Scandal to Solidarity


by Charlie Bluestein

photo courtesy of The Telegraph

graphic by Clare Cho

The Federation Internationale de Football (FIFA) Women’s World Cup, hailed as the pinnacle of women’s soccer, is one of the largest global sporting events. This prestigious tournament shines a light on the exceptional athletic prowess of female soccer players, who are making strides both on the field and in gender equality and empowerment. 

This year, however, the athletics weren’t what sparked mass media coverage and publicity. Spain, the victors of this year’s tournament, had their celebration overshadowed by a sexual assault scandal that has dominated headlines all over the world. 

President of Spain’s national soccer federation Luis Rubiales forcibly kissed Spain’s star player Jenni Hermoso during the celebration following the final whistle. The kiss sent shockwaves through the realm of sports, opening a floodgate of support for Hermoso and outrage towards Rubiales. The case is yet another instance of men in power taking advantage of women, and it further ignites the fight towards the equal treatment of women and men in sports.

This incident of sexual misconduct is not isolated: it highlights problems that Spain has had with sexism and gender inequality going back decades. From the late 1930s to the 70s, Spain was ruled by a dictator named Francisco Franco whose regime was characterized by a culture of “machismo”, the belief in male supremacy. Male aggression and violence towards women was pervasive during the middle of the 20th century. During this period, women were denied the right to vote, lacked the ability to seek divorce from their husbands and were expected to fulfill traditional and domestic roles while their husbands worked. 

Members of the Spanish government saw the parallels immediately. The Minister of Labour, Yolanda Díaz spoke out to reporters after a meeting with leaders of the players’ union.

“On Friday (the day of the World Cup Final) we saw the worst of Spanish society, of the structural machismo of this country,” she said.  

The country has modernized, but the women of Spain have not forgotten the abuse they suffered at the hands of men in power. The Rubiales affair has reopened these wounds, and women across the country were quick to support Hermoso and call out Rubiales’ conduct.

The ongoing situation immediately sparked fresh discussions regarding abuse within high-level sports and has reignited the #MeToo movement within Spain. The #MeToo movement, originally established in 2006 in New York, aims to empower women who have experienced traumatic abuse by fostering empathy, particularly among young and vulnerable women. 

During the late 2010s, the movement swept through Twitter with women from across the world sharing their support and bringing the issue of abuse to public light. This was revitalized in Spain following Rubiales’ behavior and his refusal to take responsibility. For many people, the kiss was seen as an obvious attempt for a man in a position of power to take advantage of someone, and it would be a travesty of justice if he was allowed to get away with it.

Rubiales has gone on record to defend his actions and cast himself as the victim of far-left feminism. He initially downplayed his own actions. 

“I made some obvious mistakes, which I sincerely regret from the bottom of my heart,” he said in a statement published widely in Spanish media. “The spontaneity and happiness of this historic moment led us to carry out a mutual and consensual act, the product of great enthusiasm.” 

Rubiales’ words did not resonate with the Spanish Women’s National Soccer Team, particularly Hermoso, who reiterated that in no way was there consent for the kiss. 

“I feel obligated to report that [Rubiales’] words explaining the unfortunate incident were categorically false and part of the manipulative culture that he himself has generated,” Hermoso said on her social media days after the incident. 

Hermoso’s personal statement cleared up any confusion on whether the kiss was consensual or not, and levied the full blame on Rubiales. FIFA, the Spanish Football Federation and many people of the Spanish public began calling for his resignation.

The country, now fully demanding his resignation, was astonished when Rubiales continued to assert that he “will not resign” and claimed the inquiry into his conduct was a “witch hunt” in a speech. In his address, he criticized what he referred to as “false feminism” while simultaneously attempting to paint himself as a victim and reinterpret the incident as “a mere peck.” 

After weeks of refusing to step aside, Rubiales was finally pressured into resigning, but without after heavy personal pushback. His mother went on a hunger strike to try and prove her son’s innocence, but to no avail. Rubiales left his position as a disgraced public figure — a historic win for Spanish women. 

The abuse Hermoso suffered is a symptom of the emotional and physical manipulation of female athletes, a deep-seated problem in women’s sports. Yet the commitment of feminist allies worldwide to advocate for Hermoso and the rights of female athletes demonstrates the power of the people to inspire real change in unjust situations.

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