Charges were made yesterday against suspended president of the Spanish soccer federation, Luis Rubiales, for the unwanted kiss he planted on World Cup winner Jenni Hermoso. Damian Gallagher and Maeve O’Neill discuss the scandal and the wider issues around sexism in sport.
“Surely I was wrong, I have to admit… what happened happened…if there are people who have felt offended, I have to say that I am sorry.”
This was the unapologetic apology that Luis Rubiales offered on the day following the Women’s World Cup 2023, for an unwanted kiss on the lips of Jennifer Hermoso, as she collected her winner’s medal following Spain’s historic win over England in the Final in Sydney. A kiss that Hermoso said that she did not enjoy soon afterwards in a jubilant Spanish dressing room.
This non-apology was part of a short video statement, released on the 21 August, where Rubiales casually dismisses his action merely as ‘two friends celebrating’ and asks viewers to ignore it as ‘an insignificant show of affection’. When asked about the unwanted kiss during a radio interview with Radio Marca later the same day, amid mounting criticism and pressure to resign, Rubiales further played down the incident as ‘an anecdote’, and he rounded on the ‘losers, fools, nonsense and idiots’ looking to make more of it. These included former and current players, most media outlets, and the Spanish Prime Minister.
Video footage now shows that Rubiales also entered the dressing room to tell the Spanish players that the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) will pay for a trip to Ibiza for them, and that is where he will marry Hermoso. Images have also emerged of Rubiales grabbing his crotch in the VIP area, whilst celebrating close to a number of women, and of him carrying a player around the pitch on his shoulder.
On the 26th August, the entire coaching staff (with the exception of Vilda) resigned en masse in protest against Rubiales, and FIFA, football’s world governing body, announced that Rubiales was provisionally suspended for 90 days pending the outcome of disciplinary proceedings, with orders that he and the RFEF were to have no contact with Hermoso.
Rubiales’ actions have overshadowed the victory of the Spanish players. The narrative of both Rubiales and media on the right of the political spectrum is now focusing forensically on the actions and reactions of Hermoso and subtly appealing to the political consciousness of the Spanish nation. His mother even began a 3-day hunger strike, an act of political protest, against the treatment of her son, from inside a local Catholic church.
A number of UK media are also now using the phrase ‘kiss-gate’. The suffix ‘gate’ is now a satirical and humorous pun alluding to an isolated incident that occurs as a one-off. The actions of Rubiales are not isolated. This is the latest manifestation of historical and systemic sexism, misogyny and inequality in sport, Spain, the RFEF and society. It is more than just a kiss (más que un beso).
Deportistas no, madres si
Sport in Spain has a long history of discrimination against women. In this regard it is not alone. The development of organised sport (late 1800s-early 1900s) was not matched by the development of attitudes towards women’s participation. Prejudice and resistance were underpinned by male-dominated cultures that viewed women mainly in terms of motherhood and domestication. Those opposed to women in sport used the catchword of ‘female athletes no, mothers yes’ (Deportistas no, madres si).
Sport was seen as a tool of masculinity, used to develop strength and virility, and a danger to the femininity of women. These repressive attitudes were copper-fastened during the dictatorship of Franco (1939-1975), the Caudillo under whose ideological National Catholicism control and strict guidelines left women in no doubt that their primary role was motherhood and to be the cornerstone of the Christian family. An archetype shared and propagated by the RFEF.
It wasn’t until the end days of Francoism in the 1970s that women’s football began to emerge in Spain. An unofficial national team was established in 1971 but actively opposed by the RFEF, who cancelled the 1972 unofficial women’s world cup that had been due to be played there. It wasn’t until 1980, and with increased democratisation, that the RFEF began to officially recognise women’s football. In February 1983, an official women’s national team played its first game against Portugal.
In 1988, Ignacio Quereda became the national coach, a role he retained for 27 years. Quereda resigned in July 2015 following calls from Spanish players that he be sacked. In a 2021 Spanish TV documentary, Quereda was accused of being homophobic and a sexist bully who verbally and psychologically abused his players. He was replaced by Jorge Vilda.
In August 2022, following the UEFA Euro 2022 tournament, the three Spanish captains sought talks with Luis Rubiales, with concerns about conditions around the team. This was followed by an email from 15 players asking for improvements to matchday preparation andtactics, structural issues and raising concerns regarding Vilda’s management style. It was an internal email and it did not ask for him to be sacked. Rubiales’ public response was to refuse to listen to any of the issues raised and to forbid any questioning at all by the players. ESPN have reported that the RFEF viewed the action as blackmail and a coup attempt by the players, suggesting they believed Rubiales was the real victim. In a public statement, they threatened players with 5-year bans and called for apologies before players would be allowed to play again. In August 2023, after Spain reached the World Cup semi-finals, Vilda acknowledged and thanked Rubiales for his support. He was later sacked.
Sport does not build character – it reveals it
Rubiales became RFEF president in May 2018. He succeeded Juan Luis Larrea who had been the interim president from July 2017, following the resignation of Ángel Maria Villar. Villar had served as RFEF president since 1988, had been a senior vice-president of FIFA and acting President of UEFA 2015-16. He resigned after he was arrested on suspicion of corruption and claims of collusion, embezzlement, and falsifying documents.
In 2019 Rubiales was accused of the alleged assault of a female architect but was later acquitted. In April 2022, his uncle Juan Rubiales, who had been a close confidant and aide, accused him of corruption and embezzlement. In light of the most recent allegations against his nephew, Juan claims that he was not surprised and that he (Luis) had always been a man with a very clear macho tinge, very arrogant, with attitudes typical of Torrente. Torrente is a fictional character in a series of Spanish films, described as being racist, sexist and fascist.
In December 2022 and also in these past few weeks, Rubiales and the RFEF have taken legal action to demand that Wikipedia delete content that damages his reputation and honour.
On the 25th August, at an emergency meeting of the RFEF, following an announcement that the Spanish Government was starting legal proceedings to suspend him, Rubiales defiantly stated five times that he would not resign and actively portrayed himself as the victim of ‘something awful’, claiming that it was Hermoso who initially lifted him and brought him closer, that the kiss ‘was consensual’ (a claim later dismissed by Hermoso) and that he was now being socially ‘assassinated’. An appeal for solidarity to the wider Spanish nation to ‘stop and think about where we are going’, is also accompanied by Rubiales speaking directly to Jorge Vilda about how they both have suffered and been through a lot but had stuck together. Vilda, and many of those gathered, applaud Rubiales as he vows to fight to the very end. His posture and defiance, that of a strong man who had been wounded by an enemy, was roundly applauded by most in the room. Rubiales is not the victim.
Time For Full Equality
Speaking at the FIFA Women’s Football Convention two days before the final in Sydney, the President of the football’s world governing body, Gianni Infantino, hailed the transformational success of the 2023 World Cup. With records being set for ticket sales, hospitality and broadcasting numbers, Infantino had plenty of reasons to be happy.
Infantino also inadvertently revealed an age-old systemic root to the problem of misogyny and sexism in sport. As part of a rallying call to ‘really go for full equality;, he asked women to ‘convince us, men, what we have to do’ – a statement that reminds us of the male dominance of football and sport, a statement that inadvertently provides an answer to the problem. No woman has ever been president of FIFA or UEFA. The RFEF has never had a female president. The Spanish Women’s team has never had a female manager.
Like many countries, Spain is now facing the regressive and dark forces of a reawakened brand of right-wing politics that channel nostalgic nationalism as the cure-all for the ills of the modern world. Many of these atavists would willingly roll back on hard-won feminist and equality gains. They yearn for the days where people knew their place and the words and actions of the Catholic church were unchallengeable, a place of strong men. Luis Rubiales and his supporters could very well be the champion for their cause.
Ask any politician about the role of sport in society and they will provide quotes hailing its power to bring people together, to unite and provide hope to those unreached. The events of the last few weeks are sure to test these pronouncements in the weeks, months and even years ahead. Spain, and many areas around the world, now needs the power of sport to finally move on from that which these narrow-minded atavists seek to bring back, that which has held society back for too long.
A Long Way to Go
We still have a long way to go when male entitlement, power and ego are involved in any aspect of society. These flourish in the world of football, and for too long the men at the top of football associations have gone unchallenged. Rubiales’ actions are a prominent and obvious example of this but unfortunately it exists throughout women’s sport.
The sexism in women’s football is a reflection of sexism in society. Is there any wonder so many women do not report sexual violence? When these acts are viewed across TV screens across the world, the perpetrator launches a campaign of victimhood, the woman is blamed and legal action is even taken against her for speaking out.
We must continue to speak out and to challenge this abuse. Jenni Hermoso has filed a legal complaint. Following this, a Spanish prosecutor filed a complaint to the High Court, saying there may be grounds to prosecute Rubiales both for sexual assault and for coercion. With the eyes of the world upon them, will Spain, the RFEF and football’s governing bodies step up to address sexism and misogyny and lead the sports world in its consignment to history? When transformational success is viewed merely in terms of financial returns from ticket sales, hospitality and broadcasting, there is just cause to be doubtful. The wait may continue but there is little doubt that women will continue to fight for complete equality.
En solidaridad con Hermoso!