It was a triumphant moment across Spain and around the world, a precedent-setting show of talent that offered a tantalising preview of what lies ahead for women’s football. But the day after Spain’s women won the World Cup, it was the country’s football chief – a 45-year-old man – dominating domestic headlines.
The rumbling started soon after Spain’s 1-0 victory over England in the final in Sydney on Sunday night. As the Spanish team collected their gold medals, Luis Rubiales, the president of the Spanish football federation, grabbed the forward Jenni Hermoso by the head, pulling her towards him and planting a kiss on her lips.
Soon after, Hermoso said on a live stream that she “didn’t like it”. She later added: “But what can I do?”
Video of the unwanted kiss circulated swiftly online, sparking outrage at home and abroad. The minister of equality in the caretaker government, Irene Montero, described it as “a form of sexual violence that we women suffer on a daily basis and until now has been invisible”. She added: “We can’t normalise this.”
Her view was backed by Nadia Tronchoni, who leads sports coverage at the newspaper El País. “It’s an intrusion,” she wrote. “An invasion of one’s personal space. Without consent. An aggression.
“What a pity that such a beautiful day ends up being marred by this trashy machismo.”
The country’s acting sports minister, Miquel Iceta, described the gesture as “unacceptable” and demanded that Rubiales offer an explanation and apology. A spokesperson for the leftwing coalition Sumar, Marta Lois, joined the many on social media calling for Rubiales to resign.
As the gesture threatened to overshadow the incredible achievements of La Roja, the federation stepped in, circulating comments by Hermoso that appeared to clarify her position, saying it was a “natural gesture of affection”.
“It was a totally spontaneous mutual gesture because of the immense joy that winning a World Cup brings,” said Hermoso, in comments provided to Agence France-Presse by the Spanish federation. “The president and I have a great relationship, his behaviour with all of us has been outstanding and it was a natural gesture of affection and gratitude.”
On social media, some sought to defend Rubiales, pointing to videos showing him kissing other players on the cheeks and embracing them.
Rubiales initially rejected suggestions he had acted inappropriately. “It was a kiss between two friends celebrating something,” he told the broadcaster Cope on Sunday, dismissing those who saw it differently as “idiots and stupid people”. He added: “Let’s ignore them and enjoy the good things.”
On Monday he appeared to strike a more conciliatory note. “We saw it as something natural, normal and not in bad faith, but there are people who have been hurt by this and I have to apologise. There’s no other way, is there?” he said in a video distributed by the federation to Spanish media. He acknowledged the incident had “somewhat tarnished the celebration”.
He did not refer to Hermoso by name in the video, instead describing her as a player “with whom I have a magnificent relationship”. The gesture, he said, had been made in a “really spontaneous way”.
He sought to play down his earlier response. “There are also some statements on my part in which I said that I think this is idiotic. It was because no one here on the inside gave it the slightest importance, but outside it has been given importance. So, I also want to apologise to those people because, if it has been seen differently from the outside, surely they have their reasons.”
Across much of Spain, it was impossible to untangle the unwanted kiss from the deep divide, laid bare last year, between Spain’s football establishment and its female players.
Last year 15 players refused to play for the head coach, Jorge Vilda, complaining about his tactics, training methods and management style. Vilda said at the time of the boycott the accusations were “unjust” and the country’s football federation maintained its support for him. Three players subsequently returned and during the tournament Vilda has tried to steer attention away from the dispute and maintain focus on the football.
Seemingly at the heart of the feud was the sentiment that the federation – led by Rubiales – did not truly believe in women’s football.
“These are not two people on equal terms,” the journalist Ana Requena Aguilar wrote in ElDiario.es. “The two are part of a hierarchy in which he is above, Rubiales has power over Hermoso.”
Speaking on the Spanish broadcaster Cadena Ser, the presenter José Luis Sastre hinted at how this unequal relationship had given rise to a double standard. “In the hundreds of celebrations that we’ve seen between Rubiales and male players, he didn’t grab any of them by the head in order to give them a kiss without asking.”