The Spanish team has been at war with its football federation for months. It won the World Cup despite the absence of its star players who’d stayed away in protest. But that hard fought victory was instantly tarnished by a single kiss.
Umm, let’s start with the kiss?
Soon after defeating England 1-0, the team lined up for the medal ceremony. That’s when Luis Rubiales—the president of the Spanish football federation—grabbed one of the players—Jenni Hermoso. He held her by the head and pulled her in for a kiss on the lips. You can see it below:
The moment was broadcast around the world and caused great outrage.
Hermoso’s initial response: was the following:
Hermoso said on a live stream afterwards that she “didn’t like it.” In comments later provided to the media she appeared to clarify her position, saying it was a “natural gesture of affection”.
“It was a totally spontaneous mutual gesture because of the immense joy that winning a World Cup brings,” said Hermoso, in comments given to AFP by the Spanish federation. “The president and I have a great relationship, his behaviour with all of us has been outstanding and it was a natural gesture of affection and gratitude.
Rubiales too brushed off the criticism as “a kiss between two friends celebrating something”—calling his critics “idiots and stupid people.”
However, it was found later that she was coerced into making it.
The crotch shot: But none of this dampened the controversy. Everyone from cabinet ministers to the acting PM jumped in to condemn “an unacceptable gesture.” And then this clip of Rubiales celebrating Spain’s sole goal went viral. He was just couple of rows away from Spain’s 16-year-old princess:
Then there was his victory lap on the field—while carrying Athenea del Castillo over his shoulder like so:
Rubiales doubles down: Then he made things even worse by issuing a rambling statement defending himself—and refusing to resign:
In his appearance at the RFEF’s Extraordinary General Assembly today, Rubiales attacked what he called “false feminism”, described himself as the victim of a “social assassination”, claimed he had given Spain player Jennifer Hermoso a “consensual peck” on the lips and said he had grabbed his crotch in celebration in recognition of head coach Jorge Vilda.
You can see a clip with subtitles below:
Point to note: The Spanish football federation continued to fervently defend Rubiales:
[I]n a statement released late Friday, Spain’s soccer federation pushed back, vowing to take “as many legal actions as are appropriate in defense of the president’s honor” in response to Ms. Hermoso’s account of the incident. Spanish media reported that the federation released a second statement on Saturday afternoon that was later removed from its website, in which it accused Ms. Hermoso of “distorting reality.”
Their statement was even accompanied with photos of the ‘kiss’—offered as evidence.
The rebellion: Soon after Rubiales issued his bizarre defence, 81 Spanish players—including all of the World Cup-winning squad—signed a statement saying they will not play for the country again. Football stars around the world expressed their solidarity. And on Friday, Hemoso finally spoke up about the kiss:
Hermoso said in a statement on Friday night that she felt “vulnerable and the victim of an aggression”... Rubiales also claimed that he had asked Hermoso if he could give her a little peck. “She said OK,” he said. Hermoso rejected any suggestion that the kiss was consensual, describing Rubiales’ description as “categorically false” and saying the “conversation did not happen.”
More notably, Hermoso called out the Spanish football federation for pressuring her to make statements supporting Rubiales—even approaching her family and friends.
Finally, the suspension: On Saturday, football’s global governing body FIFA suspended Rubiales “from all football-related activities” at national and international levels for 90 days. And Spain’s National Sports Council—the top sporting body—has filed a formal complaint against Rubiales in an administrative court that handles sporting disputes. It accuses him of abusing his authority and violating public sports decorum.
FYI: The Spanish football federation has still not turned on Rubiales. In response to FIFA suspension, it simply said Rubiales will step away and use the “opportunity to begin his defense.” He is also vice-president of the European soccer federation UEFA—which has remained silent.
Who is this guy Rubiales?
He was a minor league player of very little note. But he rose quickly in the management ranks—and finally became president of the Spanish football association in 2018. At the time, Rubiales was considered a great improvement on his predecessor Angel Maria Villar—who was suspended due to allegations of collusion, embezzlement and falsifying documents. So, yeah, football management has never been the paragon of virtue (See: our Big Story on FIFA).
But, but, but: Rubiales has always been dogged by unsavoury news reports. For example: He was accused of paying for orgies with federation money. Or using player union money to pay for the construction of his house. At the very least, he has been described in UEFA circles as “ambitious” and “capable”, but with a “huge ego”, that leads to a lot of abrasiveness. And his problems with Spanish team players are far bigger than just a non-consensual incident.
The women vs Vilda: Rubiales has also been a staunch supporter of the controversial national team coach Jorge Vilda. In August 2022, a number of players confronted Vilda over his coaching style—which was overly dominating and a little creepy:
Players also felt Vilda’s managerial style was too controlling. In the first few years of his time in charge of Spain — he was appointed in 2015 — he would ask players to keep their room doors open until midnight and check who was in which room. When coming back from a walk outside, they would be asked who they’d been with and be requested to show the contents of shopping bags if they brought some back.
Then 15 players—including some of the biggest stars—wrote an email refusing to return to the national team unless Vilda was sacked. Rubiales was enraged at their defiance—and declared Vilda “untouchable.” And if they continued to defy their coach, the players would face two to five year bans. The federation basically told the women—‘know your place’: The RFEF will not allow the players to question the continuity of the coach, as taking those decisions are not part of their role.
Point to note: In his disastrous speech refusing to resign, Rubiales addressed Vilda, saying, “I invite you to stay with us for the next four years, earning half a million euros a year.”
Not just Spain: As this Guardian column points out, women players have long been controlled by men—as coaches, management and yes, federation presidents. In 2018, the Afghan team accused their federation president Keramuddin Keram of physical and sexual abuse. This is how bad it was:
Khalida Popal, one of the original players on the women’s team and a longtime manager, said Mr. Keram had sexually harassed players in a bedroom in his office. She said that the bedroom had been rigged so that it could be opened only from the inside with his fingerprint scan, and that he trapped women there. “The president of A.F.F. and some trainers are raping and sexually harassing female players,” Ms. Popal said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
Keram was permanently banned by FIFA. The problem of sexual harassment is endemic across the world—from Australia to Netherlands, Zambia and Barbados.
The bottomline: This story hardly needs one, right?
Independent has the best profile of Rubiales. The Washington Post has the timeline and details of the team’s rebellion against Vilda. The Guardian has a damning list of all the football-playing nations tarnished by MeToo allegations. The Guardian also has the best column calling out misogyny in women’s football. Another good read: The Conversation on why football needs a gender revolution.