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Rubiales case sparks hope for ‘seismic’ changes in Spanish football

Madrid, Spain – Just over a week after the head of Spanish football kissed a female player on the lips after the women’s team won the Women’s World Cup, the sport – and perhaps Spanish society – have undergone a “seismic” change, experts say.

The macho culture that has plagued the Spanish women’s game for decades has been dealt a serious blow after the scandal sparked protests around the world in what was dubbed Spanish football’s #MeToo moment.

Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) President Luis Rubiales was suspended by FIFA on Saturday while it investigates allegations that he kissed striker Jennifer Hermoso against her will. The player has said she did not consent to the kiss and felt “vulnerable and a victim of an aggression”.

Rubiales said he will use the investigation to clear his name and prove he was telling the truth that the kiss with Hermoso was consensual.

But some experts within the Spanish women’s football insist that even if Rubiales never returns to lead the country’s national sport, deeper changes are needed to help women players.

Graham Hunter, a British journalist who writes about Spanish football and has met Rubiales three times, said the events of the past week represented a “seismic” victory for the Spanish women’s team over the deep-rooted sexism in the country’s football establishment.

Hunter said that anyone wishing to understand the prevalent sexism in Spanish women’s football should look at how last year’s mutiny by 15 players – who claimed the way the game was being run was harming their mental and physical health – was handled by the federation, which backed the coach over the players.

“[The players] were gaslit. The statement released by Luis Rubiales said that not until they recognised their ‘error’ would any of them be chosen again. Effectively, [the statement said it] was their fault,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Further evidence would be that the Spanish Women’s Super Cup [was] played between Barcelona and Real Sociedad in January when no one from the federation – including Rubiales – stood at the end to award the female players their medals. The players were left to collect their medals from boxes.”

Spain’s women’s national team have announced that they will not play any more games unless Rubiales steps down, and the majority of the team’s coaching staff have also offered their resignations. Meanwhile, the Spanish government is seeking Rubiales’s removal in Spain’s Administrative Court for Sports.

Hunter said the Spanish women’s team’s struggle over Rubiales could end up being similar to when the Belgian player Jean-Marc Bosman challenged transfer rules for professional footballers. The landmark 1995 ruling by the European Court of Justice changed the way footballers are employed, allowing professional players in the European Union to move freely to other clubs at the end of their contracts.

“I was in Jean-Marc Bosman’s parents’ front room interviewing Bosman the last time when something so seismic happened when a player or players stood against the international football system,” Hunter said.

“Seismic is the only word for describing how these intelligent, talented women banded together, pointed out how they refused to be treated this way and generated extraordinary support around the world.

“The week has been extraordinary not only for the way in which it exposed Luis Rubiales and all that makes him now a damned figure, but for the way in which these women organised and communicated and won in a short time an extraordinary victory which matches that against England last Sunday.”

Pedro Rocha, the interim president of RFEF, will hold an “extraordinary emergency” meeting on Monday to analyse where Spanish football stands in the wake of Rubiales’s suspension.

Women’s groups will hold a rally in Madrid in support of Hermoso, who was part of the team that beat England 1-0 in Sydney in the World Cup final on August 20.

Dolors Ribalta Alcalde, an expert in women’s football at the Ramón Llull University in Barcelona who was also a player for RCD Espanyol, a team in the second division in Spain, said the suspension of Rubiales is a welcome step, but deep structural reforms are still needed to the women’s game.

“We need equal investment with the men’s game in terms of salaries, stadiums, promotion and development of talent,” she told Al Jazeera.

“More visibility is needed. The media and the leagues should promote women’s football more to attract more spectators. Women should also have equality of opportunities in terms of trainers, referees and executives.”

Ribalta Alcalde knows from first-hand experience the sexism that women players suffer.

“I could not play when I was a girl in the 1980s and 1990s in a children’s team because it was not legally allowed, so I had to play in the street informally,” she recounts.

“I started playing in the first team at RCD Espanyol when I was 18. I had no formal training. When we won a league the success became secondary because they wanted us to pose naked in a calendar, as happened with the Matildas Australian team in 1999. We had to train and play in the worst possible pitches and at the worst times.”

While Spain’s first women’s professional league was formed in 2021 and there are 90,000 women and girls registered as players by La Liga Femenina, it is a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of men who are registered to play.

Professional female players are paid on average about $65,000 per year in Spain, while the top elite players like Alexia Putellas, who plays for Spain and Barcelona, are paid about $100,000 per year – a far cry from the sums in the men’s game.

After the protest by 15 Spanish national team players against women’s team coach Jorge Vilda, conditions were improved but three of them said they would never again play for Spain as not enough had been done to improve their working conditions and only three others made it into Spain’s World Cup squad.

Ribalta Alcalde said the Rubiales case had led to many saying, “enough is enough”.

“The events of the past week have united many people to cry out ‘it’s over’, respect Jennifer Hermoso, women players, women and to continue advancing in women’s sport and in society,” she noted.

Spain’s Labour Minister Yolanda Díaz held a meeting with FUTPRO, the union that represents the women’s national team, and the Association of Spanish Footballers on Monday to discuss ways to ensure “abuse and bullying in women’s sport would never happen again”.

After elections in July failed to find a clear winner, Spain has been left with a caretaker government so efforts to push through deep changes in football and sport may be put on hold.

Meanwhile, prosecutors at Spain’s top criminal court said later on Monday that they had opened a preliminary investigation into whether the Rubiales kiss could constitute sexual assault.

While the #MeToo movement around the world has prompted advances for women’s rights, in Spain a series of high-profile court cases involving sexual assaults against women have led to changes in the law and attitudes in the country.

Last year, the law was toughened on sexual offences after the notorious “Wolf Pack” case in which an 18-year-old woman was gang-raped at the world-famous bull-running festival in Pamplona in 2016. The 2018 conviction on lesser charges of five men – who called their WhatsApp group the Wolf Pack and used it to share images and video of the attack – sparked protests across the country.

The year afterwards, their sentences were increased by the Supreme Court and they were convicted of the more serious offence of rape.

Mariam Martínez-Bascuñán, a political scientist who specialises in feminist issues at the Autonomous University in Madrid, said recent events showed progressive Spain had scored a victory over sexism.

“The events of the past week have shown us that there is an advance in the progressive Spain which clashes head-on with another Spain which needs to change,” she told Al Jazeera.

“What we have seen is very indicative of what we are seeing on a global scale. Spain has been pioneering in terms of same-sex marriage and laws against domestic violence. This is linked to these advances and what we are seeing in terms of advances in other countries.”

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