While Spain played a glorious final to claim the FIFA Women’s World Cup, the victory has been overshadowed by the ensuing fallout from an unwanted kiss and animosity towards the coach. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Spain’s Me Too moment plays on

Women walk past a mural of a man in a suit kissing a woman in a spanish soccer uniform.
Women walk past a mural of Spanish soccer chief Luis Rubiales kissing Jenni Hermoso.
Credit: Reuters / Bruna Casas

Let’s begin with the women’s soccer given that it was swiftly subsumed by the behaviour of men. Three weeks ago, with almost a reserves team, Spain was crowned women’s world champions after defeating England 1-0, a score that flattered the defeated.

The Spanish monopolised the ball with webs of triangulated short passes, reminiscent of their 2010 male compatriots, and their patient possession wasn’t ineffectual, either – they finished the tournament not only as the most prolific and accurate passers, but also as the FIFA World Cup’s top goalscorers. (Something that seemed unlikely after their 4-0 trouncing by Japan in the group stage, where the victors required only 23 per cent of the game’s possession to dominate the back of the Spanish net.)

Spain was triumphant despite the players’ conspicuous distaste for their own manager, Jorge Vilda, whose allegedly condescending, obnoxious and authoritarian behaviour prompted 15 players to refuse to represent their country for as long as Vilda remained. But Vilda stayed, and only three of the rebels returned for the World Cup. That Spain still won reveals an astonishing depth of talent.

But as the final whistle blew, and the confetti fell, the president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), Luis Rubiales, behaved in such a manner as to trigger a roiling international scandal and a domestic reckoning back home. First, Rubiales – unrestrained by the proximity of Spain’s Queen Letizia, and her 16-year-old daughter, Sofia – theatrically grabbed his groin in celebration. Then, after receiving the players as they accepted their medals upon the podium, Rubiales grabbed the head of Jenni Hermoso and planted a kiss flush on her lips.

Rubiales says his behaviour, however embarrassing and regrettable, was an innocent expression of passion. First, the groin cupping was not a general display of machismo but was rather directed to coach Vilda – Rubiales was joyously testifying to the manager’s “balls” after his old mate had persevered through a player mutiny to claim the grandest trophy of all.

And the kiss? A spontaneous act of admiration between friends, explained Rubiales, though the “friend” later described feeling “vulnerable and the victim of an aggression” and said the kiss was “an impulsive, machista [chauvinistic] act, out of place and without any consent on my part”.

Regardless, Rubiales held fast to his position: that the kiss was consensual, and that he’s an effusive man who refuses to sacrifice his passion at the altar of political correctness. Increasingly few agree with him. Not long after the Spanish team arrived home, another player boycott was declared: the world champions would refuse to play for as long as the RFEF leadership remained.

Denunciation of Rubiales snowballed. FIFA provisionally suspended him for 90 days, pending an investigation. The Spanish government sought to dismiss Rubiales itself, on the grounds he had shamed his country. A fair majority of Spain’s newspapers editorialised against him. There were protests in the streets of Madrid.

But if this sounds like a harmonious chorus, it’s not: the Spanish government’s power over the independent footballing body is limited, and their grounds to disqualify Rubiales have nervously shifted; the Spanish men’s coach described the behaviour as “wrong”, but only after he applauded a defiant Rubiales’s speech; and the men’s team, while issuing a statement describing the president’s actions as “unacceptable” and having “tarnished” the women’s victory, did so more than a fortnight after with a cautiously worded statement delivered at a press conference where they refused to take any questions.

There is a weight of denunciation without commensurate conviction, and certain parties have licked their fingers to see where the winds blow.

Still, the pressure on Rubiales – and the RFEF generally – is hardly illusory. On August 25, an extraordinary general assembly was called by the Spanish football federation. Rubiales would speak. There was a broad consensus among Spanish media that Rubiales would announce his resignation. But he upset this expectation and delivered a lengthy, thunderously defiant speech. “My desire in that moment was exactly the same as if I’d have been kissing one of my daughters,” he said. “No more or less. Everybody understands that. It was a spontaneous kiss, mutual, euphoric and consensual. That’s the key.

“Do you think this [incident] is so serious that I should go, after the best management in the history of Spanish football? Let me tell you: I’m not going to resign! I’m not going to resign!”

The audience for his speech were split in their sympathy: some watched in aggrieved silence; others – including the national men’s coach, Luis de la Fuente – offered enthusiastic applause. (Fuente later apologised for applauding, saying it was an “inexcusable … human error” made by “psychological pressure”, which strikes me as oddly overwrought.)

Rubiales then described an act of “social assassination”: “We must know the difference between truth and lies,” he said. “I’m telling the truth. False feminism doesn’t look for justice or truth, it doesn’t care about people … [Various politicians] have used terms like sexual violence, assault. What will women who have been sexually assaulted think of that?

“These people are trying to assassinate me and I’m going to defend myself. The false feminists destroy people … The press, in the majority, will keep killing me but I know the truth, and what my family and the people who love me think. The truth is the truth.”

Rubiales’s mother passionately agreed. So much so, that she locked herself in a local church and began a hunger strike in protest at what she described as the “inhumane” treatment of her son. After two days, she was taken to hospital. “Her feet had become swollen and she was very tired,” a church priest told reporters. “She had also become very anxious.” She was soon discharged, accompanied home by her son.

If that was a strange development, so too was the public support offered by Woody Allen. In an interview this week with Spanish newspaper El Mundo, given while the director promotes his 50th film, Coup de Chance, Allen suggested that a sense of proportionality was absent. “The kiss on the soccer player was wrong, but it did not burn down a school,” he said. “He has the duty to apologise and go ahead ... They didn’t hide, nor did he kiss her in a dark alley. He wasn’t raping her; it was just a kiss and she was a friend. What’s wrong with that? … In any case, it is difficult to understand that a person can lose their job and be penalised in that way for kissing someone.”

Then this week, the women’s coach, Jorge Vilda, was sacked by the RFEF. After winning the World Cup and enjoying the support of Rubiales – who in his general assembly speech announced he was offering the coach a new four-year contract and almost tripling his salary – Vilda may have thought himself invulnerable.

Evidently not. In a cryptically vague statement, which gave no specific reason for the sacking, the RFEF said: “[We] would like to express … gratitude to Jorge Vilda for the services provided, for his professionalism and dedication during all these years, wishing him the best successes in the future” and added that the dismissal was part of a “renewal stage”.

It is a complicated mess and still far from being resolved. But if the Spanish team were robbed of an untarnished celebration, the mess may have brought them the prospect of a meaningful renewal of a culture that they have long argued is chauvinistically indifferent to them.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 9, 2023 as "The strain in Spain".

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