As Spain’s women’s soccer team lifted the World Cup, its players probably didn’t imagine that they were about to go on strike. Yet they launched the action last Friday after Luis Rubiales, president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RSFF), publicly defended his conduct in “spontaneously” kissing player Jennifer Hermoso on the lips without her consent. While Rubiales refused to resign, eighty-one players committed not to play for the national team under the current leadership, and Rubiales has now been suspended by FIFA, the international footballing authority.
The nonconsensual kiss has become a lightning rod for Spain’s debates about feminism — with right-wing commentators claiming that Hermoso is being manipulated by “political” forces. But as Ignacio Pato writes, this is also a labor dispute, about a male boss abusing his position of authority, and women standing together with their colleague.
Ten Lessons From the Rubiales Scandal
1. It’s not about desire; it’s about power.
Just because sexism is structural doesn’t mean the shock of recent days isn’t real. In Rubiales’s speech last Friday defending his conduct, the head of Spanish soccer — the country’s biggest cultural phenomenon — talked about his federation’s headquarters as if it were a fortress besieged by “fake feminism.” But for millions of astonished viewers, he made it look more like some unventilated incel basement. He argued that there was no “desire” in the kiss he gave World Cup–winning player Jennifer Hermoso. But there was the exploitation of a position of power. The violence of a superior “offering” a “little peck” to a female employee — a player for a team whose job depends on the RSFF — fits with an age-old law of patriarchy: women’s bodies being available for men.
2. It isn’t “only natural.”
In Spanish media, this dispute has also become about the influence of feminism in general. Like the Thatcherites of old, today’s Spanish right counterposes “freedom” to the acknowledgement of structural social inequalities, which are called “communist.” For this political camp, men and women just need to behave “as they always have.” Any talk of social rules about interpersonal relations is just so much interference by feminists, who are taking things “too far.” That’s the political backdrop to Rubiales’s description of his kiss as “spontaneous” — one of the main excuses rolled out in recent days. Whoever objects or makes the slightest observation about what he did will be treated as driven by resentment. We keep being told “this is just the way we are.” But there is nothing less “spontaneous” than what’s been going on for centuries.
3. Changing societies is an unfairly distributed burden.
Feminist movements’ work is the strongest engine of social transformation in Spain. The public consensus that has been expressed in recent days — that a man can’t kiss a woman without her consent, still less if he has power over her employment — was unthinkable a few years ago. Yet this hasn’t arrived by magic or without conflict. The gender equality that reactionary sectors want to label as institutionally dominant and even conservative — for once, they think they’re the rebels — has been advanced by the courage of thousands of women putting their shoulder to the wheel of progress toward a fairer and kinder society. And men should recognize that this is a burden unfairly shared. On sports programs we’ve seen privileged presenters and ex-footballers talk about Rubiales’s kiss as a question of the international image of a country that wants to host the 2030 World Cup, rather than recognizing it for the sexist act it is.
4. The importance of collective, class-conscious action.
One way of telling this story in the future will be that a woman from the working-class Madrid neighborhood of Carabanchel, in union action together with her comrades and the support of the social majority, shook the headquarters of a power that had, until that moment, believed itself beyond punishment. Hermoso decided to act and communicate on a collective basis, reinforcing the social character of what happened, building networks with others. From the start, she defended her right and built a unity that has been key to this dispute. Reactionary voices try to discredit her by claiming that she is not independent — gaslighting her by painting her as manipulated by the left-wing Podemos party and especially the equality minister Irene Montero, who has represented strong progress in fighting gender violence and the politics of hate these last four years. While almost every party in Congress — including the conservative Partido Popular, if not far-right Vox — criticized Rubiales, in his speech he exclusively attacked left-wing leaders, in particular women in government like Montero, labor minister Yolanda Díaz, and social-rights minister Ione Belarra. In addition to feminism, Hermoso has responded with class consciousness. Rubiales apologized only for grabbing his crotch in the VIP balcony, next to the queen. Being more ashamed of that than his misconduct with an employee only illustrates his classism.
5. Not only the needy are disloyal.
It is not only the gestures or the not “knowing how to act.” Notice how many times perfect strangers tell each other, “enjoy your meal.” From time immemorial it has been said that bad manners are almost the same thing as belonging to the lower classes. It’s they, we are told, who speak with their mouths full, who don’t stand in line on public transport, who would rob their grandmother for a dose of drugs or fight with a friend for ten euros. Fiction glamorizes disloyalties in the upper echelons of society, but reality insists on showing that everything is always rather crappier. In recent days, we saw both the men’s and women’s team managers give their boss Rubiales a standing ovation, only to officially condemn him the day after when they saw that his ship had sunk. The hearty applause the men’s team coach gave when Rubiales denounced “fake feminism” as a “national plague” will follow him around like a bad smell for a long time to come.
6. Women’s soccer is giving a cutting response to hate speech.
Once Rubiales had finished his intervention on Friday, we might have wondered when a soccer chief was going to speak, as what we’d heard sounded rather more like a far-right rally. The standing ovations, particularly striking from the national men’s coach, gave the full picture. There was a double kind of false neutrality on display. One is the moral superiority in claiming that the worst thing that can happen to any field of activity is for it to be “politicized.” The other, any time anyone questions political privileges, insists that they are only natural. But this time, their bellowing has sounded more like a death-rattle. Women’s soccer has proven a forceful pushback, even an anti-fascist barrier.
7. You can’t keep quiet.
We may be witnessing the end of an era, the one in which it was taken for granted that playing soccer gave you a free pass for ignoring what was going on in the world around you. The reason, it was supposed, is that professionals had a lot to lose and little to gain from taking a stand. This is, surely, a utilitarian conception of human empathy, based on personal calculation. The vast majority of elite footballers, who have more control over their work than the rest of us mere mortals, have missed a golden opportunity to demonstrate a minimum of solidarity or awareness of equality. They failed to see that the broad public support for Hermoso meant it wouldn’t have been so risky to add their own. Society no longer understands that they have chosen to stay inside playing video games or just “focusing on the pitch,” rather than publicly backing their female colleagues. It’s up to them to show their connection to the real world, in exchange for something that you can’t get from transfer agents, but perhaps has a deeper importance: public admiration.
8. Football needs to get with the program.
For over a century football has been a sport that has reflected the world, and even helped us understand it. Yet it has also long been hijacked by leaders who seem to hate the sport, increasingly prostrating it to their misogyny, racism, and cult of money. For decades now, it has benefited from being a planet outside reality, an island on the margins of democracy. Embodying a kind of pop privilege, it forces its critical fans to embrace an unsustainable contradiction. The best thing that could happen to soccer, to avoid condemning itself to a bleak corner of history is, at the very least, to start opening the windows to the outside world. How can a cultural product hope to stay relevant when it lags behind society? Its survival depends on it coming down from its cloud.
9. Another media approach is possible.
The traditional sports press has infantilized soccer. It has been held up as a prodigy that overshadowed all other sports. The default mantra is that only what happens on the field matters — the false refereeing controversies, or distorted or simply invented rumors about player transfers. This has been a literal form of media “coverage,” enclosing the sport in a bubble of connected interests between club chiefs, players, and journalists who claim to avoid “politics.” The sports media’s lack of social awareness has been on full display in recent days, with their immediate embrace of the RSFF’s version of events, followed by a gradual abandonment of the indefensible. Fortunately, outlets such as Relevo — which has reminded us of the importance of having sports media that do not only understand sports — Cadena SER, or elDiario.es have shown that it was possible to do better.
10. The strike offers hope in cynical times.
Heroism, when it’s imposed on you, is bullshit. So we read in Belén Gopegui’s novel El comité de la noche. All these events have generated a series of sensations in public opinion that it would be wrong to romanticize as “exciting.” These world champion soccer players won’t be happy that they had to swap the best moment of their lives, that of a dream fulfilled, for this struggle. Surely when the final whistle blew more than a week ago, they didn’t imagine they would soon be feeling such indignation. They were already, then, a team, but they have been forced to remain so in order to face the most difficult opponent. Their teamwork is to be cherished in an era of cynicism toward collective causes, which promotes a competitive individualism that would rather have each of us alone, tired, our eyes down. These women have stood up together, drawing on the strength of thousands, with a determination that can only spread hope.