Two victories for the world champions

Players of the Spanish soccer team. Photo owner: Paula Estelayo

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Two victories for the world champions

Written by Noelia Román

On 20 August, the women's national football team won the World Cup, and 30 days later the champions fulfilled the promise of profound changes in the federation. At the heart of this was the 'Rubiales case', a scandal that exposed the machismo and abuse of power suffered by women. Their courage sparked a real revolution. This is the story of a double victory.

World champions. World champions of the most masculine sport in the world. Champions despite everything and in the face of everything. Double champions, the players of the Spanish national team, who have decided to raise their voices once again in the face of what should not happen, but does: machismo, infantilisation and the abuse of power over women, including sportswomen.

This gesture by Spanish women footballers puts them in a privileged position to speed up the change they have been demanding and which football so desperately needs. With his clumsiness, the former president of the Spanish Football Federation, Luis Rubiales, served them up on a plate. They have seized the opportunity and, like Megan Rapinoe and her colleagues in the United States and Ada Hegerberg in Norway before them, they have embraced their social responsibility.

“We’ve just won the World Cup, but we don’t talk about it much because there are things happening that I don’t want to let go of. As a society we should not allow abuse of power in a working relationship or disrespect. We stand with you, with my colleague Jenni [Hermoso] and with all the women who are suffering in the same way. I hope that we will continue to work for the betterment of this society,” said Aitana Bonmatí after receiving the UEFA Women’s Player of the Season award.

She was alluding to the Rubiales affair, the kiss stolen from Jennifer Hermoso by the now ex-president of the federation at the World Cup final medal ceremony, which, along with the obscene gesture made by the president in the VIP box at the event, unfairly overshadowed the sporting achievements of the 23 women who played in the championship and helped pave the way for Australia and New Zealand.

It is both a pity and a good sign: society has evolved to the point where events like this can no longer be ignored. They illustrate the reality of female footballers in our country, but not only that: women, whether sportswomen or not, are usually the victims of machismo and the abuse of power by our superiors, most of whom are men. Rubiales’ behaviour has only served to highlight this in an area that many men still consider to be the exclusive domain of macho men, as the former president of the federation and his cohorts made clear on the day of the final and in their subsequent public appearances.

So it was that the popularity of football itself and the cultural advances of feminism in recent years did the unthinkable: they caused a political, social and legal uproar of international proportions. The political and social pressure that forced Rubiales to resign, and the judicial process that the former president is now facing – he did not want to resign, but ended up doing so for reasons of expediency – would not have happened five years ago. The gesture would have been considered normal, without provoking any kind of institutional or social reaction. Just like the many macho behaviours we have normalised in our daily lives.

Fortunately, there are fewer and fewer of them. The feminist wave has exposed them. In 2017, the #metoo/#me too movement opened the door to publicly denouncing sexual aggression and abuse against women. The hashtag went viral on social media in the wake of sexual abuse allegations against US film producer Harvey Weinstein. Since then, it has been used by hundreds of thousands of women around the world to declare themselves victims of sexual harassment, assault, or abuse. Some are famous (Lady Gaga, Mira Sorvino, Patricia Arquette or Juliette Binoche); most are anonymous. It began in the world of film and entertainment and has spread, less massively, to culture in general, politics and other fields.

Also in 2017, in Spain, the verdict of the so-called “La manada” trial provoked a viral reaction from thousands of women. It was triggered by an article by the director of the newspaper Público, Virginia Pérez Alonso, in which she described an assault she had suffered as a teenager. At the initiative of journalist Cristina Fallarás, the article was shared on social media using the hashtag #cuéntalo, allowing thousands of women to reveal their cases as victims of machismo. In August last year, the approval of the “only yes means yes” law made explicit consent the main element in judging cases of sexual abuse or aggression, thus introducing a gender perspective into the justice system. The heated debate that took place before and after the law was passed has helped to awaken consciences and feminise the social view of sexual abuse and abuse of power. So much so that Spanish international women footballers now speak from a position of power and not as victims, as evidenced by their slogan: “It’s over”.

For all these reasons, the development of the Rubiales case, which has reached the European Parliament, and the achievement of the World Cup are advances that should be celebrated; very much so.

A meteoric rise

Let’s not forget that just before the scandal, the Spanish players had won their first World Cup against all odds. It was only their third appearance at a World Cup (Canada 2015, France 2019 and Australia and New Zealand 2023) and they were far behind the likes of the United States, England, the Netherlands, Germany, and Japan, all of whom had previously won the competition.

How do you explain this leap from obscurity to the top in just four years? The great improvement of some of the clubs in the Spanish women’s league, the quality of the younger players, the growing but still precarious professionalism of the women’s league.

Between the last World Cup and this one, Barcelona have established themselves as one of the best teams in Europe, winning almost all their domestic titles, two Champions Leagues (2020/21 and 2022/23) and being finalists in another. Competing against the best in Europe has made the Azulgrana players better, and they form the backbone of the Spanish national team: nine of the 23 players. The most obvious examples are Alexia Putellas and Aitana Bonmatí. Between France 2019 and Australia 2023, Putellas has twice been voted the best player in the world. Bonmatí is likely to follow in her footsteps this season, having already been voted player of the year and best player at the World Cup.

As they continue to grow, Barça have benefited from Real Madrid’s decision to add a women’s team and sign some of Europe’s best players. If only for political correctness and business reasons (sponsors have seen the economic and social popularity of women’s teams), the fact that Spain’s two biggest clubs are replicating their rivalry in the women’s league raises the level of competition. If historic clubs such as Atletico de Madrid, Levante and Real Sociedad invest more in their women’s teams, the growth will be even greater.

It is still a struggle. Women footballers in Liga F had to go on strike again to win a new agreement to improve their working conditions. Their demands for more professionalism and better pay have been met with arguments that continue to underestimate the potential of women’s competitions, despite the fact that spectators have shown time and again that the product, when bet on, generates interest.

It is therefore surprising to see the excellent performance of the women’s national youth teams, which have won European Championships (U-17 and U-19) and World Cups (U-17) almost continuously in recent years. More and more girls are playing football from a very young age, either in girls’ teams or in mixed teams where they compete with boys until they are almost teenagers. This is the case of World Cup winner Ona Batlle at Unió Esportiva Vilassar. Here, the girls compensate for the greater strength of their team-mates with technique and intelligence, and this is exactly what they show later in international competitions against opponents who are often physically stronger.

The federation has been able to take advantage of this development in society – it is no longer a shock to see a girl playing football – and in the clubs in general, to the benefit of the national team. In his own way, Rubiales has chosen to increase the resources devoted to the women’s teams. It worked well for the youth teams. Not so with the senior side. After the European Championship in England (2022), most of the international players demanded better conditions to continue competing for the national team. The problem was not just the recently sacked coach Jorge Vilda. They wanted coaches, nutritionists, masseurs, psychologists, professionals and conditions that were up to the challenge ahead, as is the case with the men’s national team.

The fight was hard and intense. Often underestimated and misinterpreted – the players did not know how to publicly express what they wanted – as a tantrum of capricious girls. Nothing could be further from the truth. So much so, in fact, that before the World Cup Rubiales gave in just enough to allow many of the players who had not been called up last year to return to the national team. Others, such as Mapi León and Patri Guijarro, stuck with their positions and missed out on the recent World Cup.

Rubiales’ private farmhouse

Rubiales’ minimal concession explains a lot. The unexpected title, in part. And his subsequent behaviour, almost everything. Like the man of yesterday that he is, the former federation president believes that if the women’s national team are world champions today, it is because of what he has done for a team that, like the rest, is part of a cortijo or farmhouse that he has managed without anyone questioning him or questioning anything. The only ones who did were the players who are now champions, and they have been for months. With the World Cup, the tables have turned.

In his appearance before the federation’s general assembly, in which Rubiales tried to justify the unjustifiable after even the current president of the government, Pedro Sánchez, had called him to account for the non-consensual kiss, the leader shamelessly displayed all the characteristics of a male chauvinist textbook: denial, arrogance and moral superiority, as well as an oversized ego that he tried to conceal with pathetic victimhood.

Such a man is incapable of understanding that the women he and one of his cohorts (coach Jorge Vilda) have made world champions do not pay homage to him. That’s why he showed his crotch in the dressing room, not caring where he was, who was around him or that millions of eyes (many of them children) around the world were watching. That’s why he groped the players at the awards ceremony as if they were his toys. That’s why he planted a kiss on Jennifer Hermoso’s mouth and considered it “normal”. That’s why he was scandalised and felt like the victim of a hunt when society at large interpreted it as abuse. That is why he remained – and still remains – immovable in his position, kicking and screaming like a small child whose favourite toy has been taken away.

The Federation was more than that to him. It was his kingdom, that stultifying power structure dominated by men from another age, where so much money and so many interests are at stake that even voices no longer comfortable with the caveman discourse are silent and submissively applaud it.

Judging by his subsequent comments, this could be the case of the men’s coach, Luis de la Fuente, who even stood up to applaud when Rubiales spoke of “false feminism” and said days later that he did not recognise himself in the person who applauded so enthusiastically.

Vilda, the women’s coach, also said he did not share some of Rubiales’ opinions, which he also applauded. As always, this was after the event, when national politicians and international opinion had already condemned the president’s attitude and called on the relevant bodies to take action to remove him from office.

With a few honourable exceptions (Borja Iglesias, Sevilla’s Isco and goalkeeper David de Gea), the men’s game remained mute for days on end. Their silence was eloquent. All the more so when their female counterparts issued a joint statement declaring that “this is over”. It took almost two weeks for the Spanish women’s team to make their position public: “We wish to repudiate what we consider to be the unacceptable behaviour of Mr Rubiales, who has failed to live up to the institution he represents. We stand firmly and clearly on the side of the values that sport represents. Spanish football should be a driving force for respect, inspiration, equality, and diversity, setting an example in its behaviour both on and off the pitch”. The message is impeccable. Now all that is needed is for everyone to believe it and act accordingly.

Women’s demands

In contrast to the immobility and lukewarmness of the men, the women used the spotlight they had won to denounce and make their demands heard. “I’m very hurt by what happened after the final,” said England coach Sarina Wiegman after collecting the Coach of the Year award at the UEFA Gala. “This team [Spain] should be celebrated and listened to. I ask for a round of applause and I dedicate this trophy to them,” he continued. At the time, Rubiales was still president – FIFA had temporarily suspended him – and the federation was making cosmetic gestures.

And that is what the Spanish players continue to denounce. While Hermoso’s case continues to progress through the courts, his teammates say Rubiales’ resignation and Vilda’s dismissal are not enough. They are calling for real change in the federation, which is still dominated by the former president’s henchmen, and in the structure surrounding the women’s national team.

The new Spanish coach, Montse Tomé, was forced to postpone the announcement of her squad for the next challenge, the Nations Cup, which is a prelude to the Paris Olympics, for several days because 21 of the 23 World Cup players and 18 other internationals held firm to their position that they would not return to the national team until they were assured of the structural changes they were demanding.

“The events that everyone has unfortunately been able to see are not unique and go beyond sporting matters. We must have zero tolerance for these acts, for our partner, for us and for all women,” the players said in a new statement. In the letter, the players list the changes they want to see: a restructuring of the women’s football organisation (with the appointment of a new manager and changes to the technical staff); a reshuffle of the presidential cabinet and the general secretary (Andreu Camps); the resignation of The Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) president (Pedro Rocha); a restructuring of the communications and marketing department; and a restructuring of the integrity department.

“Today is the beginning of a new phase. We are changing the structure and I am confident that we will do a good job, that we will be in a safe environment and that the players will be able to develop their profession as they deserve,” said Montse Tomé after announcing the squad, which includes 15 world champions, 19 of the signatories of the statement calling for change and four of the 15 who did not return to the national team for the World Cup (Mapi León, Patri Guijarro, Amaiur Sarriegi and Lucía García), but not Jennifer Hermoso, “to protect her”, according to the coach.

“Protect me from what, or from whom?” replied Hermoso in a statement expressing her solidarity with her teammates. They also made it clear that their position had not changed, that they had been called up against their will and that they were considering not answering the coach’s call. The force with which they responded to the Federation’s challenge prompted the government to intervene once again through the Consejo Superior del Deporte (CSD) or The National Sports Council in English.

Hours of meetings between the two sides resulted in an agreement to avoid the international embarrassment that would have resulted from playing in the Nations Cup without the world champions: 21 of the 23 players called up will play in the next two matches. Mapi León and Patri Guijarro will not. They claimed they had been called up when they were declared ineligible and did not feel fit to play. The players managed to avoid being sanctioned for their refusal.

This was not their only success: they reached a series of agreements in which the federation and the CSD commit to “working together” and a mixed tripartite commission [federation, CSD and players] to follow up on these agreements, in which the government body commits to progress in “gender policies, wage equality and improving infrastructures, as well as clarifying sexual aggression and classifying it as a very serious offence when committed in the field of sport”. The Fédération is said to have committed itself to making the structural changes demanded by women footballers without delay.

The battle will not end here. They are in a strong position to accelerate the changes they seek and shatter a new glass ceiling, and as they have already shown, they are willing to sacrifice themselves to do so. Two-time Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas made this clear when she accepted the Generalitat’s Gold Medal of Honour for Barcelona Femení (women’s football): “We are not going to stop here. We are here to stay and help those who come after us. We need consensus, courage, and leadership from the institutions. We will not let you down”.

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Two victories for the world champions

Written by Noelia Román

 20 August marked a milestone in the history of women’s football when the Spanish national team won their first World Cup. And just 30 days later, these talented athletes achieved more than a sporting title. They broke barriers and faced a scandal that exposed the machismo and abuse of power that still exist in the world of sport.

The Rubiales case: a silent revolution

The Rubiales case was the turning point that started a real revolution. This scandal exposed the gender discrimination and abuse of power that women face in the world of football, as well as in many other areas of life. Spanish women footballers did not hesitate to speak out and lead a movement demanding equality and respect.

A double victory

The champions not only won the World Cup, but also became a symbol of the fight against sexism. Aitana Bonmati, UEFA’s best female footballer, put it bluntly: “We’ve just won the World Cup, but we don’t talk about it much because things are happening that I don’t want to let go of. As a society, we cannot allow abuse of power in a working relationship or disrespect. We stand with you and with all women who are suffering in the same way.

The non-consensual kiss, evidence of abuse

The scandal was sparked by a non-consensual kiss that the then president of the federation, Luis Rubiales, stole from Jennifer Hermoso during the World Cup medal ceremony. This gesture, along with obscene behaviour in the VIP box, unfairly overshadowed the sporting achievements of the 23 women who took part in the tournament. This episode illustrates not only the reality of female footballers in Spain, but also that of women in general, who are often victims of machismo and abuse of power.

The international impact of #MeToo and #TellMeToo

The #MeToo movement, which began with the sexual abuse allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein, opened the door for women to publicly denounce sexual assault and abuse. In Spain, the #Cuéntalo movement went viral after the verdict in the “La Manada” trial. These movements have helped raise awareness about the abuse of power and the importance of consent in cases of sexual abuse.

The big change and the celebration

The success of the women’s national team at the World Cup is due to a number of factors, including the improvement of Spanish women’s league clubs, the quality of young players and the increasing professionalism of the league. Clubs such as Barcelona have gained recognition in Europe, and the addition of a women’s team at Real Madrid has raised the level of competition.

The fight for professionalisation

Despite their achievements, women footballers in the F-League have had to resort to strikes to improve their working conditions. It is often argued that women’s competitions do not generate enough interest, despite evidence to the contrary. Women footballers continue to fight for professionalism and equal pay.

The lower categories and the evolution of society

The lower divisions of the women’s national teams have been winning European and world championships in recent years. More and more girls are playing football from an early age, which has led to an increase in the technique and intelligence of Spanish players. The federation has taken advantage of this development to strengthen the national team.

Rubiales, outdated masculinity

The former president, Luis Rubiales, represented an outdated and macho style of leadership. Winning the World Cup changed the perception of women’s football, and its success became a symbol of the struggle for equality. Women footballers showed that they were not prepared to accept abuse and inequality, and their courage inspired significant change.

Women footballers’ demands for the future

Despite Rubiales’ resignation, the players are demanding real change in the federation and the structure around the team. The fight is not over, but these world champions are in a position of strength to push for change and open up new opportunities for women in football. Equality, respect, and the profession of women footballers deserve to be celebrated and championed.

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