Astonishing Rubiales soap opera mars Spain’s historic World Cup triumph

Unrepentant Spanish football association president’s outrageous behaviour could prove a significant episode for Spain’s MeToo moment and the broader society

In Spain, football has a rare ability to capture people’s imagination.

In the 1950s, at a time when it was a pariah in the international community because of General Franco’s grisly fascist regime, Alfredo Di Stéfano’s Real Madrid team dominated the European Cup in a fashion that has never been matched; successes which Franco hijacked for propaganda.

More recently, the sustained brilliance of Lionel Messi was a sight to behold. Few things could tingle the body like experiencing the sound of 100,000 Catalans echoing his name – “Messi! Messi! Messi!” – around the Camp Nou stadium after he scored one of his 672 goals for Barça.

Now Spain is enduring its biggest football scandal in history, which goes beyond sport. This is uncharted territory.


For the past two weeks – since Luis Rubiales, president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), planted a kiss on the lips of Jenni Hermoso during the presentation ceremony at the women’s World Cup in Sydney – the story hasn’t left the front pages of the country’s newspapers. In an astonishing chain of events, with enough twists and bizarre turns to get a screenwriter’s fingers itching, Rubiales has dug his own grave.

During celebrations after Spain’s 1-0 victory over England, Rubiales shocked onlookers with his boorish behaviour, which included grabbing his crotch and thrusting it forward in salute while standing a few feet away from Spain’s Queen Letizia and her teenage daughter, Sofia, in the stand’s VIP section.

It was “the kiss”, though, which Hermoso claims was non-consensual, which touched a raw nerve in Spanish society. This was a male boss abusing his position of power over a junior female colleague with, in the words of Irene Montero, Spain’s equality minister, “a kind of sex violence all women suffer daily”.

In July, Spain held its noisiest general election in living memory. Despite Spain having the highest unemployment rate in the European Union, it was culture war issues which dominated debates on television and in the press. Pedro Sánchez, the sitting Socialist Party prime minister, spoke ominously of a sinister return to Franco’s times.

In the run-up to voting, pollsters predicted a resurgent conservative party, Partido Popular, would have to swallow the far right Vox Party’s election policies in forming a coalition government, which include denial of gender-based violence; Santiago Abascal, the Vox Party leader, has called for the abolition of the ministry of equality, which was established in 2008, claiming it is full of “psychopaths”.

The election proved inconclusive. Sánchez, and his left-wing allies, are trying to cobble together a government. Since taking power in 2018, Sánchez – a self-described “feminist” who installed 11 female ministers from 17 portfolios in his first administration – has ushered in several reforms in the area of women’s rights. These include menstrual leave; updating abortion legislation; and a historic bill last year, known as “only yes means yes”, which saw Spain join Canada and Scandinavian countries in putting into law affirmative consent for sex.

The bill sprung from the horrific, filmed gang rape of an 18-year-old girl at the San Fermín bull-running festival in Pamplona in 2016, by a self-styled “wolf pack” of five men, which included a police officer and a member of the Spanish Army.

The details of the case caused national outrage. When the perpetrators were initially cleared of sexual aggression charges, thousands of protesters took to the streets until Spain’s Supreme Court overturned the lower court ruling and the men were imprisoned for rape.

This is the social and political backdrop which has engulfed the 46-year-old Rubiales. He is his own worst enemy, however. Commentators in Spain have remarked that if he properly apologised for his lewd behaviour and in particular for the non-consensual kiss, which he put down to the euphoria of the moment, he could have weathered the storm. The country had just won its first women’s World Cup. He has been a successful president of the football federation since taking over in 2018. Spain, a Catholic country, loves to forgive a sinner.

Instead, Rubiales came out throwing punches: using the federation to fabricate statements from Hermoso; putting pressure on her, overtures which she resisted, to take part in a non-apology video message the day after the final, in which he said “here we saw [the kiss] as natural and normal but outside it has caused a commotion,” adding he thought the furore it unleashed was “idiotic”; and later threatening to sue her for lying and defamation.

It was no surprise that when Fifa’s disciplinary committee fast-tracked, last Saturday, a 90-day suspension of Rubiales from football-related activities it included a stipulation he refrain from trying to contact Hermoso or her entourage.

All of Spain has come to know Rubiales over the last fortnight. Beatriz Álvarez Mesa, president of the women’s professional league in Spain, said she wasn’t surprised by his attitude or inappropriate behaviour.

“It is not something isolated nor much less spontaneous. Aggressiveness, arrogance and contempt have always been present in his personal and institutional behaviour. What happened is that the character that many of us know in private appeared in public.”

Rubiales has been dogged by scandals over the last five years. These include allegations of using Spanish football federation monies to pay for an orgy in a villa in Andalucía, which Rubiales attended along with other senior male members of the federation, according to Juan Rubiales, his uncle and a former chief of staff at the federation.

The federation denies this claim, although it is one of several reported by him about his nephew’s practices to Spain’s Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office.

The testimony of Tamara Ramos, who went public on Spanish television last week, breaking her silence after a decade about the workplace harassment she allegedly suffered at the hands of Rubiales, stopped people in their tracks.

Ramos worked as the marketing manager for AFE, the Spanish footballers’ trade union, which Rubiales headed up from 2010 until 2017.

In emotional TV interviews, she detailed in graphic detail how Rubiales allegedly taunted her with sexual innuendo, asking her what colour underwear she was wearing, goading her in front of Spanish football stars like Sergio Busquets, Iker Casillas and Gerard Piqué, announcing with a smile on his face: “Time to put on your kneepads!” When she told him in private she was pregnant, and had yet to tell her parents, he divulged the news at a company meeting five minutes later.

In one of the most dramatic moments of the Rubiales saga, as pressure mounted on him to step aside, Spanish press reported widely that he was going to resign at an extraordinary general assembly of the Spanish football federation on the Friday after the World Cup victory, and that an interim president was lined up to replace him. Tellingly, there were only six women from 140 delegates in the auditorium.

Instead, Rubiales did a U-turn. Halfway through a 30-minute address, he shouted five times that he wasn’t going to resign, maintaining he was the victim of a “manhunt”, with its roots in “false feminism, one of the scourges of this country”.

The rant drew applause from the audience seated below him, including Spain’s women’s team coach, Jorge Vilda, and the men’s team coach, Luis de la Fuente, as well as the federation’s directors, who were arranged behind him on stage in elevated seats like the apparatchiks of a Soviet dictator.

At several stages during his rambling speech, he singled out his daughters in the audience, using them as props for his deranged last stand, allies in his fight against the imaginary enemies lined up against him. It was deeply unsettling.

“I want to say,” he said, “looking at my three daughters, who are there today . . . you are true feminists, not the false feminism that is out there.”

Last Monday, his mother came out to bat for him. She locked herself in a church on hunger strike in Motril, a small city close to the Mediterranean coast in Andalucía where Rubiales grew up, threatening to starve herself to death unless Hermoso “tell the truth”, claiming her son “is incapable of hurting anyone”. She was admitted to hospital briefly late on Wednesday, which drew an end to her hunger strike.

Rubiales is a dead man walking. His time at the Spanish football federation is over. Knowing his personality, though, he will likely fight until the bitter end, legally, unless he accepts a negotiated exit. His soap opera has overshadowed Spain’s World Cup victory, but Spain’s MeToo moment could have a more profound social impact than a sporting one.