At what should have been a time of great celebration for Spain, a historic Women’s World Cup win has been overshadowed by a sexism scandal that has dominated global headlines.
In the celebrations, Luis Rubiales, the country’s football federation president, planted a kiss on the lips of player Jenni Hermoso – a kiss he says was consensual but she says was not.
It was a moment broadcast live around the world, and a thunderous storm of criticism followed.
The Spanish government, football’s world governing body Fifa, the United Nations and countless players and clubs have condemned Rubiales’ behaviour. Investigations are underway into his actions by Spanish police, a Spanish sporting tribunal and Fifa.
This was a kiss that shook football in Spain and all corners of the globe – and it could be the catalyst for great change.
How did we get here?
To look at the future, you must first look at the past. This hasn’t just been the past few weeks for Spain’s national women’s team, it’s a moment that has been a long time coming.
Vilda, the man who had been at the helm of the team until Tuesday, was only the second person to manage La Roja since 1988.
His predecessor, Ignacio Quereda, was in post for nearly 27 years, sacked only when his entire squad called for his dismissal after their poor performance at the 2015 World Cup, making reference to incorrect preparation and non-existent friendlies. Several players had reportedly refused to play for the national team while he was in charge.
At the top of the RFEF, Rubiales was only the third president since 1988.
Fast forward to 2022, less than a year before their World Cup win, and to Spain’s player ‘revolt’. In September, the RFEF released a statement revealing 15 players had submitted identical emails saying they would not play for Vilda unless “significant” concerns over their “emotional state” and “health” were addressed.
‘Las 15’ – as the players became known – denied claims they had asked for Vilda to be sacked, but tension followed amid reports of concern over training methods and inadequate game preparation.
Their concerns were not only on the pitch, however. Until three years previously, players reportedly had to keep their hotel room doors unlocked before midnight while on international duty.
In Australia and New Zealand for the World Cup, only three of ‘Las 15’ were in the Spain squad.
According to Spanish football journalist Guillem Balague, “not enough focus” was placed on what was happening by the Spanish media and society.
“You only need to hear the voices of the players who complained – they never clarified exactly what their complaints were about. But now you start to understand that what they were saying is that not only was there a lack of professionalism, but there was also a lack of interest from the federation, and generally a systemic treatment of women as secondary in the game,” Balague told BBC Sport.
“Nobody spoke of the World Cup as a catalyst for anything. Being systemic basically meant that unless there was a revolution, nothing was going to change.
“It was just a sporting competition. That’s all it was. That’s why it is extraordinary what has happened since.”
Male chauvinism ‘systemic’?
And so to the kiss – Spain’s MeToo moment, according to Balague.
Rubiales, who prior to the kiss had been seen grabbing his crotch while celebrating the win, has also resigned from his position as a vice-president of Uefa’s executive committee.
Spanish prosecutors have opened a preliminary investigation into whether the incident amounts to a crime of sexual assault, and on 28 August, Rubiales’ mother locked herself in a church and went on a hunger strike in protest of the treatment of her son.
Some 81 Spain players, including all 23 World Cup winners, said they will not play for the team again while Rubiales is in charge, and most of Vilda’s coaching staff resigned in protest against the president.
On 1 September, Spain’s national sports tribunal (TAD) opened a misconduct case against Rubiales, ruling he had committed a “serious offence” by kissing Hermoso.
However, the TAD stopped short of the “very serious offence” the government had requested which would have led to his suspension.
The RFEF had been exploring whether it could sack Vilda before doing so on Tuesday. He was spotted applauding Rubiales at the RFEF’s extraordinary general assembly on 25 August – when Rubiales repeatedly insisted he would not resign – though he later criticised the president’s behaviour.
Spain’s acting labour minister Yolanda Diaz said male chauvinism was “systemic” in the country’s sports institutions and had been shown in its worst form in the incident involving Rubiales.
Balague said he was “optimistic” this could be the long-needed catalyst for change in Spanish football, and indeed in society, adding: “It has been a social and political tsunami that everybody could benefit from in the medium and long term.”
Similarly, Pedro Malabia – the director general for planning and strategy in the top flight of women’s football in Spain – told BBC World Service: “It needs to lead to a global thinking on what kind of organisations do we need. It’s not about people just serving the president and the president paying everyone and then he has control.
“It’s about what kind of football we want, how you choose a president and who are the ones choosing the president, and of course the role of women in sports. It’s about having the right people in the right positions.”
Why did Rubiales retain some support in Spain?
In his speech to the assembly during which he refused to step down, Rubiales said a “social assassination” was taking place.
Although the speech was poorly received by many, Rubiales – who was elected in May 2018 – was repeatedly applauded by those in attendance. Only four of the 140 members of the general assembly are women.
Those applauding included men’s national team boss Luis de la Fuente, though like Vilda he later released a statement criticising Rubiales’ behaviour, saying it was “wrong and inappropriate”.
But others continued to support Rubiales.
His mother, Angeles Bejar, told Spanish news agency EFE her hunger strike would continue “indefinite, day and night” – she was taken to hospital soon afterwards and, after treatment, was discharged the following day.
And although federation regional leaders called for a restructuring of the RFEF to start a new era, a third of those bosses did not want to force Rubiales out.
That said, the criticism has been far louder than the support. Former Spain midfielder Andres Iniesta said Rubiales’ behaviour had “tarnished the milestone” of the World Cup win and had made the story “dirty”.
“Instead, we have had to put up with a president who has held on to his position, who has not admitted that his behaviour has been unacceptable and that it is damaging the image of our country and our football around the world,” Iniesta said on social media.
Real Betis striker Borja Iglesias, who won the second of his two caps for Spain in March, made himself unavailable for selection “until things change”.
Spain’s players have immense support, both at home and abroad.
England’s Lionesses, who Spain beat in the World Cup final, said Rubiales’ conduct was “unacceptable”, adding in a statement: “The behaviour of those who think they are invincible must not be tolerated and people shouldn’t take any convincing to take action against any form of harassment.”
Players and fans showed support for Hermoso at some La Liga (men’s football) and Copa de la Reina (women’s football) matches, while during the 2 September game between Orlando Pride and San Diego Wave in the National Women’s Soccer League in the United States, all players wore wristbands featuring the message ‘Contigo Jenni’ – ‘With you Jenni’.
England’s Ella Toone said the furore around Rubiales’ behaviour had “overshadowed” Spain’s success.
“We’re talking about that every single day after the World Cup when really we should be praising Spain for what they’ve done in the World Cup and how far the women’s game has come,” Toone told BBC Sport.
What next for Spain’s women?
For Spain, while the revolution may take much more time, an initial solution is needed quickly.
On 22 September, La Roja are due to play their first match as world champions in a Uefa Women’s Nations League fixture against Sweden, with five further Nations League games scheduled by the end of the year.
Much is at stake. At the Nations League Finals, due to take place in February next year, the two teams in the final will qualify for the 2024 Olympic Games.
Whether those games will go ahead remains to be seen – matches cannot be played without players.
But women’s football players are used to protesting, used to fighting for their rights, and so they stand side by side in support.
In England, the Lionesses are set to resume negotiations over performance-related bonuses, talks that were paused prior to the World Cup to allow the players to focus on the job at hand.
Prior to the tournament, Australia’s squad criticised the gender disparity in World Cup prize money, while from Jamaica to Nigeria to South Africa to Canada, there have been other stand-offs between multiple teams and their football associations.
But for Spain the stakes are high as the World Cup winners look to build a legacy beyond what should have been a summer of celebration.