On August 20, 2023, the Spanish women’s national football team made history by defeating England and winning the first World Cup in their history.
Sadly, one of the enduring images of the victory occurred when the head of the RFEF (the Spanish football federation), Luis Rubiales, forcibly grabbed player Jenni Hermoso’s head and kissed her on the lips.
While both Rubiales and a clearly embarrassed Hermoso tried downplaying the incident, it was impossible to ignore the sexist nature of his actions. Rather than allow his players to enjoy their moment in the spotlight, Rubiales took advantage of his position of authority to do something that would be unacceptable in virtually any context.
Rubiales’s gesture only added to the bittersweet nature of the World Cup triumph. This is not least because of the tumult and mutiny in the run-up to the tournament. Not even a year ago, almost the entire women’s national team walked out in protest of coach Jorge Vilda’s methods, rules, and treatment of players.
Most who walked out included world-class stars who had long been at the center of women’s football. Among other issues, they complained of patronizing treatment, saying they were treated like children rather than professionals.
For example, according to sources within the team, during tournaments, Vilda forced players to keep their hotel room doors unlocked until midnight and perform unannounced, random visits, entering without knocking to ensure they were there. He was also accused of searching players’ shopping bags and luggage and requiring approval to meet outside individuals for things as innocuous as having coffee.
The walkout was shocking and unprecedented, not only for the women’s game but for football in general. However, rather than view the incident as a catalyst to examine the situation, Rubiales and the RFEF emphatically sided with Vilda and declined to undertake any internal audit or investigation. His response emphasized that he would never allow players to dictate how the federation would do its business.
Such a stonewalling response might shock those not familiar with Spanish football. However, Rubiales doesn’t exactly have good precedents.
It will be hard for many Spanish fans to forget how, on the eve of the 2018 World Cup, he decided to stamp his authority on the men’s national team, even at the expense of success. Men’s coach Julen Loptegui had seemingly refurbished a Spanish side, creating a clear footballing identity and coasting through a qualifying campaign that made his team a firm favorite for success.
However, shortly before the tournament, Real Madrid ungraciously leaked the news that they had made a deal with Loptegui for him to take over coaching duties the following season. Feeling personally affronted by what he considered a betrayal and destabilizing act, Rubiales responded by promptly firing Loptegui. He appointed the utterly unprepared and reluctant Fernando Hierro in his place, and the shell-shocked Spanish team went on to produce one of its worst World Cup performances in recent memory. Rubiales was widely criticized by the Spanish press for his egocentric act, but he held steadfastly to his position.
Some might argue (such as myself) that the team has yet to recover from this gesture. However, Rubiales’s latest action makes it quite clear that he and his ego are first in his book. Whether it means throwing a man overboard to the detriment of an entire team and nation, or forcing his idea of affection on Hermoso, Rubiales comes first, no matter who might be harmed.