It wasn’t the image the 2023 Women’s World Cup deserved. It deserved Sam Kerr’s effortless semi-final strike to keep the home nation’s hopes alive. It deserved an exuberant Jamaican team holding on by the narrowest of margins to knock Brazil out in the group stages. It deserved Mary Earps’ exquisite penalty save and subsequent heroic outburst to spur on her demoralised England compatriots in the final. A Rocky-style montage could hardly do the tournament justice.
But no. What it got was the now former Spanish Football Federation president Luis Rubiales planting a non-consensual kiss on the lips of Silver Ball winner Jennifer Hermoso during the globally televised trophy presentation. What ought to have been the culmination of four incredible weeks of football, drawing record-breaking crowds from across the globe to one of the greatest examples of the game in its history, has now had its legacy indelibly tarnished. It was a day to honour a part of the game that has repeatedly been ignored, underfunded, ridiculed, and even banned. But rather than discussing a vibrant and inspired Spanish national team that already had to overcome an inept head coach and a deeply flawed Federation, we are discussing the actions of a man who violated players’ personal boundaries and undermined the image of the event. Yet again. But fundamentally, it is a discussion that needs to be had.
The fiasco of the kiss and its aftermath has been painful to watch. The sight of someone attempting to gaslight millions of people into thinking that what they saw on live television was not, in fact, what they saw on live television tends to have that effect. It is fair to say that Luis Rubiales’ conduct during the World Cup celebrations was less than dignified: grabbing his crotch in the stands while standing next to Queen Letizia and her daughter, inappropriate contact with players on both sides during the medal presentation, lifting Athenea del Castillo over his shoulder, and the kiss itself. It’s a list of actions of which any decent person should, and would, be ashamed. Yet despite almost universal criticism, Rubiales only ever apologised for one solitary incident, that of his indecency in the presence of royalty.
Rubiales not only refused to apologise, but he continued to protest his innocence. On August 25th he made a speech in front of assembled officials from the Federation, a room with a conspicuous lack of women, during which he posed himself as the victim and Hermoso as part of a conspiracy to remove him from power. It was a speech heaving with paranoid delusion, climaxing with the now beautifully ironic line “I will not resign!” repeated five times. A day later he was suspended by FIFA.
And yet, just over two weeks later, in a Trussian change of direction, Rubiales announced his resignation on TalkTV in an Interview with Piers Morgan, now seemingly the only port of call for aggrieved footballing figures seeking to air any dirty laundry. In the intervening weeks Rubiales faced calls from the government, the National Sports Council and the Federation’s regional leaders to step down. As days passed and he dug in his heels yet further, he began to haemorrhage supporters, with UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin labelling his conduct as “inappropriate” and even his close ally Alejandro Blanco of the Spanish Olympic Committee adding to the cacophony of voices calling for his departure.
The combination of the risk towards Spain’s joint bid to host the 2030 World Cup with Portugal, Morocco, and Ukraine, as well as the serious legal proceedings that face Rubiales in the coming weeks, which accuse him of sexual assault and coercion, made his position wholly untenable, and his resignation all but inevitable.
The legal process began on Friday September 15th, as Rubiales appeared in court to answer questions for almost 45 minutes during his statement, maintaining that the kiss was consensual in front of Judge Francisco de Jorge. Later that day, the prosecution announced that by court order Rubiales would be prohibited from coming within 500 metres of Hermoso and that he was forbidden to contact her in any way while the investigation takes place. Hermoso’s lawyer, Carla Vall, stated after the day’s proceedings that “We are very satisfied with today’s statement. We can continue to maintain that it was a non-consensual kiss. There was no form of consent and that is what we will show in court.”
Already teetering on a knife edge given the frosty relationship between former coach Jorge Vilda and the women’s national team, the situation regarding the national selection and the Federation reached its chaotic peak following Rubiales’ behaviour in Stadium Australia. 39 players, including all but two of the squad members that won this year’s World Cup, released a communication which demanded the resignation of the RFEF president, Rubiales, and the restructuring of the hierarchy of Spanish women’s football, of the president and general secretary’s cabinet, of the Federation’s integrity guidelines and of the organisation’s communication and marketing systems. So far, only Rubiales’ resignation has occurred.
Luis Rubiales is symptomatic of the antiquated undercurrents that still pervade women’s football, both internationally and domestically. Spain wasn’t the only country to experience issues between its women’s national team and their national federation. We saw pay disputes take place in Canada, Jamaica and Nigeria, and even the Lionesses came to blows over bonus payments. Key members of the French national side refused to play under former coach Corinne Diacre after they received no specific coaching, no assistant manager and limited access to medical treatment. These are merely some of the high profile cases that dominated the news cycle prior to teams’ arrivals in Australia and New Zealand, and many smaller nations experienced difficulties on and off the pitch with regard to their non-playing staff. Zambia, competing in its first World Cup, did so while dealing with a manager, Bruce Mwape, facing allegations of sexual assault.
The women’s game, especially in Britain, has gone from strength to strength in recent years, while facing ever mounting criticism due to its increased media exposure, and the 2023 World Cup was no exception. But what the case of Luis Rubiales demonstrates is the ever-present imbalance of power that exists between the upper echelons of football and those trying to make their way through the obstacle course of professional sport. This manifests itself in a relationship that is often exploitative, abusive and dangerous. The game is only just hitting its stride, and to see everything that players and supporters alike have worked for collapse due to forces outside the field of play, as it did with the UK’s 1921 ban on the sport, would constitute a global failing.
However, it is hoped that with the removal of Rubiales and those around him, as well as the official legal proceedings still currently taking place and the restructuring of the Spanish Federation, can and will be the catalyst for a more fundamental change at all levels of women’s football. The case of Luis Rubiales is far from closed, but by confronting his actions, we can begin to confront the systematic problems of the game to create a nurturing and safe environment for everyone to enjoy, not just those at the very top.
Image: Wikimedia Commons