A systematic issue rooted in Spanish women’s football has come to light on a global scale for the first time. What has been seen is only minuscule in proportion to everything that has occurred since 1988. It has taken 35 years for the players to be truly heard and supported, and for action to be taken against those in power.
All it took was for the women’s national team to win the World Cup and have cameras on Luis Rubiales, the president of the Spanish federation (RFEF), to show him simply being himself. To give a taste to the world of what has been going on behind the scenes for decades at the Spanish federation.
Fifa has now provisionally suspended Rubiales from all football-related activities for an initial 90 days while their proceedings against him are open. The Spanish government also began legal action against Rubiales on Friday afternoon, which could see him suspended from his position in the federation as soon as Monday, when Spain’s tribunal administration of sport (TAD) and its supreme council of sport (CSD) will regroup on the matter.
While Rubiales left Las Rozas confident after his speech declaring he was not going to resign, he has been unassailable since coming into power in 2018. The players won the media battle on Friday, giving Rubiales a blow that he was not expecting by declaring their intention to strike while he remains in post, but he has a history of making troubles disappear.
After Spain crashed out in the Euro 2022 quarter-final against the eventual champions, England, 15 players stepped away from the national team in September “until changes were made”. Although they never directly stated that they wanted Rubiales nor the unpopular manager, Jorge Vilda, gone, it was implied that Spanish football had not given the players the confidence, will and desire to play. Rubiales and the federation happily cast out those 15 players, calling them “extortioners” and “brats”, and moved ahead with a “new national team” with the players who agreed to be called up.
The applause that roared in the room after Rubiales gave his speech at the general assembly this week was a testament to how much control and power he has within the Spanish federation. Jenni Hermoso referred to “the manipulative culture he has created” in her statement released after the controversy caused by Rubiales’s kiss on the mouth during the celebrations as Spain triumphed in Australia.
He has been untouchable but Rubiales appears unable to reflect on the gravity of the situation, to comprehend the effect this has on Hermoso, to accept any consequence or grasp how his actions are being seen from the outside.
In its statement, the Spanish federation has signalled its intent to take legal action against Hermoso, the idol of that triumphant Spain team, and anyone who spreads “false” information “in defence of the honourability of the president of the RFEF”.
On Saturday, the federation went further, saying in a strongly worded statement: “We have to state that Ms Jennifer Hermoso lies in every statement she makes against the president. The facts are what they are; and, no matter how many statements are made to distort reality, it is impossible to change what happened. The peck [kiss] was consensual. The consent was given in the moment with the conditions of the moment. Later you can think that you have made a mistake, but you cannot change reality.” The statement was later deleted from the website.
Standing in support with the players, 11 technical staff resigned in solidarity with Hermoso and the players. These include from both senior assistant managers, under-19s and under-20s coaches to the senior team physio. Their statement read: “We want to state the uncomfortableness we felt having been obligated to assist the general assembly. Many of the women from the staff were obligated to sit in the front row, boosting their images and trying to portray to society and the players, that they agreed with everything the president said.”
And yet Rubiales will be defended to the hilt by the federation because in its own eyes the president can do no wrong. “The evidence is conclusive. The president has not lied. The RFEF and the president will demonstrate each falsehood that is spread, whether by someone on behalf of the player or, if necessary, by the player herself.”
History repeats itself. Vilda has always defended Rubiales, just as Rubiales has always given Vilda his unconditional support. It’s them against the rest. Vilda was already in charge of the women’s national team when Rubiales was elected president. One of Rubiales’s first acts was to sack Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the 2018 men’s World Cup.
Vilda passed a major tournament quarter-final for the first time at the 2023 World Cup after being at the head of the national team for eight years; Lopetegui was at the helm of the men’s team for two. Rubiales owed Vilda and his father for backing him in the presidential elections.
It’s important to look back at the history of women’s football within the Spanish federation. Spain’s women’s team have had only two managers in 35 years. Before Rubiales it was Ángel María Villar, and before Vildar it was Ignacio Quereda. Villar and Quereda were at the helm of the Spanish federation and the Spanish women’s national team from 1988 and stayed there for 27 years.
The women’s side only reached their first World Cup in 2015 and the players released a joint statement after their disappointing early exit in Canada asking for the resignation of their manager. Sound familiar?
It read: “After finishing our participation in the World Cup, it is time to take stock and draw conclusions. Both individually and as a group, the 23 players have made self-criticism and we know that our performance could have been better. This generation has the talent and commitment to have gone much further. Despite this, and once our responsibility has been assumed, we also want to make public the feelings of the group, of the 23.
“It is evident that the preparation for the World Cup has not been correct, the friendlies nonexistent, the acclimatisation scant, the analysis of the rivals and the way to prepare for insufficient matches … and this has been the dynamic for a long time. We believe that a stage has ended and that we need a change.
“This is how we have transmitted it to the coach and coaching staff. If trust is lost and you are not able to reach a group, it is difficult to achieve goals. There is still a long way to go and many doors to open. This is a great moment for our sport, with many challenges and dreams ahead and it is everyone’s responsibility to set the path forward. See where we are going and how we do it.”A few days after the players’ statement was released, Quereda resigned. Vilda was appointed as his replacement. “This made people see what was happening for a long time,” said one of those players, Verónica Boquete. “What we did was leave the federation with no choice because the media and social pressure was strong.” Boquete was later blacklisted from the Spanish national team
after speaking out against Quereda and the federation.
Fast forward eight years and the World Cup winners are taking the same action and still fighting for better conditions. The statement released by Futpro, the players’ union, was signed by players from the 2015 World Cup – two sets of players united in continuing a fight that started almost a decade ago. Spanish players have been forced to work in environments that no person should have to experience and despite that, they won a World Cup.
Clubs in Spain have invested in women’s football. Barcelona’s women’s team have reached four Champions League finals in five years. The work at club football in Spain has carried the new world champions, developing and providing their players with adequate environments to advance. The very success that Vilda and Rubiales have happily credited themselves with.
Abuse has become routine
. “I got to the senior national team at 19 years old,” the Brighton player Vicky Losada has said. When you get there and you see the veteran players put up with everyone, it creates a routine. For me, it was normal.”
The normalisation of badly treating women’s footballers by the Spanish federation has allowed Rubiales to see no wrong in his “peck” – that full kiss which so shocked the world. Spain’s women’s footballers have been powerless for 38 years within their federation, but despite such obstacles their talent thrives.
Spain are the holders of the under-17, under-20 and senior women’s World Cup. Maybe the players have been successful because they have had to fight so much to get to where they are now, and the lifelong effect their experiences have on their playing careers and personal lives is imbedded in personalities. They are speaking up against abuse and injustice so the next generation doesn’t have to again.