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2023 Women's World Cup

Embattled RFEF president Rubiales vows to fight, but is facing suspension by CSD

Photo Copyright Keith McInnes for SPP

It’s been less than a week since Spain was crowned FIFA Women’s World Cup champions. Instead of being able to celebrate the huge victory, the news cycle has been dominated by the conduct of Spanish Football Association (RFEF) President Luis Rubiales after he was filmed behaving lewdly while celebrating Spain’s victory and forcing a nonconsensual kiss on star striker Jenni Hermoso.

On Friday, widespread reporting indicated that Royal Spanish Football Association (RFEF) president Luis Rubiales would resign, but instead, Rubiales stood before an assembled RFEF and vowed would fight any attempts to remove him. Despite his protestations, Victor Francos, President of the High Council for Sports (Consejo Superior de Deportes or CSD in Spanish), suspended Rubiales and announced that the government would summon him before the Spanish Court of Arbitration.

How did the Spanish federation fall into such disarray a mere five days after being crowned first-time world champions? And how will this impact the players’ continued battle against their head coach, Jorge Vilda, and federation for subpar treatment? Let’s break down everything that happened in these whirlwind few days and what it might mean for the women’s team moving forward.

How it happened

The controversy began when Rubiales brazenly forced a nonconsensual kiss on the lips of Jenni Hermoso while she stood on the podium receiving her medal. However, she was captured on an Instagram live-stream saying that she “didn’t like it.” RFEF later released a statement, attributed to Hermoso, downplaying the incident and saying it was “a spontaneous gesture” between two people celebrating. They also posted a video of Rubiales offering an apology for his behavior.

Very quickly, the validity of Hermoso’s supposed statement was called into question as Spanish media outlet Relevo declared that it was written by RFEF’s communications department without consulting with Hermoso. Relevo further claimed that the federation desperately tried to get Hermoso to appear in Rubiales’ apology video but the striker refused.

Hermoso eventually released her own statement through her agency. It said that her agency, TMJ, and union, FUTPRO, “are responsible for defending my interests and acting as spokespersons on this matter.” Their course of action is not yet clear as the agency added in the statement that “[i]n collaboration with Jennifer Hermoso and FUTPRO, TMJ is assessing the most appropriate actions to take.”

In addition to the nonconsensual kiss, Rubiales was also filmed grabbing his genitals in celebration shortly after the final whistle. This gesture was considered by many to be extra distasteful because he was standing next to Spain’s Queen Letizia at the time.

The firestorm of controversy eventually prompted Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to condemn Rubiales’ actions: “What we saw was an unacceptable gesture. Apologies have not been enough. They are not suitable.”

Culture and Sport Minister Miquel Iceta has also condemned Rubiales’ behavior, as did a still-growing number of leaders across Spanish football, as seen in the below Twitter thread.

The Fédération Internationale des Associations de Footballeurs Professionnels, the worldwide representative organization for professional footballers, went even further and requested “an investigation of his actions under FIFA’s code of ethics.”

The Asociación de Futbolistas Profesionales (FUTPRO) also released a statement signed by players from around the world.

Finally, on Thursday, FIFA announced they would be opening disciplinary proceedings against Rubiales. With news that FIFA’s investigation, reports that Rubiales would resign were widespread. Instead, he stood before RFEF and declared he was being “socially assassinated” and blamed “false feminism” for the attacks against him. Furthermore, Semra Hunter with Sky Sports News reported he once again claimed the kiss with Hermoso was consensual and that he kissed her “as if she were his daughter.”

“Is a consensual peck enough to get me out of here? I will fight to the end,” exclaimed Rubiales.

He further raised eyebrows when he declared he would not just keep head coach Jorge Vilda in charge of the women’s team, but he would sign him to a four-year extension. Vilda has faced years of pushback from the women’s team for controlling behavior such as not allowing players to lock doors to their hotel rooms before he personally checks on them and forced checks of their bags by coaching staff every time they return to their hotels. Relations between Vilda and the players got so bad that prior to the World Cup, 15 players removed themselves from contention in protest of his role as head coach.

Backlash against the embattled president only increased in the face of his defiance. International soccer player union FIFPRO also called for immediate disciplinary action against him and teammates of Hermoso including Alexia Putellas began to tweet out supportive messages. And only a few hours after his vow to fight removal, the CSD announced they would suspend him from his duties and call him in to testify in front of the Spanish Court of Arbitration.

What’s next for Spain?

While at first glance Rubiales’ suspension may seem like it can only be a net positive for the Spanish players, it has yet to be seen how much of a difference it will make. The fact that the president refused to step down after such brazen behavior — forcefully kissing a player against her will on the podium in front of thousands of witnesses and grabbing his crotch next to his nation’s monarch — demonstrates just how safe and secure he feels in his position. The applause he received from his federation as he declared his refusal to step down only reinforces how empowered he remains.

The fact that CSD is taking action, FIFA is investigating, and prominent figures how spoken out against him are positive signs, but until he is fully removed form his duties and his replacement is made public, it’s hard to know if there will be any real progress. After all, while Rubiales has gotten the lion’s share of attention, he’s not the only one who’s been caught misbehaving. While celebrating Spain’s lone goal in their 1-0 victory over England in the World Cup final, head coach Vilda was filmed grabbing and squeezing the breast of a female assistant.

In response to ongoing player protests, RFEF leadership has only stood more firmly behind Vilda. After the World Cup victory, the official account of the women’s team tweeted out, “Vilda in” with a picture of him kissing the trophy. Will Rubiales’ seeming inevitable departure be enough to dislodge Vilda or change the culture of the federation enough to provide a safe and progressive environment for the players? At this point, it’s almost impossible to tell.

The greatest tragedy of this whole situation, of course, is that Hermoso and her teammates are unable to just enjoy the incredible achievement of winning a World Cup. Instead, they’ve been publically subjected to the boorish behavior of the men in power above them and have to relive it endlessly with every new development. They’ve achieved the greatest accomplishment in the sport of football and yet the entire storyline is dominated by the mistreatment they’ve suffered. That’s, frankly, tragic and it just emphasizes the need for change.

Increasingly, the women are receiving support from their male counterparts, both past and present, however. Former Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas tweeted, “What an embarrassment,” following Rubiales’ diatribe on Friday. “We should have spent the last five days talking about our women players, about the joy they gave us all! About how proud we are that they gave us a title that we didn’t have in women’s soccer. Instead…”

Additionally, Real Betis forward Borja Iglesias who has been called up to the national team stated that he would not play for his country again, “until things change.”

These public statements of support for the women players plus the high-level investigations are reasons to be positive. Even if progress is slow, the fact public outcry forced FIFA to open disciplinary proceedings and the government to suspend Rubialas within a week are still important steps in the right direction.

Though the players have stated that they want to focus on their victory and not the controversies that have sadly drowned out much of their celebrations, there’s no question their platform has risen to a new height. They may finally have the public support they need to push for further progress.

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