An unwanted kiss has turned Spain’s World Cup victory into an uncomfortable public reckoning.
The question now: With a World Cup trophy and the world paying attention, will there be any change?
In the days since Spanish soccer federation president Luis Rubiales grabbed and kissed midfielder Jenni Hermoso, the country’s soccer establishment largely brushed off calls for change until Monday, when the federation (RFEF) issued a statement and called for Rubiales to “immediately” resign.
Rubiales has refused to step down, delivering a defiant speech in which he claimed the kiss was “consensual” and blamed “fake feminism” for his predicament.
Danae Boronat, a journalist and the author of a Spanish-language book on women’s soccer, said the kiss was just the tip of the iceberg and Rubiales’s reaction has ratcheted up the calls for his ouster.
“If Rubiales would have honestly apologized to Hermoso and the rest of the players the following day and said he would listen to the players’ demands and try to understand their demands in every area,” Boronat said, “… if that would have been the message, the conflict would have been over. The players do value the gestures of the federation.”
All 23 members of the World Cup-winning squad have said they will not play for the national team as long as the management of the federation remains the same. If whole, Spain would be among the favorites at next year’s Summer Olympics in Paris. In a statement co-signed by dozens of players, they said they “expect a strong response from the public authorities so these actions do not go unpunished” and called “for real structural changes that will help the national team continue to grow.”
“It saddens us,” the players wrote, “that such an unacceptable incident is tarnishing the greatest sporting achievement of Spanish women’s football.”
This is not the first time Spanish players have clashed with the RFEF.
In 2015, players demanded the resignation of Ignacio Quereda, the team’s coach of 27 years, after an early World Cup exit and later accused Quereda of sexism and abuse. Quereda was replaced by the current coach and sporting director, Jorge Vilda, but some of the same structural issues remained.
After they lost to England in the quarterfinals of the 2022 European Championship, Spanish players pushed for the federation to take women’s soccer more seriously. Boronat said the players wanted to take women’s soccer to an elite level but needed more support, including physiotherapists and dietitians.
Players were also unhappy with Vilda, who some cast as a symbol of Spanish indifference to women’s soccer. Some players saw him as unqualified to coach a team of their caliber, Boronat said. Others complained that he was controlling.
When the RFEF did not respond to their concerns, a group of 15 players individually emailed the federation to say conditions on the team were taking a toll on their health and asked not to be called up until the situation was resolved.
The RFEF dismissed their demands and lashed out at them. “The players who have resigned will only return to the national team in the future if they accept their mistake and apologize,” the federation warned.
When the time came to select a team for the World Cup, only three of the 15 players who complained to the RFEF were called up.
Barcelona star Aitana Bonmatí, who made the team, addressed the issue in an article in the Players’ Tribune at the start of the World Cup in July: “I felt that the Spanish football federation needed to invest more in us,” she wrote.
“Certain changes needed to be made if we were to win big tournaments. Which is what we want to do, otherwise what’s the point?”
Some of the players’ demands were eventually met. But frustration boiled over when Rubiales — whose actions were caught on camera — delivered his defiant, unapologetic speech.
“That speech opened the wound for all of us,” said Vero Boquete, a Spanish player who was excluded for years from the national team after leading a protest of Quereda, in an interview with Spanish publication Newtral.
Boquete said Rubiales’s failure to take responsibility was infuriating. What made it worse, she said, was other members of the RFEF and the staff laughing and applauding along.
Following the speech, more than a hundred players of different generations gathered on WhatsApp to agree to tweets and statements calling for an overhaul of the federation’s leadership before they would go back to the pitch.
They are rallying under the hashtag “Se acabó,” or “It’s over.”
But it remains to be seen if Rubiales will lose his job.
Boronat, who has been covering women’s soccer for years, said it will be hard for the federation to do nothing, particularly because Spanish society finally seems fed up with the lack of respect for female players.
“There is no way back,” Boronat said. “They will not stop this from happening, especially after so many players have said, ‘Enough.’ The Spanish society would not tolerate this lack of respect and contempt toward female football players anymore.”