How the feminist consensus that overthrew Spain’s soccer chief was forged

The resignation of Luis Rubiales over a non-consensual kiss at the World Cup was the result of a merger of forces, from street protesters to politicians, judges, and society at large

Demonstration against Luis Rubiales on August 28 in the center of Madrid.
Demonstration against Luis Rubiales on August 28 in the center of Madrid.Andrea Comas

Luis Rubiales no longer presides over Spanish soccer. Only 17 days ago, the head of the Spanish Football Federation arrogantly asserted “I’m not going to resign,” and doubled down on the phrase five times in front of those who he believed were his faithful. In a humiliating flip-flop, he has now left office, having been relieved of his post by FIFA, soccer’s governing body. In a statement on Sunday night, he resigned and made allusions to some mysterious “powers that be” that would prevent him from returning to his position.

These powers do exist, but they are far from the dark conspiracy that Rubiales suggests. They are the sum of the hundreds of thousands of people who were outraged that the president of the Federation kissed Jenni Hermoso, a player on the team that had just won the World Cup, without consent. These powers that be also include the people who, in only a few hours, took to social media to highlight what he had done and a few days later said #SeAcabó (#It’s over) and those who took days to reevaluate what they had seen: it was not an unfortunate gesture, but an attack.

They also count among their number the politicians who criticized his behavior, and the national and international media, as well as the rejection by the players — although not all, and some only half-heartedly — and the other leaders of the Spanish federation who turned their backs on him. Together, all these forces forged a new consensus beyond football and feminism: a social consensus. Those were the powers that forced Rubiales to see that the person who was driving the wrong way down the highway was himself.

Rubiales was celebrating the players’ victory in Sydney, and when he grabbed Jenni Hermoso and kissed her on the mouth. He believed that there would be no consequences for doing something like that in front of an audience of millions of people. At most, the backlash came from some “idiots” who did not know how to interpret a gesture of uncontrollable joy, as he tried to minimize it hours later in an interview on Spain’s Cope radio network.

But the impunity was only inside his head, something that the last three weeks have shown. Regardless of whether there are criminal consequences or not, Rubiales’s gesture made it possible to verify the strength of feminism, and as jurist Octavio Salazar explains, “that society’s values have matured and have been translated into a demand for [him to take] responsibility and [offer his] resignation.” This, three or four years ago, “would have been unthinkable,” he says.

This transformation of society has emerged very strongly with the Rubiales case. It represents a “point of no return,” according to Salazar, and a red line about what the majority is not willing to tolerate anymore. In recent years, “debates about consent, about ‘only yes is yes’ outside the legal framework, have had a pedagogical effect on society,” he notes. The ability to identify that kiss as an attack has been gaining ground with the public, and from there, it has shone a light on the world of Rubiales and the power structures within soccer. Salazar is confident that the wave will also reach “similar spaces” where men also exercise their hierarchical dominance, “like university.”

Despite these advances, but also because of them, a part of society has perceived the feminist movement as a threat in recent years. It views feminism as something that challenges their convictions to their core. It is partly explained by the greater presence of feminist issues in the public debate, but also because some issues have been polarizing within the movement itself: the trans law and the “only yes means yes” legislation are two clear examples. The difference with the Rubiales case is that the realities it alludes to (sexual violence and abuse of power) affect all women, of all ages, everywhere.

Luis Rubiales
Rubiales on August 23 at the Federation assembly in which he refused to resign.RFEF / AFP

The sociologist Rosa Cobo underscores that “an enormously powerful critical and collective consciousness has been organized that has turned something that five or six years ago might have been irrelevant into a social and media tsunami.” She is convinced that “in some way, the idea of consent has permeated society,” and that if it has done so, it is “because it has fallen on very fertile soil.”

That violence that has been exercised for years, says Cobo, “has been an enormous concern for mothers, daughters, grandmothers, students, and workers. All women.”

The fact that the non-consensual kiss happened in public and with millions of eyes focused on it, and with the capacity of social media to spread the footage, made it more difficult for Rubiales to support his version with every passing day, especially with him at the head of the Federation. He tried to construct a parallel story, minimizing what happened and even putting pressure on Hermoso and her family. It is the sexual harassment playbook at work, although it usually occurs in private spaces, without witnesses, and where suspicion usually falls on the victim.

Day after day, Rubiales lost more allies, including many men. Salazar says he hopes that this case “will serve to make us understand that this has to do with us, that we have a special responsibility to change. That in any case we should feel challenged, not attacked.” All of this also is connected to a generational issue. It happened in the champions’ own locker room.

“What happened is very serious”

Laia Codina, 23-year-old defender on the women’s team, explained it when recounting what happened on the bus as they left the stadium in Sydney after the victory. One of the team’s veterans brought up the kiss during the celebration. “She told us: ‘Be careful girls, because what has happened is very serious, it is unacceptable and we have to condemn it because in the end it is still an abuse of power by the boss with a player, and it could have been any of us.’

The veterans on the team remember former coach Ignacio Quereda, who is accused of treating them with contempt for years. Hermoso, Alexia Putellas, and Irene Paredes are among them. These are the women who did not have to explain a lot to the younger players, members of Generation Z who have no fear of calling out unacceptable behavior. They are role models for the girls and boys of today. Women soccer players are already in a league of their own. They have led a change in sports and society in a quintessentially masculine world. Soccer was a private preserve of men until these players showed up, breaking the silence. The #SeAcabó movement that Putellas started was galvanized after Rubiales’ speech at the Spanish federation on Friday, August 25.

In dissecting Rubiales’s fall, it is important to note how he reacted to the criticism. “His failure to understand that it was something wrong ruffled a few feathers,” says Rosa Cobo. He never apologized. For Cobo, all of the above “has generated deep discomfort.”

The media helped spread that feeling, while the role of institutions and officials with decision-making capacity has also been significant. If Rubiales finally gave in, it is because “high-level pressures” have also had a hand in his decision: the Spanish government, FIFA, the Spanish soccer federation itself. “There has been unanimity here,” says Cobo. “It was evident that it was becoming unsustainable for Rubiales to continue in his job. And it was feminism that delivered the decisive blow.”

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