The first training session for Spain’s women since winning the World Cup in front of 75,784 spectators last month came on Wednesday evening in the less glamorous surrounds of the Oliva Nova sports centre, near Valencia.
It was their only chance for a proper practice period together before Friday’s Nations League game away to Sweden, and most of the 23 players taking part did not want to be there. Instead, they felt they had been backed into a corner by the Spanish football federation and national government, believing they had to accept promises of future changes to help avoid further embarrassment for the men who still run both the sport and wider society in Spain.
Since their World Cup final triumph on August 20, Spain’s women’s players have been continually thwarted in their bid to finally get the respect and equality they deserve.
That 1-0 defeat of England in the Australian city of Sydney was immediately followed by then Spanish federation president Luis Rubiales’ non-consensual kiss of Spain player Jenni Hermoso and celebratory crotch-grab while alongside female members of Spain’s royal family.
Those actions were not surprising to those who had suffered at the federation during his presidency or closely followed his behavior. But they did draw attention, especially from people not in Spain or outside football, to how dysfunctional and badly run the Spanish federation was.
Disorder at federation HQ had been mostly tolerated, or even encouraged, by many in Spanish football and society. There have been some resignations during Rubiales’ five years in office, but not many. The government, all the way up to the prime minister Pedro Sanchez, were aware of his character and behaviour. But officialdom previously chose not to punish him, or those around him, even when confronted with evidence of potential wrongdoing.
After that night in Sydney, Sanchez and other senior figures — including CSD (High Sports Council) president Victor Francos — knew they had to make a lot of noise about Rubiales’ unacceptable behaviour, but the only organisation to take any real action was world football’s governing body FIFA, which suspended Rubiales as president. Only then were there any public signs of anybody at the domestic federation moving against their boss.
On their return from the World Cup, Hermoso and her team-mates mostly tried not to make headlines themselves — even as the federation and more extreme parts of Spanish media and society defended Rubiales by attacking them.
All the attention was on Rubiales — through his “false feminism” rant, his mother going on hunger strike in a church, and that high-profile resignation announcement on British TV. His departure gave the impression that real change was happening, while behind the scenes the old (most completely male-dominated) system was struggling frantically to retain its privileges and power.
Spain’s men’s team wanted to be seen to support their female counterparts. But they were most keen on qualifying for next year’s European Championship while doing nothing practically to help the women achieve equality. Before the men’s side played Cyprus in Granada last Tuesday, captain Alvaro Morata showed off the Nations League trophy they won in June. There was no official recognition at the stadium of the country’s women having lifted a much more prestigious trophy only a month ago.
Through last week, the women’s team remained firm in their commitment to not represent the federation again until major changes were made. This included removing the RFEF’s all-powerful general secretary Andreu Camps, legal advisor Tomas Gonzalez Cueto and head of integrity Miguel Garcia Caba.
Rubiales’ successor as federation chief, Pedro Rocha, and the federation’s head of women’s football, Rafa del Amo, asked the players to return now on the understanding that, in a month’s time, “some of what they have asked for” will be done. Last Friday, the players decided not to do this, because they still did not trust the RFEF.
That same day, Rocha (who was picked by Rubiales as his successor) and the other ‘barons’ from Spain’s regional federations had a long meeting at RFEF headquarters just outside Madrid. But the Canary Islands’ federation president admitted afterwards that the issues around the women’s team were not even discussed.
On Monday, new women’s coach Montse Tome surprised the protesting players by naming them in the squad for this week’s games against Sweden and Switzerland. Tome, previously an assistant to sacked World Cup-winning coach Jorge Vilda, admitted to applauding elements of Rubiales’ infamous speech and said there was “confidence” the players would report for national team duty. She praised their “professionalism” and said they would be returning to a “new era” with a “more professional work climate”.
Most of the players she was talking about were surprised to be included in the squad. They did not want to represent a federation that had not even started to make the changes they had been calling for.
The squad announcement was a clear power move to force them to do something they had publicly said they did not want to do.
But the players were worried about the consequences of not accepting these call-ups. Under Spain’s Sports Law, they believed they could face fines of up to €30,000 (£26,000, $32,000) — more than the annual minimum salary for players in Liga F, the top division of Spanish women’s club football — or the removal of their licenses to play in Spain, potentially killing their entire careers, or at least forcing them to move to another country if they wanted to earn a living in the game.
There was more confusion, as the players were given hastily drawn-up travel plans to make their way to the not-easy-to-reach town of Oliva, an hour’s south drive of Valencia.
Some were again forced into uncomfortable situations, such as 2021 and 2022 Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas, who had to run a gauntlet of reporters’ questions as she went through security at Barcelona airport.
The players who traveled were under pressure from as high as the CSD president Francos, who said the “law must be followed” when asked about potential punishments for ignoring the call-up.
Francos then oversaw six hours of talks in Oliva, going well past midnight, which ended in all but two players agreeing to play these two games . That the two who left the camp — Mapi Leon and Patri Guijarro — would not be punished was then claimed by Francos as a positive he had achieved for them.
One player who did not have to worry about whether to accept the call-up was Hermoso, who had not been included in the squad. Tome said the omission was to “protect her”, without being clear about what she meant.
Hermoso responded in a statement: “Protect me from what? And from whom? We have been searching for weeks — months, even — for protection from the RFEF that never came. The people who now ask us to trust them are the same ones who today revealed the list of players who have asked NOT to be called up.
“The players are certain that this is yet another strategy of division and manipulation to intimidate and threaten us with legal repercussions and economic sanctions. It is yet more irrefutable proof that shows that even today, nothing has changed.”
— Jenn1 Hermos0 (@Jennihermoso) September 18, 2023
Hermoso was correct in saying that, even with Rubiales and Vilda gone, there were no significant signs yet of the deep changes she and her team-mates want. The players were not just talking about what happened at the World Cup final, as the origins of their movement to change date back a long, long way.
In a recent article by The Athletic, past Spain women’s team players revealed their experiences of abusive, sexist or coercive behaviour, and very poor levels of professionalism, standards and investment from the RFEF going back much more than a decade. The atmosphere and unequal treatment continued after Rubiales became president in 2018, and in the years leading up to this World Cup under Vilda (with Tome as his assistant). It continued after their World Cup victory last month, with the federation’s public and private threats and attacks on Hermoso and her team-mates.
These huge historical and structural problems are on a different level from Rubiales’ behaviour in Sydney, and fixing them is vital so that future generations of Spanish players can have the best chance of success.
Recent weeks have brought some cosmetic tweaks — Rocha promoted some existing federation female staff into higher roles, or at least gave them job titles that sounded more impressive — but the same people are still making the decisions that matter.
Wednesday afternoon brought a federation statement announcing it would use the same branding — ‘“Seleccion Espanola de Futbol” — for all its teams, male and female. It stated that this linguistic change was “not trivial” but an important development towards equality. “More than a symbolic step,” stated Rocha. “We want this to be a change of concept, a recognition that football is football, whoever is playing it.”
Later that same day, as the players trained in front of a few dozen fans in Oliva, the federation released another statement. They apologised again to Hermoso and her team-mates for what happened after the World Cup final but claimed the players’ belief they were pressured to return and play this week’s games was mistaken. This read as yet another apparent attempt at spin while remaining short on any substantive measures being taken.
Meanwhile, Spanish daily sports newspaper Marca’s top headline yesterday said, “The government promises them amnesty”, as if the women’s players had done something wrong and were being allowed to get away with it. That is despite it being far from clear that the Spanish courts could really have punished any players under current legislation unless the federation really dug its heels in and pressed through the legal system for the strongest sanctions.
All this is an incredible lack of respect for players who have not only done nothing wrong but have shown bravery in fighting for equal rights and respectful treatment, going back years.
That Spain are sending a high-quality team to face Sweden tomorrow was a victory for Rocha and Francos as well as Sanchez, who yesterday had a meeting in New York with FIFA president Gianni Infantino to boost Spain’s chances of co-hosting the men’s World Cup finals in 2030.
España está trabajando con Portugal y Marruecos en una candidatura sólida para el Mundial 2030, con un proyecto ambicioso.
Así se lo he transmitido al presidente de @FIFAcom.
Y lo hacemos con una idea clara: el fútbol es un deporte de alcance global que puede transmitir valores… pic.twitter.com/WFfmelnZQq
— Pedro Sánchez (@sanchezcastejon) September 19, 2023
After training on Wednesday evening, Putellas told reporters, “I’ve not stayed because I’m especially happy,” while suggesting she expected more developments ahead of the Sweden game. The first of those came an hour later, with news that federation secretary Camps was being forced out.
That could be a sign of further important changes, that the players are finally being properly listened to, but so much more is required. A completely new start is needed, including the appointment of an RFEF president from outside the current federation structures. If that happens in the coming months, it will be a huge achievement by Hermoso and her team-mates — arguably even more significant and impressive than winning the World Cup.
But it remains the case that, had Rubiales not acted as he did that night in Sydney with millions around the world watching, he would still be in charge, and these players would still be struggling to achieve any institutional backing in their bid for equality.
The last few weeks have shown that, despite being world champions, Spain’s women have very little power over their careers or influence within football. They are continuing to play under a coach they did not respect or admire, and battling against a federation which has not respected or valued them as players or people.
Men and women throughout Spanish sport, and society, should be doing far more to help them.
(Top photo: Jenni Hermoso; Jaime Lopez/AFP via Getty Images)