How Spain's World Cup win and Rubiales' kiss could reshape football
The future of the Spanish FA boss hangs in the balance. But for women’s football, the backlash against Luis Rubiales and the stunning World Cup win could pave a path to a brighter future.
Two weeks on from Spain's triumph over England in the women's World Cup, young players training in the fading heat of a late Friday afternoon at CCF Olympia Las Rozas — a team located just north-west of Madrid — are evidently still basking in the afterglow.
"It means a lot for us as football players, because now the world puts us on the map," 23-year-old midfielder Lucia Fernandez told DW. "It's very important for us and for the little girls coming through, because now they have a reference, which is something that we didn't have in our time."
Moreover, as her teammate 18-year-old Marta Buendia explained to DW during warm-ups, something about this World Cup just felt different. "There was much more support around," Buendia said. "Usually only the Americans watch (women's) football."
Buendia is right, as proven by the record-smashing TV viewing figures. In Spain, close to 6 million watched the final, while in England more than 12 million tuned in at peak audience time. Match ticket sales in traditionally football-ambivalent host nation Australia also massively outstripped the target of 1.5 million, to the delight of FIFA.
In fact, a report published last month by the world football governing body hailed improving professional opportunities and commercial prospects as well as a huge increase in the number of women and girls playing organised football: almost 25 per cent since 2019, reaching 16.6 million worldwide.
The historic win should be good news for the women's game in Spain, translating into more interest and more financial support, CCF Olympia Las Rozas sports director Ana de la Chica said. "What we have shown with what we have achieved here is that if you invest in women's sport, you always get good results," the 38-year-old said.
In short, it's a good moment for women's football in Spain. Except for the elephant in the room.
A historic victory eclipsed by scandal
There is one topic no one at CCF Olympia Las Rozas wants to discuss: Luis Rubiales, the disgraced president of the Spanish football association (RFEF) and the kiss he foisted on forward Jenni Hermoso during the award ceremony. She quickly made clear it was not consensual, but Rubiales maintains that it was and has flat-out refused to resign.
Facing investigation into whether the incident amounts to sexual assault and having been suspended by FIFA, the 46-year-old's position is looking increasingly untenable. Initially, the Spanish FA rallied around him, accusing Hermoso of lying and threatening to sue her. Last Monday, the same organisation called for Rubiales' resignation, saying he had "seriously damaged the image of Spanish football".
With a huge social media backlash, condemnations from prominent footballers and dozens of street protests staged, Nadia Tronchoni, sports editor-in-chief at Spain's El Pais newspaper, believes it is only a matter of time before Rubiales is stripped of his power for the long term.
He still has some defenders, Tronchoni told DW, many of them in the male-dominated Spanish football association. Not to mention his mother, Angeles Bejar, who announced a hunger strike to support him last week.
Much more than a (forced) kiss
For the World Cup-winning team, the problems go much deeper than one man's behaviour at the World Cup final. They are about structural inequalities and a fractured relationship with coach Jorge Vilda.
For years now, many of Spain's top women players have called for more respect, money and staff to be committed to their game. They say they want greater professionalism from the RFEF and salaries that reflect their status as athletes.
Late last year, 15 players indicated they would not represent the country unless there was change, saying the situation was taking a toll on their health and emotional state. The RFEF under Rubiales sided resolutely with Vilda and condemned the players for "scheming" in an incendiary statement that raised the prospect of legal action.
Despite the fiery reaction, some positive changes were made, according to Tronchoni. Ultimately three of those 15 players — including Ballon d'Or winner Aitana Bonmati — decided to play at the World Cup.
Given the simmering conflict, the RFEF president and team coach's swaggering behaviour have been even more jarring, she said. "They made a big exhibition of winning this World Cup."
Rubiales was also seen grabbing his crotch just metres away from Queen Letizia and her teenage daughter during the final. For Tronchoni, the message from the two men appeared to be: "It's because we did it, us men. We warned these girls, we stayed on our feet, and we did what we wanted. And now we won."
An echo heard far beyond the football pitch
Rubiales views himself as the victim of a manhunt. During his speech to the RFEF — where according to Tronchoni only 6 of the 140 in the assembly were women — he blasted "fake feminism, a great scourge in our country".
It is true that his actions have touched a nerve well beyond the world of football. On the evening of 1 September, protesters gathered in several Spanish cities, including Madrid, organised by a left-wing student group. Demonstrators at the capital's Puerta del Sol plaza held up signs reading "down with rape culture" and "resign!"
"We're basically calling him out, telling him 'please go', because right now what everyone's talking about is not the great triumph for the champions of women's football. They're talking about this man," a 25-year-old named Isabel told DW.
The widespread condemnation, which even saw far-right party VOX slam his behaviour, although also decrying a left-wing "political and media hunt" against him, can be read as a sign of change.
"The best thing that this unwanted kiss has done was show us that society has understood feminist culture," Tronchoni said. The backlash against Rubiales was natural and quick, according to the sports journalist. "The country is a lot more feminist than it was five years ago."
Your move, RFEF
The question is whether this will also change the women's game. After Rubiales speech, when he stressed five times that he would not resign, more than 80 of Spain's best women players, including all 23 World Cup winners, announced a strike on representing the nation. And last week, unions representing athletes playing in Spain's top flight La Liga announced they could also strike over pay when the season starts this month.
What is different now is that the RFEF can no longer simply dismiss the demands made by the women's team, Tronchoni claimed: "We're going to believe them when they say we need to change, when they say this is not professionalism, when they say we need to be respected. This is not acceptable."
CCF Olympia las Rozas sports manager de la Chica has witnessed her own team blossom since it was set up in 2015: "We started with 13 girls and now we have more than 350. And after the World Cup win, the telephone has been ringing and we have even more.
"What we are looking for now is the visibility that gets us opportunities and that allows girls to develop in a safe environment with the best possible tools."