The former head of the Head of the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), Mr. Rubiales’s actions against Jenni Hermoso, on the night of the team’s amazing achievement, overshadowed a well-deserved campaign, shone a light on women’s football in Spain and, hopefully, spurred on genuine change.
Professionality being Deemed Overrated
In 2004, FIFA’s then-president, Sepp Blatter, suggested that women could magnify their sport by wearing tighter shorts. Eleven years on, while having an interview in Zurich, the same public figure petted a Times reporter’s hair.
Although it wasn’t until after 1970 that European powers, such as Germany and England, ban on women from playing football was lifted, you would expect that after nearly half a century such horrendous comments and actions would have no place in the sport, in relation to women, especially by such a public and powerful figure.
Sadly, however, discrimination and abuse of women’s football and of the players themselves is alive and well.
Furthermore, according to the University of Michigan politics professor Andrei Markovits, who penned “Women in American Soccer and European Football,;
“The Spaniards are not outliers… They are totally the norm.”
The abuse committed live on the world stage against a Spanish national player has shoved Spain’s treatment of Spanish women’s football, and women themselves, front and center.
A Celebration Overshadowed
A time of Jubilance.
The Women’s Spanish team had beaten England 1-0, in a hard-fought game, in order to win the World Cup.
However, while medals were being passed out, Mr. Rubiales grabbed Spanish player Jenni Hermoso by the back of her head, pulled her towards him, and kissed her full on her mouth.
While Mr. Rubiales labelled the kiss as consensual, describing it as a “peck”, Ms Hermoso vehemently disagreed with said interpretation, going so far as to file a criminal complaint with state prosecutors, forwarding an inquiry into if the kiss was an action of sexual aggression.
Furthermore, August 25th saw Mr Rubiales deliver an improvised speech where, while he was supposed to tender his resignation, he instead, at least initially, had refused to step down, blaming “fake feminism” for his problematic situation.
The situation had been met with uproar with “asqueroso” (disgusting), in response to the forced kiss, and #SeAcabo (Its over) trending on social media, along with government ministers have called for his resignation.
Another fallout has seen the firing of Jorge Vilda, the women’s national coach, whom the Spanish players had critiqued for his humiliating and dominating management style. He was replaced by the 41-year-old Montse Tomé, the first woman, in Spain, to hold the position.
Although this instance is abhorrent in and of itself, it serves only as a symptom of women’s rights in Spain, particularly within the sphere of football.
However, to begin with, we need to understand the nation itself.
Women’s Rights in Spain: A Tale of an Enduring Struggle
From 1982 to 1996 Spain played host to the nation’s first modern left-wing government, after being under the vice-like grip of Dictator Francisco Franco from 1936 to 1975, pulling Spain into Europe, in the face of a Spanish society’s personal liberalization overdrive, apart from sexism which, in Spanish Life, was slow to fade.
In stark contrast was the time of the second Socialist Government, occurring between 2003 and 2011 and led by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, which with haste set about getting a gender-violence law passed, liberalising abortion and forming half of a cabinet with women. In addition, the government supported gay marriage, along with numerous other laws.
So sudden was the progression, the time had been labeled as the “second transition”, subsequent to the first one which followed the 1975 death of Franco.
In contemporary politics, in particular, that of the Spanish Government, currently headed by Pedro Sanchez, representation of women continues strongly with all three deputy prime ministers, along with the ministers of finance, economy, justice, labor, industry, and defence, in addition to those ministries traditionally govern to women, examples being social affairs and education, being headed by women.
A more concrete and practical measure taken for women’s rights includes the criminalization of street harassment.
On the other hand, with the masses of people flooding the street every March 8th on International Women’s Day, along with certain sections of the press comprehensively covering reports of continual violence being committed against women, in addition to the radio reminding women of domestic hotlines numbers, Spain has a serious problem and certain groups are indeed aware of its severity.
A symptom of the said problem was highlighted in a 2017 study which found that women held only 22% of top executive positions which, while better than America (20%) or Britain (19%), figures worse than Eurozone nation’s 35% average. The blame is assigned to policies that make it challenging to combine work and parenting, according to the report’s authors.
The question then follows, at least for this piece, how does such a setting work for Spanish women’s football?
Spanish Women’s Football
Inadequate Representation & Compensation
The aforementioned symptom is present at the RFEF, a business and sporting body, which pertains to a governing body made up of only 9% of women.
Another issue within the sport, that is purportedly in the works of being resolved despite resistance persisting, is the pay inequality between the men’s and women’s national teams, although not alien to other nations, which proffered a disgruntled backdrop to the tournament.
According to Union officials, whereas the men’s minimum wage in the sport is 180,000 euros (over $193,000), for women it is only 16,000 euros (a little over $17,000).
The field of women’s football, past and present, serves as a microcosm of women’s rights in Spain.
But what more do you get when pulling back the curtain?
Well, as was seen at the final, that was one thing.
According to Semra Hunter, football journalist and presenter, talking on BBC Radio 5 Live about the Rubiales incident, she stated that it,
“is a reflection, as well, of wider society and how sexual abuse and sexual violence and misogyny and machismo has been normalized for far too long.”
She went on to talk about how women don’t speak openly on the issue due to a lack of feeling safe;
“because normally they would be shamed or humiliated or wouldn’t be believed”.
Someone closer to the center of it all, the former Spain’s Women’s National Team captain, Veronica Boquete said;
“It is the tip of the iceberg publicly of what we used to see privately.”
What was found, thus far, behind private curtains, is nothing short of abuse, power trips, and outdated views.
Hellish Working Conditions
When Beatriz Álvarez attained the position of Spanish Women’s Soccer League President, she had requested to meet the national soccer federation’s chief via videoconference, due to her desire to remain at home with her newborn child.
Following decades of being unpredictable to run, almost as an afterthought, women’s soccer, recently, had become fully professional and unionized and, as such, Ms. Álvarez had an extensive agenda necessitating discussion.
However, the now ex-president, Rubiales refused Ms Álvarez recalled.
According to the account, he told her that as opposed to her being present for the meeting, she should set an example by;
“devoting myself to my maternity.”
Ms. Álvarez, stating that the meetings continued in absence of her, went on to say that the aforementioned incident numbered, over the years, just one of numerous subtle and not-so-subtle reminders that women should be cognizant of their place in view of Spain’s top soccer officials.
Greater than a dozen women, part of Spanish soccer, in interviews with The New York Times, illustrated more than 10 years of systemic sexism ranging from offhand verbally abusive remarks to paternalism. Examples included women being ordered to leave their hotel doors open at night and receiving bedtime checks.
A high-ranking official resigned after coming to the conclusion that her hiring was solely window dressing, with the former national team captain, Veronica Boquete, recalling that Ignacio Quereda, Mr. Vilda’s predecessor, told players;
“What you really need is a good man and a big penis.”
Another case found that the former vice president for integrity of the soccer federation, Ana Muñoz, stated that, as opposed to receiving prize money at the conclusion of a competition, she saw players receiving tablets, with Mr. Rubiales remarking;
“I have daughters… I know what women would want.”
Furthermore, she puzzled over the ethics of a number of Mr. Rubailes’s decisions, such as a $43 million deal to change the location of a soccer competition to Saudi Arabia.
Said deal is now under investigation, in addition to allegations launched by Rubiales’s chief of staff that his boss had appropriated federation money for the purposes of hosting a sex party in the south of Spain at a coastal villa.
Even attempted action taken against such fraud was shut down in its tracks.
When Ms. Muñoz called for the removal of a member, temporarily pending a criminal investigation into whether said member had spent federation funds on his wife’s business and home renovations, she was quickly voted down, stating that she retained no authority.
Ms. Muñoz commented that she;
“couldn’t understand that a department of integrity didn’t deal with integrity issues.”
In the prior years, even the national team’s players had unsuccessfully attempted to drive change, as a result of, now-former coach, Mr. Vilda’s behavior.
According to Ms Boquete, Mr. Vilda insisted that the women had to have coffee in his line of sight as, Ms Boquete believed that he wanted to check their body language, who was meeting whom, and if the women were complaining about him.
Moreover, team captains were directed where to sit at meals, so as to afford Mr. Vilda the ability to maintain eye contact with them.
Finally, he necessitated that players leave their bedroom doors open until he was able to verify that they were in bed.
This is because, as stated by Ms. Boquete;
“If you go into the other rooms, maybe you’ll talk about him… He wanted to control everything.”
While it can be noted that players have turned down the opportunity, amidst the controversy, to speak publicly for fear of retribution, and even in the few instances in which agents have stated that their players were interested in talking, the clubs shut them down, past teammates have illustrated the environment that they had to navigate.
“Breaking the Silence”, a 2021 Movistar+ documentary, featured players interviewed detailing a culture of condensation and bullying under Vilda’s predecessor, Ignacio Quereda.
One interviewee was Roser Serra, the team’s former goalkeeper, who stated that Quereda, in front of the team, picked on the younger players, saying that they “needed a man” or called them fat.
In addition, there was footage of him pulling the players by their ear and pinching their cheeks.
Another player for Spain between 1985 and 2000, Mar Prieto, told the documentary makers that;
“He treated us like little girls. It made him feel like the powerful one within the pack.”
Moreover, Prieto accused of Quereda of attempting to control all aspects of their players’ lives, insisting on them sleeping with hotel rooms open, while on tour, and checking bags when they went shopping.
Even on the other side of the cameras, the situation has been far from pleasant, with Spanish female sports journalists alleging sexist behavior.
Berta Collado, the reporter, was once made speechless when Enrique Cerezo, Atletico Madrid’s president, responded to a query, on camera, by referring to her breasts.
Not a single instance for the president, as 2018 saw Cerezo telling a female TV reporter, who had a query regarding the cash flow of the club, that it was rude to talk about money;
“especially with women.”
When other journalists challenged him, he irately rejected the question as “the most stupid thing ever” and “your problem”, adding that “I have nothing against women.”
With such a gaggle of abhorrently mannered men in the fray, Rubailes appears to fit and function like a cog in a well-oiled machine of misogyny and sexism.
Mr. Rubiales: A Lame Advocate for Change
According to records attained by The Times, from the start, the idea of professional women’s soccer was resisted by Mr. Rubiales.
According to a document from Spain’s National Sports Council, In the midst of discussions regarding the creation of an official unionized women’s soccer league in 2021, the national federation, under the hand of Mr. Rubiales, dissented from the idea.
Involved in the discussions was Spain’s chief players’ union’s top lawyer, María José López, who recalled Rubiales querying whether clubs could afford the upgrade.
Her suspicion, however, was that he did not desire to give women’s teams power.
She went on to say;
“In particular, he didn’t want the clubs to negotiate TV broadcasting rights.”
His views appeared to have persisted to contemporary times given that September 2022 saw 15 members of the national Spanish squad going on strike, in order to demand alterations to their working conditions, such as business class travel and a physiotherapist so as to ensure that they were rested before games. Conditions that are standard for the men’s team.
Dating even further back, generations of female athletes have had to weather demeaning comments, belittling their status both as professional football players and even simply as human beings, deserving respect.
An example is, in Christmas of 1970, when an unofficial Barcelona women’s team played their first match, the public announcer persisted in questioning, as players ran around the field;
“Has her bra broken?”
Team members recalled.
Another case, occurred the following year, when then Spain’s soccer federation president, José Luis Pérez-Paya, commented;
“I’m not against women’s football, but I don’t like it, either. I don’t think it’s feminine from an aesthetic point of view. Women are not favored wearing shirts and shorts.”
Echoing such an instance, Rubiales, on live TV, said;
“They’re in their underwear.”
A comment made as a commentary on players wearing shorts and t-shirts after practice, as remembered by a Spanish sports commentator, Monica Marchante, who was on air with him.
In response, although smiling politely, Ms. Marchante realised then that Rubialises was, in her words;
“old-fashioned and rancid.”
Not settling for disgusting comments, the league president, Ms. Álvarez, claimed that there had been attempted sabotage by the soccer federation against the opening of the 2022-2023 women’s season, by aiding the orchestration of a referee strike, which resulted in the opening weekend’s postponement.
Ms. Álvarez labeled the federation as a;
What’s more, when the Barcelona club team succeeded in attaining the Women’s Super Cup, in January of this year, top federation officials, including Rubiales, failed to attend the medal ceremony and, as a result, players were made to collect their medals from containers.
While a wholly apparent lack of recognition and regard has been paid to the women’s game from members of the institution, the public, in contrast, are behind the players.
A Rallying Cry from the Public
Following the incident, sporting events across Spain featured athletes voicing their solidarity with Hermoso, along with calling for greater action to be taken in order to address the issue.
An example of such support was shown at a match in August between FC Almeria and FC Cádiz where members of the latter team held aloft a banner that read “We are all Jenni”, while members of the crowd chanted “Rubiales, resign!”.
For the first time since the incident, Hermoso herself made an appearance at a match, at the conclusion of August, in Alcalá de Henares, taking in the sight of players of the Atlético de Madrid and FC Milan teams linking arms before a sign stating;
“We are with you, Jenni.”
Furthermore, a mass protest in support of the Spanish women’s football team and Hermoso took place in Madrid.
Referring back to Semra Hunter, she stated that she had never seen Spanish society;
“come together so unanimously… and agree this was completely inappropriate behaviour… It’s not just about a kiss, it’s about so much more.”
That “so much more” most assuredly can be rested, at least partially, at the feet of the RFEF.
A Flailing Salvage Operation
A week subsequent to when the RFEF initially snubbed their nose at the crisis, along with later backing Rubiales’ attack on the credibility of Hermoso, questioning her claim and even threatening legal action for “lies”, the federation shifted gear and announced an “extraordinary and urgent” meeting would be held on the matter, in Madrid, in order to assess the crisis’s impact.
It is important to note that the initial hostile response was not abnormal as, according to the founder of Everyday Sexism Project, Laura Bates;
“What we are seeing here is powerful men closing ranks to protect one another with a deliberate and sustained campaign of gaslighting and victim-blaming on an international scale.”
Furthermore, the RFEF has been aware of and acknowledged abuse and harassment prior to this instance as its website features a comprehensive document from July 2021 highlighting such practices and risks present to adolescents and children training in its clubs, along with the document pertaining strict guidelines on how administrative staff are able to circumvent developing hostile atmospheres.
At least a dozen members of the RFEF, including Navarra’s region football federation head and president of the nation’s National Women’s Football Committee, Rafa del Amo, resigned, in disgust of the whole thing, from their posts.
Others distanced themselves from Rubiales himself with Spain’s national men’s football team head coach, Luis de la Fuente, releasing a statement condemning the man. This was, although, only after being filmed delivering the same man a standing ovation during a speech given by Rubiales himself.
De la Fuente wrote;
“I absolutely reject any act of sexist violence… There is no room for lukewarm positions when dealing with this type of situation.”
Another such case was that of Spain’s women’s team ex-head coach, Jorge Vilda, who also cheered on Rubiales while he delivered a scathing attack against political correctness, after which he published a nearly similarly phrased statement labeling Rubiale’s actions as;
“inappropriate and unacceptable.”
The statements from both were met with derision on Spanish social media, with numerous people addressing the men as hypocrites, alongside demands being made for prompt resignations.
Explaining their presence at Rubiales’s blustering speech, the entirety of Vilda’s coaching staff stated that they had been forced to attend, with female members even having to sit in the front row, so as to demonstrate their support for him. The team tendered their resingation in order to express their;
“strongest and most emphatic condemnation of the conduct shown by the president of the Spanish football federation.”
While such a toxic system, along with its active participants, seems like an unchallengeable monolith of a problem to tackle, the Spanish national squad has done so head-on and produced some, what many hope to be, tangible changes.
Taking the Fight to Them
Two-time Ballon d’Or winner, Spanish star Alexia Putellas said, the week of the 18th of September, that the deal arrived at, following a marathon meeting, many details of which remain confidential, between players, government mediators and federation officials will result in genuine reform, within their troubled national soccer federation.
Commenting, at a news conference, the night before Spain’s Nations League game Vs Sweden, in Gothenburg, Sweden, Alexia said;
“I believe that the meeting of the other day will mark a before and after… I truly believe that the agreement we reached after the meeting that lasted all night will make our sport, women’s sports in general, and as a consequence, society at large better.”
They arrived Thursday, following a fleeting training camp in Valencia, Spain, where the attention was directed, for the most part, on the all-night meeting that ran into Wednesday morning.
With fellow veteran Irene Paredes, Alexia additionally talked at the conference, commenting that said meeting convinced most of the members of the team that the federation was earnest about erasing;
As it was termed by Alexia.
She stated that the agreement pertained to the generation of an oversight committee formed of federation officials and government officials, who will oversee the changes to be made. Additionally, it included a commitment to rewrite the discrimination protocols, made by the federation.
However, on a more cautious note, the team’s defensive leader, Paredes said;
“We still don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, this is going to be a long process… We hope that this can be a turning point for people to look at, where women can raise their voice and say if something has happened, and we can eradicate these types of situations.”
Whatever the future holds, however, it can be confidently stated that the Spanish national team can dominate and win both on and off the field, not only for themselves but for athletes and women across the sport, and even serve as a message to women and men across the globe, in various industries and sectors.
We are professionals and humans, deserving of both regard and respect and if not given, we will work to attain it, no matter the barrier or corrupted structure in our way.
Image attribution: Alejandro Reguero, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons