The unraveling of the Spanish women’s football program has been a story of heroes and villains. Exposing the villainous men who for so long wielded their power in sexist and punitive ways, and heralding the heroic women who have banded together to wield their power in important and enduring ways.
The leading role has been thrust upon Spanish star Jenni Hermoso, and history will surely remember the way Hermoso has stood up for herself, stood up for her team, and stood up for women everywhere. For the way she has turned the indignity of her boss’s unwanted kiss on an international stage into a movement for fairness and equal treatment.
She is a hero, one who walks in the footsteps of the women who have fought these battles before her. Among them, an American team that left the World Cup bitterly disappointed and rightfully criticized for its earliest-ever ouster, but one that remains heroic on the world stage for its own work in the fields of fair and equal treatment.
The US women’s national team as a whole and countless individual players shared public statements of support for Hermoso and the entire Spanish women’s team. Our domestic professional women’s league, the NWSL, had every one of its teams issue statements and players have worn wristbands, held signs, and spoken up in Hermoso’s honor. These are especially notable because of the way both programs have stared down similar sexism — the USWNT in a contentious and public battle for equal pay, the NWSL in a painful and public reckoning over abusive coaches and owners.
Just listen to Kosovare Asllani, one of the Swedish players who said this on Tobin Heath’s podcast not long after helping her team oust the US from the World Cup: “The US women’s national team, they’re pioneers. I mean, you are raising the game. You are opening doors for the rest of the community, the rest of the world. You are first with everything . . . You’re raising the game on every level on and off the pitch.
“Especially off the pitch.”
The bell the American women rang cannot be unrung, and we hear its echo in Spain.
The fallout for those who wronged Hermoso began with the delayed but necessary suspension of Luis Rubiales, the disgraced federation president who forcibly kissed her during the team’s celebration of its World Cup win. It continued with the recent dismissal of Jorge Vilda, the stubborn head coach and staunch Rubiales ally who has been decried by Spanish players for years for fostering a toxic team culture. The full reckoning is still to come for a nation grappling with the way this moment of what should have been national pride has been subsumed by international embarrassment.
The story is far from over, as this past week’s news that Hermoso filed an official complaint of sexual assault against Rubiales is a good enough reminder to keep the hashtag #ContigoJenni — With you, Jenni — going strong. The charge opened the door for Spanish state prosecutors to file a lawsuit Friday against Rubiales for sexual assault and coercion, charges that might be the only way to crack the defiant, tone-deaf posture taken by the 46-year-old villain.
Yet even as he twists in the winds of fate, I can’t help but think of another villain in this story and how his words continue to resonate and infuriate.
Let me reintroduce you to FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who said something prior to the final that has been overshadowed by the ridiculous histrionics of Rubiales — who we shouldn’t forget also embarrassed himself with an unseemly crotch grab of celebration done right alongside the country’s queen. Before the stirring championship match that would see Spain win its first Women’s World Cup by defeating England, 1-0, Infantino’s media address included this head-scratcher from similarly out of touch, sexist roots:
“I say to all the women that you have the power to change. Pick the right battles, pick the right fights. You have the power to change. You have the power to convince us men what we have to do and what we don’t have to do. You do it — just do it. With men, with FIFA, you will find open doors. Just push the doors. They are open.”
Yet the moment Hermoso pushed that door, when she spoke out against Rubiales, the men in charge slammed it back in her face, victimizing her all over again. After insisting Spanish officials fabricated her initial statement saying she had no problem with a supposedly “consensual” kiss, she issued a new one that said, “I felt vulnerable and a victim of an impulse-driven, sexist, out-of-place act without any consent on my part. Simply put, I was not respected.”
For that, the Spanish federation called her a liar and threatened to sue. It was only amid the international outrage that the RFEF backtracked, issued an apology, and began the process of what must become a full overhaul of its program.
Rubiales can continue to bray about the “false feminists” he blames for being intent on taking him down, Vilda can continue to complain about a firing he believes is unwarranted and undeserved, and the room full of men who erupted in applause when Rubiales declared over and over again he would never resign can crawl back in their holes. But their time is done.
They are the villains. It’s time for the heroes to rise.