Se acabó. It’s over.
On the evening of 26 September, a little over a month after their dominant victory against England in Sydney, Australia, Irene Paredes with Alexia Putellas, shared captains of the Spanish national football team, hoisted the World Cup trophy above their heads.
What followed was a 5-0 routing of Switzerland, in front of a record 14,194 attendance witnessing their idols’ first home game after their win down under. What should have been marked as a celebration of their feats, became a sombre occasion in the backdrop of a tumultuous month, littered with threats, incompetence, and a sweeping feeling of sadness.
A celebration of their victory has been spoiled since the aftermath of the final whistle on 20 August. Their winning medal ceremony was marred by Luis Rubiales, Royal Spanish Football Federation president, grabbing an un-consenting Jennifer Hermoso and kissing her on the lips. Coverage of the president after the ceremony also showed him grabbing his crotch, a suggestive gesture, next to Queen Letizia of Spain.
Heavy criticism followed, with various Spanish clubs and national football bodies around the world calling for his resignation. Like any man undeservedly in a position of power, Rubiales went down kicking and screaming. He, alongside World Cup manager Jorge Vilda, manufactured and issued a fake statement of support from Hermoso, which her union, Futpro, denied. Even that wasn’t as farcical as the general meeting called by the RFEF on 25 August.
On 1 September, Spain’s Sport Administrative Tribunal opened a case of a “serious” breach of conduct
It was leaked by Rubiales himself that he would be resigning, only to end up refusing to stand down. “I will not resign, I will not resign” he exclaimed to the audience, believing himself to be a victim of “a social assassination”.
A lack of accountability from the perpetrator’s side was shocking. On 26 August Rubiales was suspended by FIFA, for just three months, though it took until 10 September for him to resign. On 1 September, Spain’s Sport Administrative Tribunal opened a case of a “serious” breach of conduct, though not “very serious”, meaning the Spanish government, with the Spanish national team’s support, was not able to suspend Rubiales.
The RFEF still ended up not being the one to terminate his contract. This also isn’t the first instance of inadequate support given to the national team from the RFEF. In September of 2022, ‘Las 15’ became mainstream. One look at Jorge Vilda’s managerial career tells you all you need to know of his expertise, and while the ability to draw from a star-studded playing career does not need to feature in a manager’s repertoire, having a playing career that ended aged 18 doesn’t look incredible either.
Protesting Vilda’s authoritarian style and the low standard quality of coaching in the national setup, an email from fifteen national team players, including Aitana Bonmatí, was sent to the RFEF. The email was leaked to the press, in which the 15 reiterated the withdrawal of their name from selection for the foreseeable future.
FIFA, Gianni Infantino specifically, used the Women’s World Cup to tell women to “pick the right fights” and “push the door” to equality
A poor UEFA Women’s European Championship performance, coupled with the general unease in the Spanish camp, still was not worthy of Vilda’s termination. Supported by the RFEF, Jorge Vilda was able to not call up any of ‘Las 15’, nor those who publicly supported their cause. The RFEF refused to acknowledge the players and their cause, the fight became more individual rather than collective, and in the build-up to the 2023 World Cup, players were given a spot back in the squad through an apology.
FIFA, Gianni Infantino specifically, used the Women’s World Cup to tell women to “pick the right fights” and “push the door” to equality. FIFA’s stance over the whole ordeal gives the impression that women footballers are inessential, compared to men.
Luis Rubiales was suspended “from all football-related activities at national and international level … for an initial period of 90 days”. It’s hard to believe an action caught on camera involving a male footballer as the victim would have had such a lenient sentence or have been dealt with in such a slow manner. It took six days, up until 26 August, for FIFA to act in any way at all.
At no point publicly was there the threat of sanctions for the RFEF, staunch defenders of the toxic environment developed by Rubiales and Vilda. All of Rubiales’ statements came through the federation, all written in a legal and condescending tone, all while he was still a federation employee. RFEF, to FIFA’s suspension, said “Luis Rubiales has stated that he will legally defend himself in the competent bodies, he fully trusts FIFA and reiterates that, in this way, he is allowed to begin his defence so that the truth prevails, and his complete innocence is proven.”
Later that very same day, the federation resorted to gaslighting Hermoso, outright blaming her of changing her version of events, exclaiming “no matter how many statements you put out to distort reality, it is impossible to change what happened.”
Throughout the whole state of affairs, UEFA declined to comment, believing pure silence was better for the players in their jurisdiction
FIFA is meant to be the protector of the players. The suspension ordered Rubiales “to refrain, through himself or third parties, from contacting or attempting to contact Ms. Jennifer Hermoso or her close environment”, but a statement from the RFEF written on his behalf, broadcast to the whole of the footballing world, does immeasurably more damage. A man, combined with dozens of powerful people, attempted to alter history, and yet FIFA stood still.
UEFA themselves handled the situation even worse. One day after Rubiales’ resignation, UEFA was hosting a large group of players and coaches involved in the women’s game. With his resignation, Rubiales also stepped down as vice-president of UEFA as well as president of the RFEF. Yet throughout the whole state of affairs UEFA declined to comment, believing pure silence was better for the players in their jurisdiction.
Two footballing bodies, arguably the two biggest in the world, made it clear that, when it came to women’s football, the women weren’t important – themselves and their business friends were. Infantino was happy for FIFA to not lose any money on the Women’s World Cup, rather than address the huge disparity in prize money between the men’s and women’s game.
“#SeAcabó – Our fight is the global fight”
UEFA ended their conference, convened to further women’s football, by thanking the former vice-president “for his many years of service”. The number of public relations officers both FIFA and UEFA have on hand nullifies the belief that the two organisations were tone deaf, more that they would rather back their friends than their players.
Would this happen with the men? It’s doubtful that national football bodies would dare to disrespect their men’s national team in the same way the Spanish federation disrespected its women’s team. In support of Hermoso, players demanded that the “federation leadership be removed”, and, like a year prior, would not play until that was achieved. This time the collective was greater.
The whole Women’s World Cup squad and others, totalling 56 players, stood together. Montse Tomé may have replaced Vilda; however, Tomé was an assistant to the authoritarian, and an apple never falls far from the tree. The group’s message was clear. On 17 of September, the 56 intended to go on strike. Tomé selected the majority of the winning World Cup squad anyway. The threat of fines, and playing license suspensions, meant the squad picked had to show up for training.
The Spanish contingency believed the FIFA regulations saved them, and gave them a legal leg to stand on. But the threat was never defended by FIFA for the players. As Spain entered the stage at Córdoba with the Switzerland squad they displayed a banner: “#SeAcabó – Our fight is the global fight”. Symbolic. It is the players sticking up for each other, no footballing bodies, no one from power.