The Spanish women’s national soccer team won the World Cup last week. They made a formidable showing in the final match, outplaying England for the vast majority of the game and handily winning 1–0. When the final whistle blew, the Spanish players erupted in ecstasy. There were tears, screams of joy, and group hugs. It was the country’s first-ever victory in the Women’s World Cup, and in the players’ jubilation it showed.
Minutes later, Luis Rubiales, the president of the Spanish soccer federation (RFEF), would commit an act in front of the entire stadium and tens of millions of broadcast viewers around the world that would dominate the global conversation about the team’s historic win, robbing the players of the unsullied moment in the spotlight they deserved.
It happened on the stage at the postgame medal ceremony. Each Spanish player filed down a line of top soccer officials, shaking hands and accepting her medal. When the players got to Rubiales, who was visibly brimming with joy, he embraced them. He planted passionate kisses on their cheeks and necks. He lifted some women off the ground. And when star player Jenni Hermoso arrived, Rubiales held her by the head and kissed her on the mouth.
I was watching the ceremony on live TV, and Rubiales’ manhandling was so blatant I could hardly believe what I was seeing. Knowing nothing about the Spanish soccer authority, I assumed he must be close with the players, maybe a beloved former coach. There was no way a prominent official would kiss a woman without consent on a global stage with millions of people looking on.
I was wrong, of course. Men have always foisted surprise, unwanted kisses on unsuspecting women. Often, they have done so in front of cameras. It’s a way to take advantage of exactly the reaction I had while watching Rubiales—the conviction that something so flagrant couldn’t possibly be a violation—and to ensure that a woman is too shocked and embarrassed to make a stink or put up a fight. Bystanders assume that everything is fine because to protest or intervene would demand an uncomfortable (and, in some circumstances, dangerous) confrontation. This makes public spaces zones of temporary impunity.
After the medal ceremony, during the Spanish team’s celebration in the locker room, Hermoso streamed a live video on Instagram. She had just accepted the Silver Ball award, the honor for the player who gets the second-most votes for the top player of the World Cup. Responding to a question about the kiss from off camera, she said, with a laugh, “No me ha gustado, eh.” (In English: “I didn’t like it.”)
Then, when Rubiales visited the locker room to announce that RFEF was sending the team on a trip to Ibiza, he joked that they would be observing “the wedding of Jenni and Luis Rubiales.”
In the week and a half since then, amid mounting pressure from Hermoso’s team members, the Spanish government, and the international soccer community to impose consequences on Rubiales, Rubiales and RFEF have disgraced themselves further by stubbornly insisting that the kiss was consensual and that Rubiales’ critics were “idiots” and “fake feminists.”
And all the while, instead of reveling in their glory and enjoying their brief window of global acclaim, the World Cup winners have been forced to spend the aftermath of their victory organizing against their employer.
The Spanish team’s discontent with RFEF and Rubiales began long before this incident. In 2016 a staffer for the players union accused Rubiales of multiple instances of humiliating sexual harassment. As the head of RFEF, he presided over the poor working conditions and unprofessional conduct of manager Jorge Vilda that led 15 players to refuse to play on the national team last year unless Vilda was fired. Instead of taking their demands seriously, Rubiales’ RFEF refused to budge and required the players to apologize to Vilda or be banned from the national team for years. Twelve of the 15 were left off the World Cup roster.
The events of the past week and a half show that Rubiales’ contempt for the players who just won his federation a world championship has only grown since their boycott.
Here’s a rundown of everything that went down after Spain’s World Cup triumph on Aug. 20: Soon after the kiss, when asked about initial negative responses from viewers, Rubiales told a reporter, “When two people have a minor show of affection, we can’t listen to idiocy.” Then, RFEF released a statement that it claimed came from Hermoso, calling the kiss “a totally spontaneous mutual gesture due to the immense joy of winning a World Cup” and “a natural gesture of affection and gratitude”; she and Rubiales “have a great relationship,” it went on, and “his behavior toward all of us has been outstanding.”
It later came out that the statement had been written and released without any participation from Hermoso. Rubiales reportedly pressed Hermoso to make an appearance in the cursory apology video he released the day after the kiss—she refused—and people continued to push for Rubiales’ resignation. In a press conference last week, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said, “I also believe that the apologies that Mr. Rubiales has given are not enough.”
But on Friday, at an RFEF assembly, Rubiales repeatedly, defiantly refused to step down. He would “fight to the end,” he said, and promised to pursue legal action against anyone who called the kiss “assault.” He claimed that Hermoso had been responsible for the kiss. (“She was the one who lifted me up and brought me closer to her body. And I said to her, ‘A peck?’ and she said, ‘OK,’ ” he said.) Rubiales also called the criticism he has incurred a “social assassination” and offered a new four-year contract to Vilda—who applauded supportively in the audience as Rubiales bad-mouthed his team.
Hours later, dozens of the Spanish players released a new statement through their union. They would refuse to play for Spain if Rubiales remained in charge, the statement said, denouncing “behaviors that have violated the dignity of women.” Hermoso clarified in the statement that “at no time did I consent to the kiss that he gave me.” Hermoso also said that she and her family and friends had been pressured to back Rubiales in the press.
On Saturday, RFEF issued its most aggressive statement yet against Hermoso. “We have to state that Ms. Jennifer Hermoso lies in every statement she makes against the president,” read the since-deleted statement, which threatened legal action against her. That same day, FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, provisionally suspended Rubiales from all “football-related activities.”
Meanwhile, Rubiales’ mother locked herself in a church in Andalusia and began a hunger strike. It will continue, she said, until the “inhuman, bloodthirsty witch hunt which my son is being subjected to” ceases. I wish I were joking.
It wasn’t until Spanish prosecutors announced the opening of an investigation against Rubiales on potential charges of sexual aggression that RFEF backed down. The organization finally asked for Rubiales’ resignation on Monday, more than a week after the kiss.
At Defector, Albert Burneko persuasively argued that RFEF’s much-delayed move toward accountability (only after issuing several statements smearing its own players) has the potential to change the game for Spanish women’s soccer far more than any immediate action against Rubiales would have. “In combination with the World Cup win, a hasty and quiet resignation by Rubiales risked making Spain’s national soccer infrastructure and culture look healthier and more progressive than they actually are,” Burneko writes, “and may have allowed the media and public to metabolize this whole sequence of events as merely the story of a single monstrous indiscretion—attributable perhaps to a joyful and tragically over-voluptuous Latinate heart—followed by an appropriately chastened and modern response.”
Because Rubiales and RFEF were too blinded by their own egos and machismo to treat the players right, support their historic win in an appropriate fashion, and, barring that, admit wrongdoing and accept proper consequences, they ended up proving exactly what they were so eager to deny. Their entire response was a catastrophic miscalculation of the power balance between Spain’s soccer governing body and the players—a balance that has been shifting in athletic organizations all over the world in recent years.
Just look at the U.S. Women’s National Team, which prevailed last year in a protracted battle for equal pay that reached a fever pitch after the team won the 2019 World Cup. The team made its push for better pay a visible part of its World Cup celebrations, when it was at the height of its fame and enjoying outpourings of adulation from fans across the country. The ensuing surge of public support for the players’ campaign drove home that soccer fans come to games not because they’re fans of the U.S. Soccer Federation, which pays the players. They come to see Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe and Crystal Dunn and Rose Lavelle. When the U.S. Women’s National Team players were forced to play in worse conditions for less pay—and made it known to their admirers—it became untenable for U.S. Soccer to stand by the two-tiered system that placed greater value on the men’s team.
Likewise, the Spanish women’s team correctly assessed that the moment after its World Cup win was the right time to take a stand against an organization that had systematically undervalued and degraded its players for years. And in response, people all over the world have signaled their support. Soccer players from other countries who lost in the World Cup just a couple of weeks ago have been posting and speaking and wearing wristbands for Hermoso. Every member of Spain’s women’s coaching staff resigned in protest, except for the detested manager, Vilda. At a professional women’s soccer game in D.C. this week, attendees held signs and chanted Hermoso’s name. Multiple officials from the United Nations chimed in against Rubiales too. The guy never stood a chance.
Athletes should not have to win world championships and achieve international fame to prove themselves deserving of respect and fair pay. But incidents like these serve to remind complacent, vindictive, power-hoarding misogynists that they can no longer get away so easily with the abuses of the past. Women athletes are seizing their power as a labor force—and often, they are winning.
Earlier on the day of Spain’s World Cup win, before he forcibly kissed Hermoso, Rubiales was filmed grabbing and shaking his crotch in the stands as he celebrated the team’s gameplay. It now seems a fitting gesture for one of his last public acts as RFEF president. While the players were earning their title as the best women’s soccer team in the world, Rubiales was standing on the sidelines, being an unrepentant dick.
Update, Sept. 1, 2023: This article has been updated to more accurately characterize Luis Rubiales’ statements at Friday’s RFEF assembly.