Society / August 23, 2023

A Soccer Triumph—Despite the Toxic Men

The leaders of Spain’s soccer world possess “sexism matched only by their greed.”

Dave Zirin
Jenni Hermoso, Alexia Putellas, and Irene Paredes of the spain women's soccer team pump fists in the air, celebrate after winning the 2023 women's world cup

Jenni Hermoso and teammates Alexia Putellas and Irene Paredes celebrate after winning the Women’s World Cup in Sydney, Australia, on August 20, 2023.

(Sajad Imanian / Getty Images)

When is a kiss not just a kiss? Maybe when it is nonconsensual assault. Maybe when it is symbolic of years of disrespect by disreputable men with power. This kiss is what the world got to see after the Spanish women completed their World Cup triumph, beating England, 1-0, in the final.

It was an improbable journey to a victory that, in its aftermath, was damaged. Immediately after the match, Royal Spanish Football Federation President Luis Rubiales forcibly gave star striker Jennifer Hermoso an unwanted and firm kiss on the mouth. Rubiales is now being roundly criticized across Spain and the soccer world. Spanish journalists have called him “simply disgusting.” Politicians are calling for his resignation, and they might get it. As for Rubiales, his response to the controversy was to double down. He said, “The kiss with Jenni? There are idiots all over. When two people have a moment of affection without any importance, we can’t listen to idiocy.”

Only after people roundly called for his ouster did he “apologize” in a video statement. At the end of the apology, unable to help himself, he had to say, “Here, we didn’t understand [the controversy], because we saw something natural, normal and in no way, I repeat, with bad faith. But outside of the bubble, it looks like it has turned into a storm and so, if there are people who have felt offended, I have to say I’m sorry.”

He clearly thinks he did nothing wrong, and he certainly did not apologize to Hermoso, who should be enjoying her triumph instead of dealing with this jackass. She was asked about the kiss afterward and said, “Hey, I didn’t like it.” Hermoso has since tried to play down the situation, saying the kiss was “no big deal,” an excuse so thin that Spain’s acting prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, has weighed in to call his “apology” insufficient. Earlier, Yolanda Diaz, Spain’s acting second deputy prime minister, called for his resignation. On social media, Diaz wrote,

Our most resounding condemnation for what we saw. Nothing more and nothing less, a woman has been harassed and assaulted.… [Rubiales’s] excuses are useless. What we ask is for the sports law to be applied and for the Sport’s federation protocols to be activated. This person should resign.

As Nancy Armour wrote for USA Today:

The [Spanish] federation [posted an] emoji of an index finger raised in the No. 1 sign. But a middle finger would have been more appropriate because that’s essentially what the federation was giving its players…. Vilda is not one of those coaches [who deserve credit] for their victory. It is Spain’s exceptional players who are responsible for the World Cup title. Their skills were honed with their clubs—Barcelona, primarily—not with the national team. His players are so talented all Vilda had to do was hand in a lineup and stay out of their way. And he could barely manage that.

I spoke to Brenda Elsey, a professor at Hofstra and coauthor of the book Futbolera: A History of Women and Sports in Latin America. She said to me that the leaders of Spain’s soccer world possess “sexism matched only by their greed.”

She continued: “In the early 2010s, this generation knew their talent was being stymied by the Federation’s blatant mismanagement of the national team and the domestic professional league. Protests have resulted in better conditions, if uneven and imperfect…. This World Cup was a tale of players outshining the anachronistic sexists who run global football. If the Rubiales and Vilda thought they would get credit for the brilliance of these players, they must be sorely disappointed.”

It is a blessed joy that the people of Spain have embraced this team, with thousands greeting them upon their return home. Fans held watch parties in more than 100 cities, according to Armour. Women’s soccer in Spain is exploding in popularity—despite the decades of patriarchal abuse and mismanagement. As the players glow in their triumph, they also need to seize the opportunity to change the soccer culture, to make Spanish soccer hostile to the sexists and ensure women’s soccer gets the resources—and the coaching—they deserve.

As Armour wrote:

It’s not fair to ask Spain’s players to continue fighting for equality when all they should be doing is celebrating. It’s infuriating that the players’ greatest accomplishment has to be forever linked to their second-class treatment. But that’s how it is for women athletes. A win on the field isn’t the end of the fight. It has to be the beginning, or things will never change.

Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin is the sports editor at The Nation. He is the author of 11 books on the politics of sports. He is also the coproducer and writer of the new documentary Behind the Shield: The Power and Politics of the NFL.

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