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A Spanish Soccer Official’s Kiss Unleashed Fury, Soul-Searching over Sexism, and a Hunger Strike

AP Photo/Andrea Comas, file
A demonstrator holds a red card reading in Spanish “Little pick and game over” during an anti-Rubiales protest and to support Spain player Jenni Hermoso in Madrid on Monday, Aug. 28, 2023.

MADRID (AP) — Spain’s Aug. 20 victory at the Women’s World Cup was a momentous occasion for the soccer-crazed country, but the joy on and off the field was soon sullied by the leader of the country’s soccer federation when he planted an unwanted kiss on the lips of a star player during the medal ceremony.

By defiantly refusing to step down as fury over the incident mounted, Luis Rubiales only exacerbated the controversy, prompting the world champions to say they will not play again until he’s gone and prosecutors to launch an investigation.

The incident is fueling nationwide soul-searching about sexism in sports, and in society at large.

The Spanish soccer scandal has even drawn in Rubiales’s mother, who defended him by launching a hunger strike.

Here is a summary of the twists and turns of the controversy:

IT STARTED WITH A KISS

As the jubilant Spanish team lined up to collect their winning medals and salute dignitaries after beating England 1-0 in Sydney, Australia, Rubiales, 46, grabbed player Jenni Hermoso, 33, by the head with both hands, and kissed her on her lips.

Moments earlier, Rubiales had grabbed his crotch in a victory gesture to those down on the field as he celebrated wildly in the presidential box not far from Spain’s Queen Letizia and her teenage daughter, Princess Sofia.

Taken together, Rubiales’s actions — replayed repeatedly on TV and social media — have shone a light on the way machismo permeates soccer in Spain, and throughout the world.

Soccer has for years battled allegations of discrimination against women, and sexual misconduct by male coaches and other officials against national teams’ female players.

AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino, file
President of Spain’s soccer federation, Luis Rubiales, right, hugs Spain’s Aitana Bonmati on the podium following Spain’s win in the final of Women’s World Cup soccer against England at Stadium Australia in Sydney, Australia, Sunday, Aug. 20, 2023.

IMMEDIATE REACTIONS

Before even leaving the field in Australia, Rubiales lashed out when asked about the immediate criticism of him that came raining down on social media. He claimed the kiss was made with affection and in celebration — and insulted his detractors in crude terms.

In an Instagram video in the dressing room after the incident, the players screamed and laughed while watching the kiss on a phone. Hermoso laughed and shouted, “But I didn’t like it!” and said she couldn’t do much about it.

The Spanish soccer federation later that day released a statement attributed to Hermoso, saying “It was a totally spontaneous mutual gesture due to the immense joy of winning a World Cup” and that she and Rubiales “have a great relationship.”

But Hermoso accused the federation later in the week of trying to pressure her and her family into supporting Rubiales.

The calls for Rubiales’ resignation only intensified.

On his way back from Australia, Rubiales issued a video in which he tried to repair the damage by saying he had no choice but to apologize. He acknowledged that he “surely made a mistake,” but said relations with Hermoso and her teammates were great.

The apology and his cocky attitude rang false, and only fueled public anger.

WHO IS RUBIALES?

Rubiales played for several minor Spanish teams and headed a players’ union before being elected in 2018 as president of the country’s soccer federation, which runs the men’s and women’s national teams and trains referees, among other responsibilities.

He has been lauded by many for helping the federation boost revenue, but Rubiales has frequently been enmeshed in controversy.

Rubiales revolutionized the Spanish Super Cup in 2019 by expanding it from two to four teams and taking it to Saudi Arabia in exchange for $40 million annually. The clubs and federation loved the extra money, but the move was criticized by women’s and human rights groups.

Rubiales is also a vice-president of the European soccer body UEFA — which has remained silent on the scandal — and he spearheaded what promised to be his greatest prize: a joint bid to host the 2030 men’s World Cup with Portugal, Morocco and possibly Ukraine. That bid is now in danger.

Although the Spanish government has some oversight of the soccer federation, it cannot name or remove its executives.

THE BACKLASH GETS SERIOUS

A few days after the game, Spain’s acting prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, stepped into the fray by saying that Rubiales’ apologies were insufficient and that his behavior was “unacceptable.”

A day later, Hermoso and the players’ union issued a statement saying Rubiales act was inappropriate and should not go unpunished.

While machismo has historically run deep in Spain, Rubiales has found himself out of step with the country’s rapidly changing social mores. Women’s rights activism has been around for decades, but was supercharged in 2018 following a high-profile case of gang rape viewed as Spain’s “Me Too” moment.

Since then, laws have been passed protecting women’s right to abortion and promoting equality in the workplace. A controversial law that defines sexual consent is seen among the most ambitious in Europe.

As players, fans and soccer officials rallied around Hermoso, the Spanish soccer federation announced an emergency meeting for last Friday. Rumors swirled that Rubiales was going to resign.

RUBIALES GROWS MORE DEFIANT

Rather than resign, Rubiales lashed out again at critics, claiming he was the victim of a witch hunt by “false feminists.” He argued that Hermoso “lifted me up” in a celebratory gesture and he asked her for “a little kiss?” and she “said ‘yes.'” Most of the male soccer federation members present gave Rubiales a standing ovation after the nationally televised speech.

But Hermoso struck back in statements posted on social media and said that she did not consent to the kiss or try to lift Rubiales and that there was no conversation like the one he described. Hermoso said the kiss “left me in a state of shock.”

The federation retaliated, releasing a statement that accused her of lying and threatening legal action.

FIFA STEPS IN, A MOTHER DEFENDS HER SON

Within 24 hours of Rubiales’s jaw-dropping speech, FIFA, the world soccer governing body, suspended Rubiales for 90 days while its disciplinary committee investigates his conduct.

It was just the first major blow to Rubiales.

Hours later, several federation members, including the head of women’s soccer, resigned. Four assistant coaches for Spain’s senior team, plus two coaches of the women’s youth teams, and five other staff members for the senior and youth women’s teams all resigned in protest over Rubiales’ actions.

The entire Spanish women’s team, plus 50 other women players, said last week they would not play for their country so long as Rubiales remained as head of the federation.

The coach of the champion women’s team, Jorge Vilda, and Spain’s men’s coach, Luis de la Fuente, initially defended Rubiales. But after he was suspended by FIFA, they changed their tune and issued statements condemning him.

In another blow, the federation’s regional leaders — who also had initially supported Rubiales — on Monday asked him to step down. That has left few supporters, other than family members, by his side.

Rubiales’ mother said Monday she was starting a hunger strike in a church in southern Spain, demanding an end to the “inhumane hounding” of her son. Outside, Rubiales’ cousin backed the mother’s call for Hermoso to “tell the truth.”

WHAT’S NEXT?

Rubiales and Hermoso have been silent since Friday.

The government has asked a panel of experts that rules on legal matters in sports to open proceedings against Rubiales. This would allow the government to seek his temporary suspension while the tribunal studies the case. If found guilty by the tribunal, Rubiales could be ruled unfit to hold office.

Separately, the federal prosecutors opened a preliminary investigation into whether the kiss was a crime and have given Hermoso 15 days to file a formal complaint as an alleged victim of sexual aggression.

The government has promised to use the scandal as justification to overhaul Spanish sports and promote gender equality.