Alexia Putellas, Jennifer Hermoso and Irene Paredes (L-R) celebrate with the World Cup trophy after Spain's triumph at Sydney's Olympic Stadium. Photo: Kim Price/CSM via ZUMA Press Wire/ISI Photos.
When I visited Spain for a summer, I was invited to a soccer game in Quintanarraya, the small town where I was staying. I showed up ready to play, realizing only when I arrived that the invite was merely to watch, not to take part. Girls didn’t play soccer in Spain, I was told.
So it was a thrill to watch this summer as the team from the country which once frowned on women even playing the game triumphed at the highest level. I believed the struggles Spain’s players had to overcome due to internal federation strife were almost as difficult as their games. That process had likely bonded the players and created a resilience that helped carry them to the World Cup title.
But it didn’t take long for that glow to diminish.
“Who is that guy and why is he acting like that?” My mom asked me as we watched the medal ceremony. “He’s just grabbing all the players.”
I couldn’t really explain RFEF president Luis Rubiales’ behavior, though I mentioned I’d seen players celebrate goals at times by jumping into a coach’s arms on the sideline. But this was not an in-the-moment exuberance of scoring. More importantly, the players weren’t initiating or seeking the contact. It was an incredibly unprofessional tarnishing of what should have been the team’s moment.
With star forward Jenni Hermoso, Rubiales went full-contact with a kiss on the lips.
Now after an extensive fallout, reactions from across the world, a defiant speech refusing to resign, a brief hunger strike from his mother, a botched p.r. campaign falsely claiming Hermoso consented to the kiss, Rubiales has finally resigned.
Also out is Jorge Vilda, the coach boycotted by 15 Spanish players ahead of the World Cup. Only three of those returned to the roster for the tournament.
That perhaps foreshadowed what has now happened to Hermoso after she refused to exculpate Rubiales and filed suit against him for sexual assault. Hermoso was not included in the latest roster called by new coach Montse Tomé, supposedly for her own “protection.”
It’s ironic that the rallying cry for reform in the wake of the Rubiales scandal is, “Se acabo,” meaning, “It’s over.”
Spain’s players have indicated that Tomé isn’t the reform they are looking for, partly because she for so long supported both Vilda and Rubiales. Tomé isn’t helping her cause by falsely claiming that she had talked to the players ahead of the roster release when many hadn’t spoken to her at all and didn’t expect to be called up.
It’s not over at all, then.
If anything, the struggle for Spain’s players to have more autonomy, agency and respect from their federation is merely beginning.
While the change is badly needed, it’s also sad to think of how little time the players were granted to enjoy their World Cup triumph before having to contemplate what indignity they’d be willing to bear in order to continue their playing careers.
The players called up by Tomé ahead of their international game against Sweden in Gothenburg on Friday indicated they weren’t happy to be there, and didn’t feel their wishes were considered. They specifically don’t trust team administrators who have been Vilda and Rubiales supporters, including those who applauded Rubiales’ infamous speech, and those who pushed Hermoso to publicly claim she initiated the kiss.
“We want to play in decent conditions and in which we are respected,” said defender Irene Paredes in a press conference on Thursday. “Up to now, it's been impossible."
What the Spanish federation failed to do by not protecting and supporting Hermoso, her teammates are now prepared to take on.
Midfielder Alexia Putellas left no doubt as to the focus of ensuring Hermoso would not be abandoned.
“The meeting [between players and federation officials] consisted of two parts; we talked about what happened to Jenni, our teammate, and how the system and protocols failed her. The RFEF hasn’t backed her, and even issued some statements against her when the whole world saw what really happened.”
Negotiations continue between the players and the federation, with the game against Sweden in Nations League competition a secondary, though still important, priority. (The top two finishers other than France in the new competition will qualify as UEFA's women's soccer entrants in the Paris Olympics next summer.)
The RFEF had earlier threatened to sue players for not fulfilling their national team obligations.
Paredes noted that as difficult as the current situation is, it’s given Spain’s team and players an opportunity that reflects on the sport and culture at large.
“We are tired, and we can’t yet see the light at the end of the tunnel. This is grueling. We know we have a megaphone right now; we have people behind us, players from other teams, from other sports, as well as women who in their jobs and in their lives are going through similar cases. We want it to be a turning point where they can look at each other and be able to speak up and say, 'It happened to me, too.’”