Content Warning: sexual assault

On August 20, 2023, with the ball fixed in the hands of Spain’s goalkeeper, the final whistle blew in the Women’s World Cup final. The stadium erupted with cheers. Spanish players piled on top of each other. For the first time in the tournament’s 32-year history, Spain was crowned as champion. 

This summer’s World Cup was historic. The tournament served not just as a demonstration of the best quality of play worldwide, but also as a tangible representation of the explosion of skill and global reach of women’s soccer over the past few decades. This growth can be attributed only to the women themselves, who earn their success in spite of misogynistic federations that underfund and mistreat their teams. As the Spanish players hoisted the World Cup trophy during the post-final ceremony, a grim reminder of that reality was displayed on live television: Spanish Football Association president, Luis Rubiales, forcibly kissed midfielder Jenni Hermoso. This televised assault has unveiled a history of abuse of the players at the hands of their federation and served as the catalyst for a collective and concentrated fight for justice.

Spanish players have been protesting their federation publicly for years. In 2011, Laura del Río, the national team’s all-time leading scorer at the time, announced her retirement from the team. She cited a dispute with coach Ignacio Quereda as the reason behind her departure.  Over the course of Quereda’s 37-year tenure, the team qualified for the World Cup just once in 2015, only to exit the tournament in the group stage. Shortly thereafter, the players issued a collective statement demanding better treatment from their federation: “This generation of players has the talent and commitment to have gone further… We believe that we have reached the end of an era and change is required.” Quereda was fired soon after, and Spain’s world ranking skyrocketed. Unfortunately, Quereda’s replacement was not sufficient to put an end to the Spanish team’s struggle against their federation.

Laura del Rio would not be the last to publicly protest abusive coaching. In September 2022, following a disappointing exit from the European Football Championship, 15 Spanish players emailed their federation individually with identical messages. They claimed that toxic conditions in the national team were “significantly affecting [their] emotional state” as well as overall “health” and consequently did not wish to be called up to the roster until appropriate changes were enacted. The emails came after a fruitless private meeting with Luis Rubiales, whose close relationship with Jorge Vilda—the coach who succeeded Ignacio Quereda—essentially ensured the players’ complaints would be ignored. The Spanish federation retaliated by declaring that the players who had submitted resignations could only return to the team when “they accept[ed] their mistake and ask[ed] for forgiveness,” outraged that the team would “question the continuity of the national coach.” The conflict escalated when the players claimed the federation obfuscated their terms: the players never explicitly requested Vilda be fired, nor did they formally resign. Ultimately, only three of the fifteen protesters were granted a spot on the 2023 World Cup roster. The message from Vilda and Rubiales was clear: the federation had no qualms about moving forward without them.

For Spain, then, the World Cup was already contentious enough. Luis Rubiales’ sexual assault of Jenni Hermoso was a televised instance of the abuse protested by players for over a decade. During the celebrations afterwards, Hermoso was recorded stating she “did not enjoy” the kiss. Outrage on social media compelled the Spanish federation to release an announcement with a supposed statement from Hermoso which praised Rubiales and affirmed that she had consented to the kiss. Hermoso denied that these were her words. Following condemnations from several players’ unions, FIFA opened disciplinary proceedings against Rubiales. That same day, Rubiales passionately announced during an assembly that not only did he refuse to resign—emphasizing the consensual nature of the kiss—but he also had plans to extend Jorge Vilda’s contract for four more years. The news was met with supportive applause and a standing ovation for Vilda. In response, 81 Spanish players—including the World Cup squad—declared a strike until the leadership of their federation changed. Hermoso released her own statement, rejecting all of Rubiales’ remarks as “categorically false and part of the manipulative culture that he himself has generated.”

The Spanish federation proceeded to threaten legal action against Hermoso, denying her account of the assault even when Rubiales was provisionally suspended by FIFA. Rubiales’ eventual resignation on September 10 came only after the withdrawal of support from the Spanish federation and a lawsuit for sexual assault and coercion filed against him, which was only made possible by Hermoso’s testimony. Jorge Vilda was fired on September 5, with former assistant coach Montse Tomé named as his successor and the first woman to serve in the role. On September 15, Rubialies was issued a restraining order for his assault of Hermoso. 

As of September 16, however, the majority of the Spanish players have decided to continue their boycott of the national team. “The changes which have been made are not enough so that the players feel in a safe place, where women are respected, women’s football is supported and where we can give our all,” the players communicated in a letter. They demanded significant restructuring of the women’s organization and federation overall. 

In the span of a month, Hermoso and the Spanish national team went from one fight to the next. That it necessitated the unmatched global attention from the biggest trophy in the world to make a dent in a 45-year reign of abuse, and for the world to listen to the voices of Spanish players, is shameful. It is remarkable, too, that the Spanish federation required such excessive discourse, proceedings, and suffering on Jenni Hermoso’s part to punish the perpetrator of a televised sexual assault. 

Across women’s soccer, teams at every level are plagued by similar issues: abuse and harassment are swept under the rug and enabled by apathetic federations helmed by men who back each other’s power in seeming perpetuity. From the National Women’s Soccer League to the Zambian team and more, these men mistreat female players without consequence—and have for far too long. It should no longer take international outrage to force a single federation to take accountability for decades of abuse. Abuse—inflicted by misogynistic organizations and the men who lead them—must no longer be tolerated. And though the demonstrated courage, strength, and resilience of female athletes deserves the utmost respect, it should no longer fall on the shoulders of the women themselves to fight alone: it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that future trophies are won untainted by the shadows of misogyny and bigotry.