Spanish soccer president Luis Rubiales kisses player during World Cup celebrations, prompting outcry

Spain head coach Jorge Vilda (left) triggered complicated feelings around his team's Women's World Cup title. Spain soccer federation president Luis Rubiales triggered controversy. (Alex Pantling/FIFA via Getty Images)

Spain head coach Jorge Vilda (left) triggered complicated feelings around his team’s Women’s World Cup title. Spain soccer federation president Luis Rubiales triggered controversy. (Alex Pantling/FIFA via Getty Images)

Spain’s victory in Sunday’s Women’s World Cup final was a triumphant one. It should have been a solely joyous one for players who’d “grown up thinking football didn’t belong to us,” as captain Irene Paredes said Saturday; players who’d braved Spain’s infamous machista culture, dedicated their lives to soccer, and elevated their country to the pinnacle of the sport.

But instead, it triggered complicated feelings. Then, in the aftermath, Spanish soccer federation president Luis Rubiales triggered controversy.

During the World Cup’s traditional on-field medal ceremony, he kissed veteran midfielder Jenni Hermoso on the lips.

As celebrations continued in the locker room, Hermoso was asked and ribbed about the kiss, and responded amid laughs and smiles: “Hey, but I didn’t like that!”

She and teammates learned that the kiss had been captured on video, by live television broadcasts. They were shown the video, and reacted with shrill screams, in shock.

Among fans, it sparked both confusion and outrage. There is no indication that Hermoso and Rubiales are in a relationship, or that the kiss was anything other than unwanted. To many, it reeked of the machismo that still dominates Spanish society.

It was an “attack on [Hermoso] and on all the women” who celebrated Spain’s goal in Sunday’s final, El País editor Nadia Tronchoni wrote. “What a pity that such a beautiful day ends up tarnished by this seedy machirulismo. What little sensitivity.”

Rubiales, though, wasn’t done there. He later appeared in the locker room with his arm around Hermoso. He promised the players a trip to Ibiza (a popular island vacation spot), and told the entire room that he would marry Hermoso.

When asked on Spanish radio about the kiss and the resultant outcry, he said: “There are idiots everywhere. When two people have a minor show of affection, we can’t heed idiocy.”

His brazen reaction, in many ways, mirrored his handling of a deeper controversy. Last summer, the women’s national team’s core players raised a series of concerns with head coach Jorge Vilda and the federation. They alleged that the staff, which was once reportedly “dictatorial,” remained unprofessional. They explained that the environment had harmed both the team’s performance and their “emotional and personal state.” They felt unsupported, and in September, 15 of them sent emails to the federation indicating they’d decline national team invites “until the situation is reversed.”

The federation, led by Rubiales, responded with a strongly worded statement that publicized those emails, essentially vilified the players, and turned the past 11 months into a dramatic, divisive, anxiety-riddled mess.

Spain's defender #20 Rocio Galvez is congratuled by President of the Royal Spanish Football Federation Luis Rubiales (R) next to Spain's Jennifer Hermoso #10 after winning the Australia and New Zealand 2023 Women's World Cup final football match between Spain and England at Stadium Australia in Sydney on August 20, 2023. (Photo by FRANCK FIFE / AFP) (Photo by FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)

Spain’s Rocio Galvez (20) is congratulated by Spanish soccer president Luis Rubiales beside Jenni Hermoso (11) during Sunday’s medal ceremony. (Photo by FRANCK FIFE/AFP)

On Sunday, when players won despite that tension and without several talented teammates who’d resigned from the team in protest, Rubiales appeared to take a dig at those players, or at least at all who’d criticized him for his handling of their concerns.

“We have worked very hard to be here — and that, despite the fact that some did not let us,” he said. “It is a very small percentage, but a percentage that was resentful.” He concluded by telling those people “not to speak without knowledge,” but didn’t clarify to whom he was referring.

Every single one of his antics Sunday stole attention away from the victorious players. He forced his way into the middle of the celebrations, hugging players enthusiastically and posing for pictures with Vilda. Separate images also appeared to show him kissing a second player, Olga Carmona, on the cheek. (He was also pictured kissing Vilda.)

As video of the Hermoso kiss spread, so did condemnation. Some Spanish journalists pointed out that the federation’s policy on sexual violence stipulates that “forced kisses” are considered “unacceptable conduct with immediate consequences.”

FIFA did not immediately respond to a request for a comment on the situation. The federation responded by attempting to quell the roiling controversy. It released a statement in Spanish that it said was from Hermoso, which read:

“This was a totally spontaneous and mutual gesture due to the immense joy that winning the World Cup gave us. The president and I have a great relationship, his behavior with everyone has been excellent, and it was a natural gesture of affection and gratitude. We have won a World Cup and we are not going to lose sight of what is important.”

Hermoso, though, did not post the statement on social media.

Her only post since the match is a video from the airport, in which she giddily attempts to go through security with her gold medal around her neck.

The kiss, apparently, had not dampened her joy, but that doesn’t mean it was harmless.

“This Sunday,” Tronchoni wrote in El País, “we celebrated something more than a title. Especially us. The women, the girls, the girls of this country, we celebrated that our stubbornness had finally defeated machismo.

“But there is still a long way to go,” she later concluded. “Because women kiss who we want and when we want. Because a kiss on the mouth, by surprise, is an aggression. Even worse if the kiss comes from a superior. We are in 2023. And these gestures are unjustifiable.”

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