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The Head of Spain’s Soccer Federation Is Under Fire for Inappropriate World Cup Celebrations

6 minute read

What should have been a moment of pride for the nation of Spain, after its women’s soccer team won the World Cup on Sunday, was left stained by the actions of one man.

The Spanish soccer federation (RFEF) president, Luis Rubiales, has come under fire for apparently forcibly kissing a player on the mouth following the nation’s historic win against England. Rubiales’ behavior, which was circulated in videos on social media, sparked widespread condemnation, including from several Spanish ministers.

Rubiales was captured on camera taking Spanish forward Jenni Hermoso by the head and kissing her during the official post-match ceremony. Rubiales was also seen embracing other players in hugs and kissing them on the cheek, but he did not kiss anyone else on the lips. 

“I didn’t like it,” Hermoso said during a livestream video from the locker room shared afterwards. She has since defended Rubiales, telling media outlets that they have a great working relationship and it was a “natural gesture of affection and gratitude.”

But kissing Hermoso was not his only act that fans say crossed the line. Rubiales was also shown entering the women’s dressing room after the trophy lift, where he reportedly joked that the soccer federation would fly the team to Ibiza, where he would marry Hermoso. He was also filmed next to Queen Letizia of Spain making what appeared to be a gesture involving his crotch.

Rubiales initially dismissed his critics, calling them “idiots,” but he apologized for his behavior on Monday in a video, saying: "I made a mistake, for sure."

Rubiales noted that he didn't act with "any bad intention or bad faith, what happened, happened, in a very spontaneous way," but he said he was sorry, because "this is the biggest success in our history in women's football, the second World Cup that we've won, and this has affected the celebration.”

As fans call on FIFA to take action against Rubiales, here’s what to know about the debate. 

Spanish ministers are calling out Rubiales

Since Sunday, a number of Spanish ministers and politicians have voiced their discomfort with Rubiales’ behavior as well as with subsequent justifications that it was just an act of cordial passion.  

"Let's not assume that giving a kiss without consent is something 'that happens.' It is a form of sexual violence that women suffer on a daily basis and until now invisible, and that we cannot normalize. It is the task of the whole society. Consent in the centre. Only yes is yes," Irene Montero, Spain’s Equality Minister said in a post on X (the social media platform previously known as Twitter). 

Meanwhile Minister of Social Rights Ione Belarra, joined her colleague in calling out Rubiales’ actions: "We are all thinking: if they do this in front of the whole of Spain, what will they not do in private? Sexual violence against women must end," she posted on X. 

Socialist politician Adrián Barbón said the gesture was disrespectful and described it as “an abuse that neither the moment, nor the euphoria, nor the joy justifies,” according to the Guardian. Additionally, Marta Lois, the parliamentary spokesperson of left-wing coalition party Sumar, called for Rubiales’ resignation

Spanish women’s soccer was already mired in controversy

In 2015, Ignacio Quereda, the former coach of Spain’s national women's soccer team, was ousted from his role after 27 years when the entire 23-player squad publicly called for his termination. Quereda oversaw the team’s first World Cup qualification, taking them to Canada where they secured just one point in three group games. Following their disappointing performance, players detailed their technical complaints against the coach in a group statement.  

But in 2021, a Spanish documentary titled Breaking the Silence, revealed that there were other problems, too: players had endured sexual coercion, homophobia, and intimidating behavior from Quereda.

It also emerged that the then-RFEF president Ángel María Villar reportedly dismissed player concerns and ignored formal complaints about Quereda over the years, allowing his behavior to carry on. 

Quereda was succeeded by Jorge Vilda in 2015, and though he has successfully led the team to World Cup victory, his tenure has also been controversial. In September, 15 of Spain’s top players expressed dissatisfaction about their “emotional and personal state” under Vilda’s leadership, and they called for him to be fired, saying they would not play for Spain’s national team until their working conditions improved. RFEF, now led by Rubiales, dismissed their concerns and said it will not succumb to pressure from players, and only three of the protesting players joined the tournament squad in Australia this summer

These kinds of problems are not unique to Spain

FIFA has long been accused of not taking the women’s game seriously, and in recent years, it has been reckoning with rising complaints of misconduct. Allegations of mistreatment, particularly sexual harassment, have been reported across the globe. 

Last month, it emerged that the former president of Haiti’s football federation, Yves Jean-Bart, 75, would appear in court to address sexual abuse allegations that were originally brought in November 2020. The allegations claimed that Jean-Bart “abused his position and sexually harassed and abused various female players, including minors.” At the time, Jean-Bart, nicknamed Dadou, was banned from soccer for life by FIFA’s ethics committee, but the decision was overturned in February. In July, women’s rights organizations won the right to appeal against the decision to drop the criminal case.  

Similarly, in 2021, former Vancouver Whitecaps coach Hubert Busby Jr, was accused of misusing his position to solicit sex during the recruitment of a former player. That same year, an independent investigation, commissioned by the U.S. soccer federation and overseen by former acting Attorney General Sally Yates,  found that emotional abuse and sexual misconduct were “systemic” in women’s soccer in the U.S. at every level. Yates had said she hoped the probe would discover that abuse allegations against former National Women’s Soccer League coach Paul Riley, which spurred the investigation, were an isolated incident. “Sadly, that is not what we found,” she announced when the report was released.

FIFA pledged this year to take action to support women playing at this year’s World Cup. It hosted pre-tournament educational presentations, and it became a requirement for each national team to select a welfare official who would undertake safeguarding training. The soccer body also vowed that it would create a “victim-centered approach” to any reports of abuse that emerged.

With such a strong focus on protecting women in the sport, soccer fans are now looking on to see how Rubiales will be held accountable—if at all, given his position at the very top of the country’s federation. The incident nods to a dark reality that, despite all the gains made in popularity up to and through this year’s World Cup, women’s soccer still has a long way to go towards achieving gender parity.

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Write to Armani Syed at armani.syed@time.com