Content Warning: Mention of sexual violence
On August 20, the Spanish women’s soccer team triumphed 1–0 over England and lifted the FIFA Women’s World Cup for the first time in its history. This landmark victory is the second time Spain has won a World Cup since the men’s team’s victory in 2010. However, the women’s team’s victory was immediately overshadowed when the head of the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), Luis Rubiales, gave player Jenni Hermoso an unconsensual kiss when celebrating the team’s victory. Hermoso is the top goal-scorer in the history of Spain’s women’s team and was a pillar in leading the team to victory.
Following the outrage on social media and from media outlets, the RFEF immediately downplayed the gesture by quoting Hermoso, stating: “It was a completely spontaneous mutual gesture due to the immense joy of winning a World Cup. The president and I have a great relationship; his behavior towards all of us has been exemplary, and it was a natural expression of affection and gratitude.” Meanwhile, Rubiales was seen on video laughing about the gesture, saying that he would take the team to Ibiza to celebrate his wedding to Hermoso.
The quote attributed to Hermoso by the RFEF is false. She has never stated that she consented to the gesture or that she was comfortable with Rubiales’ actions. Instead, Hermoso bravely published a statement on social media where she wrote that she felt disrespected and violated by Rubiales due to his violent and misogynistic act. Moreover, she declared that she had faced significant pressure from the RFEF to publish a statement condoning Rubiales’ actions. Hermoso also insisted in her statement that this accident is inscribed in a long list of abusive behaviours that players have been reporting for years.
Hermoso received huge amounts of support from fellow Spanish players, with 81 players going on strike to protest the aggression she faced but also their working conditions. The players declared that they would not return to their teams unless there were significant changes in the leadership. Meanwhile, Rubiales has been suspended – but not dismissed from his functions by FIFA – because he publicly refused to resign while continuing to defend his gesture. Hermoso has lodged a formal complaint against Rubiales for sexual assault and he risks a criminal case.
In the weeks since, Rubiales has received support from the women’s team coach, Jorge Vilda, and the men’s coach, Luis de la Fuente, who were both seen clapping during a speech in which he called his detractors “fake feminists.” The support that Rubiales has garnered from people within the RFEF and the organization itself isn’t surprising, as the organization has historically dismissed the concerns of its women players.
Clearly, the RFEF is an organization that protects men in positions of power when they abuse women. In her statement, Hermoso wrote: “attitudes like these have been daily occurrences in our national team for years.” The women’s team victory hasn’t come without personal cost to the players. They have had to endure sexist and abusive behaviour from coaches supported by the RFEF.
Abuses of power seem to be commonplace in the Spanish Football Federation. In fact, the recently dismissed head coach, Jorge Vilda, was only appointed after the RFEF shamefully dismissed Ignacio Quereda. Quereda had held the position for more than 27 years but was replaced due to players’ complaints of sexist, homophobic, and abusive behaviour. The players were able to have Quereda replaced, but only after speaking to the press about the abusive behavior they faced. When they complained internally to the RFEF, the federation’s ex-president, Angel Villar, dismissed their concerns and enabled Quereda’s behaviour.
The RFEF continued to dismiss players’ concerns when fifteen players spoke out against the management and coaching staff of the women’s team in 2022. They described feeling emotionally and physically overwhelmed and stressed that they would not return to the team unless some changes were made. Instead of supporting its players, the RFEF shamed them by making their private statement public and by declaring that the players could not return to the team unless they “asked for forgiveness.” The federation also publicly declared its support for Vilda and condemned the “pressure” they faced from the players. By downplaying grave concerns about the mental and physical health of its players, the RFEF has continued to uphold an abusive and unsafe work environment.
Over the years, the women’s team’s concerns have consistently been dismissed by the same federation supposed to support and protect them. This situation proves that, once again, institutions would rather protect men who abuse their power than the women who suffer from their abuses. Spain in particular is a country that still has to reckon with its long-standing culture of machismo. Despite advancements in promoting equality and reforms to sexual assault laws, there are still significant cultural remnants of the Franco regime within the country. Women only regained the right to vote and have bank accounts in 1975, after enduring the “permiso marital” that legally made them their husband’s property.
Rubiales’s refusal to resign and his reprehensible actions have opened a floodgate in Spain, where people are openly protesting against the RFEF. Under the hashtag #SeAcabo, supporters of Hermoso are declaring that they are fed up with the culture of abuse and silence perpetuated by Spanish institutions and are calling for the complete removal of Rubiales from his responsibilities. Hermoso has also received support from multiple members of the government, who have expressed their dissatisfaction with Rubiales’ behaviour and the handling of the situation by the RFEF.
The outpour of support Hermoso has received from the general public and her teammates has been inspiring because it demonstrates a shift in our culture where women’s voices are finally heard and are not dismissed as being irrational or exaggerated. However, the support that Rubiales has garnered from far-right parties and soccer executives showcases that men will stand together when they see other men being accused of abuse. Indeed, acknowledging that these behaviours are reprehensible implies a reflection on one’s behaviours that many men in positions of power are not ready to have.