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The Spanish sexual misconduct scandal roiling soccer, explained

Spanish soccer president Luis Rubiales forcibly kissed a player after the World Cup. For weeks, he refused to resign.

Soccer players on a field holding a banner that reads “Estamos Contigo Jenni.”
Players of Pachuca pose with a message in support of Jennifer Hermoso of the Spanish National Team at Hidalgo Stadium on August 28, 2023, in Pachuca, Mexico.
Hector Vivas/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Editor’s note, September 11, 2023: After weeks of refusing to step aside, Royal Spanish Football Federation President Luis Rubiales has resigned, in the wake of what he called “an excessive persecution, as well as many falsehoods.” The original story on Rubiales’s conduct, claims he did nothing wrong, and his refusal to step aside follows.

After the Spanish women’s soccer team triumphed over England in the World Cup, their victory was marred by Royal Spanish Football Federation President Luis Rubiales, who kissed star player Jenni Hermoso on the mouth without her consent.

She’s called the kiss “an impulse-driven, sexist, out of place act without any consent on my part,” while he initially referred to it as a mistake and then claimed it was consensual.

Since then, calls have grown for Rubiales to be removed from his position, and FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, has temporarily suspended him for 90 days as it investigates. Rubiales, however, has refused to resign himself, prompting a protest from players as well as resignations from the coaching staff for the women’s team.

The scandal has raised scrutiny of Spain’s soccer institutions, of gender inequality in the sport overall, and of the country’s “macho” culture. While Spain has made strong strides on gender disparities, the country still has a patriarchal strain critical of women’s rights that far-right entities like the Vox party have tried to tap into to make political gains. Such issues appeared to be on display when it comes to Rubiales’s sexual misconduct at the soccer match — and his subsequent response.

Luis Rubiales’s inappropriate behavior following the World Cup, briefly explained

Rubiales’s conduct at the World Cup involved both the forcible kiss and other inappropriate behavior. While celebrating Spain’s success, he also exaggeratedly grabbed his crotch while standing near Spanish Queen Letizia and 16-year-old Princess Sofía.

After the game, Rubiales was one of multiple officials and leaders who were involved in greeting and congratulating the players. In the process of doing so, he kissed various players on the cheeks, threw one over his shoulder, and then kissed Hermoso on the lips. Later on, in their locker room, Rubiales told the players that he would marry Hermoso in Ibiza. After he received pushback for his actions, Rubiales posted a video saying he was “sorry to those who were offended.”

Since the kiss, Hermoso has said that she “didn’t like it” and that she felt “the victim of aggression, a sexist act.” Rubiales, when confronted about it, has defended his actions and claimed it was “spontaneous, mutual, euphoric and (done) with consent.” He emphasized repeatedly in remarks on Friday that he wouldn’t resign, denigrating “fake feminism.”

Initially, the Royal Spanish Football Federation stood staunchly beside him, though its regional leaders are now calling for his resignation. Previously, the Royal Spanish Football Federation released a statement saying, “The evidence is conclusive. The President has not lied,” and reportedly threatened to sue Hermoso.

In early press statements, they also falsified quotes from Hermoso to try to downplay the severity of the incident. And at least some of the federation’s members appeared to back Rubiales Friday, applauding him as he complained of being targeted by a “witch hunt” during a speech before the group’s members. Hermoso has also said that she felt external pressure to excuse Rubiales’s behavior even though she does not.

In the last week, Rubiales’s mother, Ángeles Béjar, has started a hunger strike to protest what she describes as the “inhumane” hounding of him.

The chorus for Rubiales’s resignation is only getting louder

The regional heads of the Royal Spanish Football Federation are among the latest to push for Rubiales’s resignation though he’s been defiant thus far. In response, dozens of women’s soccer players — including every member of the winning World Cup team — have said they’ll abstain from playing for Spain’s national team until Rubiales resigns. Some men’s soccer players have also made similar threats and regional teams have worn T-shirts or held banners to support Hermoso in recent games.

The Spanish soccer federation vice president has also resigned in protest, as have 11 members of the women’s soccer coaching team. And Spanish leaders, including Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, have criticized the kiss as an “unacceptable gesture” and abuse of power.

In the near term, the government isn’t able to remove Rubiales directly because he is the head of a private organization. However, if he doesn’t resign immediately, he could be forcibly removed if the Sports Administrative Court, Spain’s panel dedicated to reviewing legal matters related to sports, finds him guilty of “very serious misconduct.” Spanish prosecutors have also said they’ve begun to look into the incident as a potential case of sexual assault.

The scandal has raised scrutiny of Spain’s soccer institutions — and the country’s broader issues with sexism

This kiss has received significant attention, but it isn’t the first time that Spanish soccer authorities have been condemned for abuse of power, among other critiques.

The spotlight on this incident has also revived the focus on other past complaints, including those of 15 players who declined to compete for the national team due to concerns with the culture perpetuated by head coach Jorge Vilda. Those complaints centered on Vilda allegedly overworking players, including those who were injured. Vilda has also been scrutinized after camera footage showed him appearing to touch a staff member’s breast during the World Cup game. The Royal Spanish Football Federation ultimately fired Vilda, while thanking him for “the remarkable growth of women’s football,” shortly after Rubiales’s suspension.

Ignacio Quereda, the past manager of the women’s team was also criticized for allegations of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, abuse, and sexual coercion. Quereda was eventually pushed out after the entire team urged his firing.

Rubiales has seen previous questions about his professionalism and past actions reexamined, including a 2020 court case in which he was accused of physically assaulting a woman working on his home. He ultimately won that case, and used similar rhetoric to his current posture, arguing that he had been a victim of harassment.

Additionally, this incident of sexual misconduct has highlighted problems that Spain has had with sexism and gender inequality, going back to at least the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. “The culture of machismo — men believing they are of greater importance than women, allowing for male dominance, aggression and violence towards women — was prevalent during the Franco years, when women couldn’t vote, nor file for divorce from their husbands, and were expected to bear many children and stay at home while their husband worked,” Edie Clee wrote in 2019 for Leeds Human Rights Journal. Since then, variations of machismo have persisted, with Vox, the country’s far-right party, recently pushing to repeal legislation that would protect victims of gender violence.

“On Friday we saw the worst of Spanish society, of the structural machismo of this country,” Labour Minister Yolanda Díaz told reporters last week after Rubiales refused to resign at a Spanish Football Federation meeting. The outpouring of support for Hermoso in response to the incident has been seen as a way to combat such ideas and abuses.

The incident also raises the attention on gender inequities that have long existed in soccer. Spain’s national women’s team, much like the United States’, has fought to receive comparable pay to the men’s team, and just received it in 2022.

Many athletes around the globe have said Rubiales’s behavior is indicative of how different soccer institutions have treated their women players, and have supported the overwhelming condemnation of it.

“What gives me hope is to see most of the world coming together, and I still think that as a collective voice as women with our male allies now who are coming forward, we can’t be ignored,” New Zealand captain Ali Riley said regarding the backlash to Rubiales.

And the outcry over Rubiales’s actions follows a number of teams’ reports of abuse and sexual misconduct by people in positions of power, an indication that such problems are systemic and not confined to one country. A 2022 independent report commissioned by the United States Soccer Federation found evidence of “systemic” abuse including sexual misconduct and emotional abuse toward players in the National Women’s Soccer League in America, for example.

“It fills us with sadness that such an unacceptable event is managing to tarnish the greatest sporting success of Spanish women’s football,” the Spanish players’ union has said.

Update, September 5, 11:30 am ET: This story was originally published on August 29 and has been updated to include coach Jorge Vilda being fired.

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