This Friday, finally, the ball will roll again. After weeks of talking about everything but soccer — sorority, equity, gender equality, during which time the Spanish national team has appropriated some of the most popular and recurrent concepts of the most recent feminist struggle. The need was always there, but it had never been attacked so roundly until now. Alexia Putellas, the holder of the Ballon d’Or, returned to the theme on Thursday: “For decades there has been systemic discrimination against women’s football. We had to fight a lot to be heard.” And when they understood that the loudspeaker was on and the volume was turned to loud, they spoke out. And they stood up. The momentum even led them to consider not playing for Spain again.
In the end, it appears there will be no boycott. Spain traveled to Gothenburg Thursday to face Sweden in opening match of the Nations League. The first game they will contest with the star on their shirts, earned at the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand a month ago. But far from celebrating, the world champions have invested their time in recent weeks in the defense of Jenni Hermoso — harassed during the medal ceremony by the now-former president of the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), Luis Rubiales — and in giving form and substance to demands they have been pressing for a year.
Their goal is to the treated as elite athletes by equally professional executives who provide them with the tools and resources they need to focus solely on the ball. Until then, they are also activists. “We are footballers, but we have had to get it into our heads that we can’t just be footballers,” conceded Alexia, the leader and spokesperson for a team that, despite differences of opinion, remains united. A team that, after a week of endless meetings, sleeping barely four hours a night, now wants to focus on sport in the confidence that the agreements reached in a three-way meeting with the RFEF and the Spanish Superior Sports Council (CSD) will be fulfilled — this time, they have them in writing. Now they can get back to soccer. “What concerns us is the field, winning, and people celebrating victories with us,” Alexia added with a tinge of nostalgia.
After demanding a series of reforms and a purge of RFEF personnel, the players have achieved the resignation of Rubiales and the dismissal of both former coach Jorge Vilda and the unpopular general secretary, Andreu Camps, a Rubiales ally with considerable power and knowledge of the ins and outs of the organization.
Sweden’s players have confirmed they will stand by Spain and confirmed an agreed protest has been devised to display full support for the struggle to banish harassment and sexism from the world of professional sport and its institutions. “We will support the Spanish players and we have a plan for how to do it and do it together. You’ll see…” said Sweden and AC Milan forward Kosovare Asllani.
Sorority is nothing new in women’s soccer. Last year, two of the biggest names in the game, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, issued powerful messages in support of the 15 Spain players who asked not to be called up until they felt they could work in a healthy and safe environment. “You got the 16th standing with you in the United States. These many players together like this are so powerful. We should all listen,” wrote Rapinoe, the 2019 Ballon d’Or winner. “This is so hard to watch knowing the [Spanish] federation is throwing their players under the bus for asking for better protection, treatment, and professionalism. Players (the BEST players in Spain) deserve so much better,” added Morgan.
Rapinoe and Morgan led the fight for equal pay in the USA and the USWNT succeeded in reaching a historic agreement in February 2022 by ensuring that footballers of both genders were paid the same. Those agreements provided for the equal sharing of income from participation in friendly matches, official competitions, television rights, sponsorships, and ticket sales. Something similar was achieved by Sweden, another magnificent ally in the fight for women’s rights. At the end of 2021, the Swedish federation reached an agreement whereby footballers would be paid the same when playing for the men’s and women’s national teams. Spain has also explored the path of equal pay and has made progress by committing to obtaining the same percentage of sponsorship for both sets of national team players. This, of course, remains a far cry from the income the men’s and women’s team generate in global terms.
Alexia: “We had to say zero tolerance”
Spain’s fight, though, goes beyond matters of pay and into much more important issues such as the protection of a victim of sexual assault, harassment, and the abuse of power. “There were some unacceptable events at the World Cup final, with the straw that broke the camel’s back at the subsequent assembly. We didn’t want to continue down that road. We had to say zero tolerance. First for Jenni’s sake, but also for our own, and so that it would never happen again,” said Alexia.
One of the essential commitments that came out of the three-way meeting was to draw up an action protocol in case anything like what happened at Stadium Australia occurs again. “Soccer is a reflection of society. And we want this to be a mirror in which to look at ourselves, so that women can identify with us and know what to do,” said Irene Paredes, another of the influential voices in the Spanish locker room. Paredes added that over the past month, the players have felt helpless and abandoned by the institutions that should be there to defend them: “The CSD came in, but it arrived late. Let’s hope something like this doesn’t happen again, but if that’s not the case there must be protocols for action to be taken the very moment it does.”
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