The gloves are coming off after Spain’s striker Jenni Hermoso was assaulted at the World Cup awards ceremony by Real Federación Española de Fútbol (RFEF) president Luis Rubiales. In a tournament that set new standards for quality of play, Rubiales’ disrespect cast a shadow over Spain’s first World Cup victory. However, Rubiales is just one example of FIFA leadership’s brazen disregard for players.
Setting records for turnout and viewership, the 2023 tournament was a strong celebration of the truly international character of women’s soccer. Teams that have dominated, like Japan, France, Brazil, Sweden, South Korea – or built on a pay-to-play model like the US – were significantly challenged or knocked out by countries that struggle, like Nigeria and Colombia. Jamaica had to crowdfund for travel to Australia, and reached the knock-out round for the first time. Morocco was the first Arab country to make the World Cup, and advanced to the round of 16.
This tournament featured a player wearing a hijab and the first openly trans athlete. It was seen as a battleground for equal pay and is shining a light on sexism and assault present at all levels of the game. Women and working people internationally can take inspiration from the fights of the women’s national teams against sexism at work and for equal pay. International attention and solidarity have taken on sexist media coverage and abusive culture within federations.
Despite FIFA’s vow to create a “safe sport” entity, The Guardian writer Suzanne Wrack lists out at least 16 other countries where issues of abuse have been reported – including the US. Reported, but definitely not resolved. The belligerent RFEF of Spain is currently the worst, most visible example.
While the situation is evolving, FIFA responded quickly to the widespread international support for Hermoso amongst fans and athletes by suspending Rubiales for 90 days pending an “investigation.” However, there does not appear to be a mechanism to remove him from the RFEF presidency. Rubiales is also one of the vice-presidents of the Union of European Football Association (UEFA) a powerful position that he will no doubt attempt to leverage for support from the darkest corners of suits in football.
Rubiales’ thin defense that the kiss he planted on Hermoso was mutual was first a non-apology and then a doubling down of defiance that he’s being pursued in a “witch-hunt” of “fake feminism.”
The RFEF attempted to lie by speaking for Jenni Hermoso in a statement saying the kiss was consensual, but Hermoso is fighting back with FIFPro, the international player’s union.
In solidarity, 56 players for Spain, including all 23 players of the World Cup-winning squad, have said they will not play for the national team as long as Rubiales remains in charge. The federation responded that “playing for the national team is an obligation on any member of the federation called upon to do so,” now saying that they might sue Hermoso, and possibly other players, for fighting back.
Hermoso Was Assaulted On The Job
Equality is a constant discussion in women’s soccer; every mention of the team from Spain has included their battle against sexism and mistreatment by their federation when – even before the tournament – 15 players issued a letter refusing to play under coach Jorge Vilda citing bad management and a culture of abuse.
Rubiales forced Vilda onto the team, some players returned to play, but several crucial players stayed home in defiance. The tension was visible, with Vilda getting zero credit from fans for the team’s breathtaking performance. In fact, fan discussions were dominated by the conflict: can we really root for Spain if it reinforces the federation?
Anyone who watched the final would think we would be talking today about Golden Glove winner Mary Earps’ iconic block of Hermoso’s penalty kick. Is there any clearer signal to the players’ allegations than their victory being marred by an assault on their star striker on an international stage?
Or the moment the women’s team was victorious, when Rubiales grabbed his crotch in the direction of Spain’s coach Jorge Vilda, in a grossly laddish celebration? The two men have had to celebrate together, since none of the players would celebrate with them. Now, all 11 members of the coaching staff have resigned in protest – everyone except Vilda, whom Rubiales has offered a four-year contract extension with a pay bump.
In reality, FIFA and most national confederations are unaccountable, undemocratic, and corrupt. Before the final, FIFA head Gianni Infantino exuberantly delivered a sexist speech, which he clearly intended to be inspiring, explaining that women players need to “pick the right battles” to “convince us men what we need to do,” saying “you (women) have the power to change.” Mainly, the speech was about the profit potential for FIFA in the women’s game. Infantino’s thinking falls into the classic trap of telling women they need to advocate for themselves to receive anything equal to men, including pay, which Infantino dismissed as only symbolic. Citing a FIFPRO report, CNN pointed out that “across the board, top female players get paid the same or less in a year than what male soccer players of the same level receive per month.” There is still work to do.
Amplifying the workplace connection, Roger Bennett from the popular podcast Men in Blazers reacted by saying, “how has football become the last vestige for utterly crappy men?…a shame to all men, Rubiales. How disgusting! To do that anywhere with your employee is repulsive; to do it when the whole world is watching, it’s just so unfathomable of his sense of omnipotence to essentially to an employee (sic). But for that to happen, 65 hours after Gianni Infantino told women to trust men…those are the bookends of this women’s world cup which is truly, truly sickening.”
England’s Lionesses issued a statement in solidarity with Hermoso and Spain’s players. US Women’s National Team star Alex Morgan led a protest. Beth Mead and Alex Greenwood have issued statements, while Brazil and Orlando Pride star Marta tweeted her photo with a ‘Contigo Jenni’ wristband. Patri Guijarro, one of the players who refused to go back to the national team before the World Cup, said: “It’s over. With you Jenni. It’s a shame that it had to get to this point so people believe the complaints from months ago are real.”
On the men’s side, Real Betis players and Borja Iglesias have come out in support of Hermoso. Xavi made a statement, while Cádiz and Sevilla teams showed their support by holding banners for Jenni before their match. More male players should refuse to play for Spain’s national team or in club games until there’s a top-to-bottom system change in the RFEF.
Players must continue to take action internationally to kick Rubiales out for good, and go further to make concrete gains for women’s standards in federations across the globe, because these overtly sexist actions are linked to other concrete issues, like the fight for equal pay and high-quality facilities, and professional club development, ideas summed up well by USWNT midfielder, Sam Mewis (out on injury) in her pre-tournament article for The Athletic:
Equal funding for sports from birth to the professional leagues, with programs shaped by the needs of women athletes, would go far to quickly transform the professionalization of the women’s game internationally. Players’ unions at all club to professional levels have already proven to be a crucial tool in the fight against toxic environments and abusers. In one example, players organized with FIFPro are fighting the Nigerian federation which has at times neglected to even pay players.
Alongside discussion about player treatment generally, the defense of Hermoso could be a turning point in the global fight against sexism in sport, and potentially have even greater impact if it inspires organized struggle in broader society, not fizzling out as the Me Too moment did. Women players across sports and federations have organized together for equal pay, to root out abusers, and to raise the confidence and support for standing up against sexism. The rise of MeToo resulted in workplace changes for McDonalds workers and hotel workers organized with UniteHERE but could have won much more with broader organization. Players turning to their union and organizing actions, refusing to play or defying their federations, can change the structure of sports. Public ownership, elected and directly recallable governing boards made up of players and former players, not billionaires, are clearly necessary to root out ghouls like Rubiales and Infantino, and fundamentally change the system for players’ rights.
Politics In Sports Are A Reflection Of Debates In Wider Society
It’s to the benefit of working-class women everywhere that the events surrounding Hermoso’s assault and FIFA’s sexism are playing out in the open. They reveal the depth of misogyny and contempt that these powerful men and institutions have for the women players, who are essentially their employees. To a certain degree, these backward statements and actions are a reflection of the emboldening of right-wing ideas in a battle for gender equality under capitalism.
In the US, former Fox commentator Megyn Kelly celebrated the USWNT loss because of LGBTQ members like Megan Rapinoe, saying the team donned the jerseys but did not celebrate America. Former player-turned-Fox Sports commentator Carly Lloyd and her co-host Alexi Lalas have said the team’s activism has made it unlikeable, essentially telling them to stick to winning. Some commentators to greater and lesser degrees even posed the question of whether the USWNT was motivated enough now that they’ve won an equal pay agreement. Workers everywhere need to overcome this degenerate idea when they draw the conclusion that their working conditions are untenable, and that they need to fight for more.
Politics in sports are a reflection of debates in wider society, and the high-profile discussion and actions for LGBTQ equality and women’s rights in sports can contribute to further organizing. Megan Rapinoe was one of the first professional athletes to join in Colin Kaepernick’s protest in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, which brought the discussion of racism into popular culture in a broader arena even before the George Floyd rebellion became the largest protest movement in US history. That the movement wasn’t able to register greater victories is tragic and in part due to the role of the Democratic Party and a lack of independent organization. We must learn these lessons and reorganize with greater strength and democratic structures, prepared to take on misleadership within our movements, and the right wing, at the same time.
With major contracts up this year, ordinary people are debating the strike as a key tool for winning demands. A strike wave in Britain, and general strikes against the pension reform in France show a broad audacity to challenge the state. Maybe not all these workers were watching their women’s international soccer teams, but seeing players standing up for social and economic issues has historically played a role in building confidence amongst ordinary people to build movements against war, inequality, and racism in countries across the globe.
Women refused to play to win their demands going into the 2023 tournament, and the Olympics are next year. They can step up these actions and call on men’s clubs in other leagues internationally for support. It will take the working class organized in its conscious power internationally to fundamentally change society. To dismantle the misogyny of the rich and powerful, in sports and in broader society, means ultimately ending their rule entirely.