From high in the stands at Stadium Australia, the fateful moment was at first difficult to discern. The eye was drawn to the England players who, having lost a World Cup final, lay crumpled on the Sydney turf in assorted states of anguish. Their agonies stood in the starkest contrast to the body language of 23 young Spanish women who lined up to collect their winners’ medals from a national welcome party, led by Queen Letizia, Princess Sofia and one overexuberant gentleman named Luis Rubiales.
So far, so customary, as the champions cut loose amid a cloud of golden ticker tape. Except the television pictures suggested a sinister undertone, capturing the moment that Rubiales, grabbing Jenni Hermoso behind the head in a way that left her no room for manoeuvre, kissed the forward on the lips. Initial reactions from the viewers who noticed were all variations on a theme: did he just do what I think he did?
Soon, incredulity had morphed into molten fury at how the head of the Spanish federation, a man whose presence in Australia was purely ceremonial, had sabotaged what should have been the crowning glory of these players’ lives.
It was not merely the action of a rampant egotist desperate to bask in the glow. It was an abuse of power, which, when coupled with allegations that then coach Jorge Vilda liked his team to leave their hotel rooms unlocked until midnight so that he could check in on them, pointed to a rancid culture at the heart of Spanish football. In one evening, Rubiales revealed his character in front of a global audience. Quite apart from grabbing his crotch alongside the Queen of Spain and her 16-year-old daughter, he kissed Hermoso in a manner she admitted she did not like before declaring he would marry her in Ibiza.
Once, this might have been shrugged off as the crass behaviour of an executive drunk on hubris, whose own playing career had petered out with a loan spell at Hamilton. This time, it ignited a tinderbox. Within hours, Rubiales found himself transported from boardroom obscurity to global villainy. Within a week, he had united everybody from Andres Iniesta to the European Parliament in condemnation. Within a month, he had resigned and put his Madrid home up for sale to pay his legal costs.
The scandal has defied all known conventions. In politics, the general rule is that a besieged minister needs to survive for 10 days before the news focus shifts elsewhere. But the Rubiales inferno has been raging for more than 30 and still shows little sign of abating. It is such a lurid psychodrama that his mother, Angeles Bejar, went on a three-day hunger strike, barricading herself inside a small church in Motril, near Granada, to protest against his treatment. His uncle Juan was less supportive, describing him as “obsessed with power, luxury, money and women” and with a “clear machista [sexist] tinge”.
Sexism is the crucial context here. While the kiss underlined Rubiales’s arrogance, it was doubly egregious when set against the wider experiences of the women’s national team. Long before Vilda faced claims of uncomfortable micro-managing, accused of routinely searching his players’ bags, La Roja had to put up with 27 years of Ignacio Quereda, whose idea of motivation was – as one Spanish film vividly documented – to pull their cheeks and ears until they hurt, while telling them: “All you need is a man.”
Decades of belittlement bred a resolve among Hermoso and her team-mates that they would not accept it any longer. After all, any excuses that Rubiales had been overly tactile were shredded by the “yes means yes” legislation recently passed in Spain, leading to equality minister Irene Montero labelling his conduct as “sexual violence”. As such, the momentum behind this long-suffering side has proved unstoppable. A little over four weeks ago, Rubiales felt at liberty to kiss Hermoso however he chose. Today, a restraining order prevents him from coming within 200 metres of her. With a judge determining whether a trial should be held, he could yet face a prison sentence of up to four years if found guilty of sexual assault.
“Se acabo” has become the rallying cry of a revolution. “It’s over.” But is it? On the surface, progress has unfolded at warp speed, with Rubiales consigned to abject humiliation despite promising not to quit. Outrage has been uniform across the women’s game, with England’s Sarina Wiegman dedicating her award as Uefa coach of the year to victorious opponents Spain, saying: “They deserve to be celebrated and listened to.”
We have come to expect such statements from Wiegman, a passionate advocate for her sport. Where they are more urgently required is from the men who can enable change. So far, few have dared make the leap, with Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin remaining grimly non-committal. Even when asked in Monaco last month about the importance of football “setting an example”, he responded with the emptiest of platitudes: “Whatever happens in football, good or bad, is big.”
Who was Ceferin trying to protect? Rubiales might still have been a Uefa vice-president at this stage, but he was already an international pariah, from whom any leader with a trace of moral fibre should have run a mile. Do not forget, it is a low bar these men have to clear. Even at the World Cup, the most successful female event in history, the ludicrous Gianni Infantino said only that women needed to “convince us men what we have to do”.
Push the door, ladies, and it will open: that is the sum total of Infantino’s fatuous message. But not while men of Rubiales’s ilk show disregard for boundaries in plain sight, or while figures of Ceferin’s influence contrive any form of words to avoid criticising him publicly. And emphatically not while Spain’s triumphant team are threatened with legal action by their own federation for daring to demand greater respect for women.
You would think this astounding saga had lost its capacity to shock by now. Still, there was something incalculably bleak about the spectacle this week of the Spanish players, one month after seizing the greatest prize, being forced to turn up to training against their will. Even amid a furore like no other, it is apt to remember that football’s renunciation of Rubiales is but the first step to throwing off the yoke of an entitled patriarchy.