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It took Luis Rubiales’ public behavior to validate Spain players’ concerns

Jorge Vilda and Luis Rubiales were at the center of the original complaints from Spain's "Las 15." (Alex Pantling - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Spanish federation president Luis Rubiales has refused to resign from his position in the aftermath of the scandal at the Women’s World Cup final, despite reports that he would do so on Friday.

Rubiales was seen non-consensually kissing player Jenni Hermoso during the medal ceremony and making a lewd gesture in the stands at the end of the game. His actions have come under fire in the days following the Spain women’s national team’s first World Cup win. During an emergency meeting among Spain’s soccer federation (RFEF) members on Friday, where reports had indicated Rubiales would resign, he instead staunchly defended his actions and refused to bend to public pressure.

“They’ve told me that the best thing would be to resign because if not, probably on Monday it would occur to someone to kick me out of the forum, find the formula,” Rubiales said in his speech. “But we’re in a country where the law rules, where there has to be a motive to take you out of some place. And I say: what is it I’ve done? A consensual peck is enough to get me out of here?”

The immediate aftermath of the shocking moment and the World Cup win itself was chaotic. Hermoso was seen saying on teammate Salma Paralluelo’s Instagram Live stream that she didn’t enjoy the kiss. Then, Rubiales was filmed making jokes about it in the locker room, including that he and Hermoso would get married in Ibiza.

Once it became clear the story wasn’t going away, Spain’s soccer federation, RFEF, issued a statement on Hermoso’s behalf downplaying the incident. It was later reported that the statement was not made with her full participation, which RFEF denies.

Rubiales put out a video statement apologizing for how the kiss was perceived and was met with a public outcry. Prominent players like the USWNT’s Megan Rapinoe and Sweden’s Caroline Seger, and coaches like the San Diego Wave’s Casey Stoney, condemned Rubiales and his actions.

“I want the whole world to react,” Seger told a Swedish newspaper, “and I want something to happen because it’s clear that there are problems in RFEF. If people think it’s not wrong, it’s just not acceptable!”

Spanish politicians have also condemned Rubiales’s actions. Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s acting prime minister, said Rubiales’ apology “wasn’t sufficient.” Futpro, the Spanish players’ union, said it would investigate inappropriate actions on Hermoso’s behalf in conjunction with TMJ, Hermoso’s agency. Liga F, Spain’s premier women’s domestic league, called for Rubiales’ resignation.

“It is time to take a step forward,” Liga F’s statement read. “The opposite would be a humiliation for all women and the biggest defeat of Spanish sport and our country.”

Beatriz Álvarez Mesa, President of Liga F, went one step further in her comments.

“Those of us inside know that he has never done anything for women’s football,” she said this week. “He creates obstacles and inconveniences. Luis Rubiales has never believed, nor will he believe, in women and their role in soccer.”

Rapinoe also alluded to the larger issues following the Spanish federation both before and after the World Cup. Rubiales’ behavior signaled “such a deep level of misogyny and sexism in that federation and in that man,” she told The Atlantic this week.

In fact, Spain has been shrouded in controversy for over a year. Even as the team reached new heights at the international level, they were followed by the story of “Las 15,” the 15 players who refused call-ups to the senior team due to issues with federation resources and the management of coach Jorge Vilda.

In the letter “Las 15” originally sent to the federation, those specific issues weren’t shared in detail, though players said the culture was having an “important effect on my emotional state and by extension my health.” A report in The Athletic elaborated on some of the complaints, which included allegations that the coaching staff requested hotel doors remain open until midnight and the intrusive searching of player belongings.

RFEF — led by Rubiales — quickly condemned “Las 15,” sticking by Vilda’s management and demanding contrition from protesting players in order to have a chance to play in the World Cup. Three players — Aitana Bonmatí, Ona Batlle and Mariona Caldentey — returned to the team, and the group made it all the way to the World Cup trophy lift despite intense internal tension.

The USWNT’s Christen Press had expressed hope that Spain’s World Cup success would give players greater leverage to effect change inside their federation, but that reality has played out differently. In a strange way, swift public reaction to internal complaints only came in the moment that Rubiales felt that he too had won.

He had been quoted in the Spanish media as feeling vindicated by Spain’s success in the World Cup prior to the final, celebrating what he saw as a few naysayers being proven wrong. He also initially called the backlash to his behavior “idiotic,” telling Spanish radio station Cope: “We do not pay any attention to idiots and stupid people. It was a peck between two friends celebrating something.”

Jennifer Hermoso celebrates Spain's World Cup win on Sunday. (Photo by Joe Prior/Visionhaus via Getty Images)

The defiance immediately after the final whistle blew wasn’t relegated to individuals. The official social media channel for the Spain women’s national team posted a photo of Vilda with the caption “Vilda In,” appearing to directly reference criticisms of the team’s head coach. For a few brief moments, those who had reprimanded “Las 15” so fiercely had appeared to get what they wanted — validation by winning on the field.

As disheartening as it is to see, those attitudes have long held a place in sports, and specifically in women’s sports.

“You can be a fantastic football coach, absolutely fantastic, and you can be an absolutely horrible human being and not deserve to be in a position,” Gotham FC and USWNT player Midge Purce said on “The 91st” podcast. And her perspective is hard-won.

“We’ve seen it in the NWSL when we had to get rid of coaches, because the very thing existed. We had a coach who was the most winningest coach in the league, in league history, and he was abusing the players,” Purce continued, referring to the culture of abuse under Paul Riley while he was a head coach in the NWSL.

“I don’t really see this line of reasoning, which is ‘you win, you must stay,’ and I think prioritizes the values of society really, really poorly. What a dangerous message to send to not just young women but young men as well.”

The aftermath of the incident also showcased the pressures Spain’s players have likely been feeling for months. Hermoso downplayed the kiss in a radio interview, calling it “just a small thing.” But the 33-year-old midfielder also reportedly refused to appear alongside Rubiales in his apology video, despite pleas from both Rubiales and Vilda, and she supports those urging appropriate action be taken.

The good news is that Rubiales’ brazenness in the moment has caught the attention of those with far more influence than any individual player.

“What it does is it licenses me to speculate a lot, way more than I was before,” said Purce. “And the amount, the speculation that I have is very damning. And my heart is with the players, and I hope that it concludes in the way that is beneficial to them.”

With FIFA’s interest in the case, hope is renewed that the internal reform many have hoped for inside Spain’s federation might soon come to fruition, despite Rubiales’ adamant denials. Let’s also hope that next time, it won’t take egregious behavior in the public eye for those in power to take serious action.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.