‘We had to fight to be heard’: Spain stars Putellas and Paredes speak out | Spain women’s football team

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Decades of “systemic discrimination” have long forced Spain’s female players to shoulder more than football, the Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas said as she and her fellow World Cup winner Irene Paredes for the first time directly addressed the month-long crisis that has engulfed football in the country.

“We had to fight very hard to be heard, which comes with wear and tear that we don’t want,” Putellas told reporters on Thursday on the eve of their Nations League match against Sweden. “For many decades – too many – we detected that there was systemic discrimination against women’s football.”

The struggle has taken a toll on players as they constantly have to be aware of whether or not the system is working, she added. “We are the first ones who want to be football players but we’ve had to wrap our heads around the idea that that is not possible.”

Her remarks came one month after La Roja’s World Cup win was overshadowed by the unsolicited kiss planted on the footballer Jenni Hermoso by the country’s former football chief Luis Rubiales.

“What our colleague Jenni went through cannot be tolerated,” she said. “Football is a reflection of our society and we didn’t want to set a precedent by brushing aside a situation like this.”

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The uproar over Rubiales’s behaviour laid bare the players’ longstanding fight for equality; a battle that took a fresh twist this week after 15 players from the World Cup-winning squad were called-up despite their decision to boycott the national team until changes are made to the federation leadership.

Hours of confusion followed as the players consulted on the potential consequences of continuing their boycott. Amid reports that the players could face fines of up to €30,000 (£26,000) or potentially be banned from appearing for their clubs, all of them turned up for the training camp.

“We didn’t want to come,” said Paredes. “We were forced to come. We came in anger, but we agreed to have meetings.”

Irene Paredes and Alexia Putellas address a press conference in Gothenburg before the Nations League match against Sweden
Irene Paredes and Alexia Putellas address a press conference in Gothenburg before the Nations League match against Sweden. Photograph: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images

As people across Spain and around the world rallied around the World Cup winners – hundreds turning up to cheer them on as the squad trained in eastern Spain – the government orchestrated a seven-hour marathon meeting between players, the federation and country’s high council for sports.

In the early hours of Wednesday, the government said that all but two of the 23 players who had been called up would end their boycott after the federation promised “immediate and profound changes”.

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The meeting marked a turning point, said Paredes. “We made the decision to stay, not because we are comfortable with the situation and the way that we’ve been called-up but because we believe that this is what we have to do in order to move forward with the agreements,” she said.

The players’ decision was also prompted by concerns that the Under-23 team would have to be called up in their absence, she said. “It’s like passing a bomb on to people who might have less experience and it could get more complicated,” she said.

On Wednesday, hints of change began to appear at the federation; it said it had sacked its secretary general, Andreu Camps, and had united the men’s and women’s national teams into one brand.

Paredes described it as a start. “We’re tired, we understand that things are improving but there is still no light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “We hope that this can be a turning point for people to look at, where women can raise their voice and say if something has happened, and we can eradicate these types of situations.”

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Putellas was more upbeat, describing the meeting as a “before and after” for female football in Spain, and highlighting the creation of a joint commission made up of players, federation officials and government staff to oversee the changes.

“I truly believe that the agreement we reached after the meeting that lasted all night will make our sport, women’s sports in general and as a consequence, society at large better,” she added.

Minutes before the two players spoke, the new coach, Montse Tomé, addressed reporters alone, fending off questions about why she had called up the boycotting players. “I have to be professional and put out a call-up and we chose the ones we thought were the best,” she said.

Tomé, who has come under scrutiny amid Spanish media reports speculating that she is set to be fired, insisted that she had spoken with some of the players but not all of them before the call-up. “The intention was always to help, to listen, to understand the players,” she continued. “I don’t know if it was a lack of communication or a lack of time. These are things that are outside of sport.”

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