Victory, marred

At 6:53 p.m. Australian time on Aug. 20, 2023, Jenni Hermoso was having the best day of her life.

At 6:54 p.m., she was not.

Aug. 20 marked the Spanish women’s national soccer team’s win in the final of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup held in Australia and New Zealand, outplaying the English Lionesses 1-0. As the final whistle rang through Sydney’s Stadium Australia, the Spanish players and fans alike erupted into a frenzied tempest of ecstasy.

These same fans, along with tens of millions across the globe, also watched as the president of the Spanish Football Federation, Luis Rubiales, grabbed the head of Spanish forward Jenni Hermoso and forcibly kissed her on the lips during the medal ceremony. On Aug. 21, the Royal Spanish Football Federation released a statement on behalf of Hermoso where she seemingly dismissed Rubiales’ actions: “[The kiss] was a totally spontaneous mutual gesture….The president and I have a great relationship—his behavior towards all of us has been outstanding” 

Claims were later made by European media group Relevo that the words were not in fact Hermoso’s, but those of the Spanish Federation’s communications department, circulated without consulting the player herself. 

The RFEF held an Extraordinary General Assembly Aug. 25 where Rubiales spoke for more than half an hour claiming he was the victim of a “social assassination” orchestrated by “fake feminists,” insisting that his kiss with Hermoso was completely consensual. Throughout the speech, he continuously eerily echoed: “I will not resign.” Even more jarring was the resounding applause and standing ovation in response to Rubiales’ speech from the predominantly male audience.

Almost immediately, Hermoso released her statement on social media in retaliation, asserting that Rubiales’ words on the incident were categorically false and confirming Relevo’s claims: “I felt vulnerable and a victim of an impulse-driven, sexist, out of place act without any consent on my part. Simply put, I was not respected,” she said. 

Soon after, a letter signed by 81 players, including the entire World Cup-winning squad was released, describing the actions of Rubiales as “violating the dignity of women.” The joint statement, released via the players’ union FIFPRO, expressed the players’ decision to “not return to a call-up from the national team if current leadership continues.” 

Public response was instantaneous, and two new hashtags circulated widely across social media: #ContigoJenni (With you Jenni) and #SeAcabó (It’s Over), a movement many media sources have compared to that of #MeToo.  

FIFA provisionally suspended Rubiales from all national and international football activities for 90 days on Aug. 26. Yet, the federation, which has only six female members of its 140, continued to back Rubiales — even going to the lengths of threatening to sue Hermoso for defamation on Aug. 26. 

These past weeks of muddled messiness prove yet another moment meant for celebration of female achievement marred. Are we surprised? Not really. 

Corruption is nothing new within the crumbling federation – in September of 2022, “Las 15,” a group of 15 female Spanish players, privately sent identical letters to the RFEF stating that they would refuse call-ups for the national team because of their distrust of coach Jorge Vilda. The RFEF made no changes in management then, and look at where we are now. 

Why was it that it took a World Cup win along with a televised sexual assault for women’s voices to be heard? If someone in such a position of power like Rubiales felt comfortable to act in such a way in public, who knows what is going on behind closed doors?

On Sept. 5, Jorge Vilda was fired. On Sept. 10, Luis Rubiales resigned.

However, even after these two men were removed, the 81 women have still refused the national team. They understand the dangers of making Rubiales and Vilda the scapegoats. This is not about them. It is not over yet. Change must be institutional. 

Still, in Liga F, female players have minimum salaries of 21,000 euros, according to the New York Times. In contrast, the men’s minimum in La Liga is 180,000 euros. 

But Spanish women’s soccer is just the tip of the iceberg. A global survey by FIFPRO found that two-thirds of the female athletes who competed in World Cup qualifying matches had to take unpaid leave from a second job to compete and 29% reported not being paid for playing for the national team. 

And yet in some ways, these controversies, though painful, are signs of growth. People care about women’s soccer and problems can no longer be swept under the rug. The record-breaking statistics from this World Cup prove that. The mass flow of support for Jenni Hermoso shows that. 

Women’s soccer shall no longer be ignored.

Se acabó.

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