misogynist, was — is — also in the newsrooms.”

And now that Rubiales is gone? “I go back to the beginning, to the nagging question that has been haunting me for days: How are we going to explain it to them if we are also surrounded by them?”

Other women journalists are more optimistic. Marta Ramon wrote in the August 31 Ara: “In these days of Rubigate, the sisterhood is everywhere [and] the feeling of generalised empowerment has been cathartic …

“Jenni Hermoso is already the symbol of an early International Women’s Day that has been like a social explosion come early.

“Alexia Putellas [best woman player in 2021 and 2022] says that the legacy they are looking for is that future generations of female players can focus exclusively on football. In other words, what men do in all professional fields…

“Now it is easier to think that, yes, the future that Alexia demands is possible to achieve. This is already more important than winning the World Cup.”

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

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