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Spain has condemned inappropriate World Cup kiss. Can it now reckon with sexism in soccer?

Even as the conduct of the most powerful man in Spanish soccer robbed global attention from the new world champions, Spain is taking steps to turn the crisis into a reckoning into the sexism that exists in the sport

People protest against Royal Spanish Football Federation President Luis Rubiales in Madrid on August 28, 2023.
People protest against Royal Spanish Football Federation President Luis Rubiales in Madrid on August 28, 2023.ISABEL INFANTES (REUTERS)

When Patricia Otero watched the president of Spain’s soccer federation tarnish the greatest victory in the history of women’s sports in Spain by forcibly kissing a player on the lips during the Women’s World Cup medal ceremony, she was saddened — but not surprised.

For this amateur soccer player, the kiss that Luis Rubiales pressed on Spain forward Jenni Hermoso was simply the most public and notorious example of the treatment she and her teammates received as girls and young women.

“We have seen that all our lives,” the 30-year-old told The Associated Press from the southern city of Malaga, where she still plays soccer when not teaching high school. And when Rubiales tried to justify the kiss by saying it was like one he would have “given my daughters,” it sounded eerily familiar.

“I had a coach who would pat our butts, and always while acting friendly, saying, ‘You are like a daughter to me.’ And that was when you are still not adult enough to know what he is doing,” she said. “You think it is normal.”

While women still struggle for equality in Spanish soccer — Otero recalled how her team had to sell raffle tickets to play and clean their own locker rooms while boys did neither — the reaction, in Spain and beyond, to the globally televised kiss has been widespread condemnation.

Hermoso says it was not consensual, and despite claims to the contrary by Rubiales, public opinion is behind the 33-year-old player. The only continuing public support for Rubiales, 46, is from his mother, who started a hunger strike in a church in protest of her son’s downfall.

Even as the conduct of the most powerful man in Spanish soccer robbed global attention from the new world champions, Spain is taking steps to turn the crisis into a reckoning into the sexism that exists in the sport in a country where strides in other areas have placed it in the European vanguard of female gender equality.

Despite Rubiales’ insistence he did nothing wrong, Spain’s government, its players’ unions, soccer clubs, fans and most importantly, Hermoso and her teammates, saw his act as a sexist abuse of power that was no longer tolerable. FIFA, the world soccer governing body, suspended Rubiales for 90 days, and Spain’s government is moving to have him declared unfit to hold the post.

The condemnation of Rubiales, who also grabbed his crotch in a lewd victory gesture within sight of Spain’s Queen Letizia and teenage daughter, Princess Sofía, following Spain’s victory in the Aug. 20 final, has spread beyond the government and the powers-that-be in soccer.

Fans at men’s games last weekend in the hugely popular La Liga chanted for Rubiales to go, while hundreds rallied in downtown Madrid in support of Hermoso.

Rubiales had the chance to step down on Friday. Instead, he delivered a tirade to his federation members, claiming to be the victim of a witch hunt by “false feminists.”

While sexism has historically run deep in Spain, Rubiales has found himself out of step with the country’s rapidly changing social mores. Women’s rights activism has been gaining ground for decades, but was supercharged in 2018 following a high-profile case of gang rape viewed as Spain’s “Me Too” moment.

Since then, laws have been passed protecting women’s right to abortion and promoting equality in the workplace. A law that defines sexual consent is seen as among the most ambitious in Europe.

In AP interviews with women in soccer and beyond, there was a consensus that an act like the one committed by Rubiales even 10 years ago would have been largely ignored.

Marisa Soleto, president of the feminist Women’s Foundation, said the country has undergone a seismic shift in recent years.

“What this shows is that ... Spanish society understands that you don’t have to hit a woman for a non-consensual act to be violent,” Soleto said of the kiss that has brought so much outrage.

The groundswell of support for Hermoso has found its slogan in “Se Acabo” — Spanish for “this is over” — started by Hermoso’s teammate and star player Alexia Putellas. It has since become a rallying call against Rubiales, even worn on T-shirts by Sevilla’s men’s players.

jugadores del Sevilla, con un lema de protesta contra Rubiales en sus camisetas
The players of Sevilla, with a message of protest against Rubiales on their shirts, before their game against Granada on Saturday, 26th of August. Julio Muñoz (EFE)

Lisa Banks, a Washington-based civil rights and employment attorney, said the Rubiales kiss was a “learning moment ... for men in power, for men in sports, that an assault is an assault, even if it happens in a moment of jubilation.”

While Rubiales has succeeded in aligning nearly the entire Spanish political spectrum against him, there were some initial holdouts among the soccer leadership.

Rubiales’ adamant refusal to step down — and claim he was the victim of a feminist smear campaign — was greeted last week by loud applause from the soccer federation’s general assembly, whose 140 members include just six women. Spain’s women’s coach, Jorge Vilda, and men’s coach, Luis de la Fuente, were among those clapping.

But after FIFA suspended Rubiales, his last supporters abandoned him, and the regional federation heads are now demanding he resign. This week, prosecutors opened a preliminary investigation into whether the kiss was a sexual aggression offense, and the national women’s soccer team has announced it won’t play if Rubiales stays on.

For Beatriz Álvarez, the president of Spain’s professional women’s league, there is more behind Rubiales’ demise than “a war of the sexes or feminism.”

“The so-called ‘little peck’ ... is a kiss by a boss to a worker. He grabbed her head and gave her a kiss,” Álvarez said.

“At that moment, Luis Rubiales was the federation president and had absolute authority over her.”

Hermoso has called the kiss and Rubiales’ refusal to accept her insistence it wasn’t consensual “the final straw.”

“What everyone has been able to witness on live television during the celebration also comes with attitudes,” she said, “that have been part of our team’s daily life for years.”

Spain’s women players had to go to the extreme of rebelling against the federation last September to improve conditions for the team. Fifteen players said they would not continue to play for coach Vilda unless things changed, including what one female former assistant coach described as “treating the players like they were 12-year-olds.” The federation backed Vilda and only three returned to the World Cup squad.

There is some hope that the response to the kiss scandal will have a cascade effect in improving long-ingrained inequities in soccer, where the minimum salary for men in the first division is 182,000 euros ($197,000) but for women, just 16,000 euros ($17,400).

Pilar Calvo of Spain’s Association of Women in Professional Sports said her group has seen the number of complaints filed increase five-fold over the past week.

“We have seen all types (of complaints) over inequalities,” she said, “from people who feel overlooked for sports scholarships, to complaints over when women can use sporting facilities, to inequality in prize money.”

Now all eyes are on the federation, to see if Rubiales can be definitively barred from returning and whoever takes his place can instill a new culture.

Toña Is, a player-turned-coach, led Spain’s women to the under-17 world title in 2018, and was an assistant coach for Vilda on the national team until she was fired by the federation in 2020. Now a policewoman in northern Spain, she said she was let go because of her internal complaints about sexism and other inappropriate behavior.

Now she feels vindicated.

“Time has finally shown that we were right, that there have been inappropriate episodes inside the federation for years,” she said.

“We must have zero tolerance for these types of sexist attitudes, not just in sports, but in society at large so that we don’t go through this again.”

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