Luis Rubiales in 2022 Luis Rubiales in 2022. Photo: Deporte Balear on Flickr.

Footballer and activist Shadia Edwards-Dashti argues the pushback against sexism in the game is only going to grow

Just when you thought football was levelling the playing field, we were shockingly reminded, at the Women’s World Cup final, that women are still performing on a man’s pitch.

Winning the Women’s World Cup should have been a highlight of her life, but as Spain’s forward, Jenni Hermoso, received her medal at the trophy ceremony in Sydney, Luis Rubiales, president of the Spanish Football Federation forced himself on her by grabbing her head and kissing her on the mouth.

As a footballer, many fellow players have shared stories with me of coaches using their positions of power inappropriately and getting away with it. This latest incident has been seen as a #MeToo moment that goes way beyond the sport, because every woman has a Rubiales story. In the clubs, streets, shops, bars, offices or on our football pitches. Whether it’s avoiding unwanted touching or dodging undesired comments, or being called a ‘liar’ like Hermoso when we speak out.

Abuse of power

In the week that followed, Rubiales sought to portray the kiss as consensual, that he asked her for a ‘little kiss’ and she agreed, allowing it to happen. Hermoso says this is ‘categorically false’. If it wasn’t in front of the eyes of millions, either watching at the stadium or on television screens, perhaps he would have denied it happened at all.

It’s astonishing that this ‘little kiss’ request is his defence in the first place, and it’s equally shocking that it’s accepted as a plausible and understandable defence by some. A top boss, using and abusing power to seize an opportunity to pressure a woman to behave in a certain way – like for instance asking for a ‘little kiss’ – is apparently perfectly normal and acceptable.

At the emergency meeting of Spanish federation delegates, he painted himself as the victim of a witch hunt and refused to resign. The declaration repeated over and again was met with loud cheers from several men in the audience, including Jorge Vilda, manager of Spain’s women’s team and Luis de la Fuente, manager of the men’s.

He declared the furore was a smear campaign by ‘false feminists’ against him and used his young daughter’s presence as evidence he is not sexist – of course no man with a daughter, sister or mother (even one willing to lock herself in a church to go on hunger strike to support her son) could possibly be sexist, right? In fact, not a single man in the assembly challenged him.

This gentleman’s agreement of complicity and silence is the real face of sexism – on and off the pitch. UEFA failed to act, and it took over a week for Fifa to finally suspend him, following uproar across the globe. Instead of protecting the women who led the nation to victory, the institution formed a back line defensive formation to protect Rubiales. All 22 members of the women’s national squad and 58 other Spanish players announced they would no longer play for their country if Rubiales kept his job. In solidarity, Borja Iglesias said he would step down from the men’s team.

Institutional sexism

Finally, prosecutors at Spain’s top criminal court have launched a preliminary investigation into whether the unsolicited kiss constitutes sexual assault. It took six days for them to act because macho reflexes immediately blame the victim. Patriarchal institutions are alive and kicking, with an agenda of attempted normalisation, a total absence of accountability and an unspoken rule that it will protect a man at whatever cost … whether it’s in the footballing industry or further afield.

In Spain the examples of sexual harassment, misogyny and gender discrimination are rife; recently Miguel Ángel Ramírez, the Gijón coach, said that ‘the goal is like the girls in a club, the closer you get to them, the more they move away.’ Last year, Carlos Santiso was still given the opportunity to take charge of Rayo Vallecano’s women’s team, despite being caught encouraging his staff to find a girl to gang-rape to help team bonding. Elsewhere, Zambian women’s national team player claimed, ‘It’s normal for the coach to sleep with the players in our team.’ Bruce Mwape was later accused and under investigation for allegedly rubbing a player’s chest. All three of these men still hold their positions, adding to an ever growing list of sexual harassment and abuse women face in sport.

Another image has gone viral showing Rubiales celebrating in the VIP box after the national team’s victory by grabbing his genitals. Just imagine being a young girl watching their heroes win the World Cup, at the same time be assaulted, and have the federation protect the perpetrator who tugged on his crotch to celebrate. They’ll probably think again and choose another sport.

There are other issues with inequality in women’s football, for example that, on average, female players earned twenty times less than the men’s team during the World Cup, or on the other end of the scale, that there was still surprisingly little coverage in pubs and bars in the UK of the women’s matches, compared to the men’s World Cup, where you’d be hard pressed finding a pub not showing the games.

But Jenni Hermoso’s successes have been sidelined too. Rubiales has not only silenced her but, as a result, silenced her victories. She still holds the record for the most goals scored in the history of both the national team and Barça, and is one of the most internationally decorated players making her mark in teams in Sweden, Mexico, France as well as Spain.

For too long, women’s rights have been benched. But, in the last week, the consent conversation has once again kicked off with everyday sexism, toxicity and discrimination on the line up.

Rubiales epitomises the ugly side of the beautiful game. But there is undoubtedly a growing team of women and allies fed up with a system of misogyny and patriarchy in football and in male dominated systems. At the final whistle, it may be 1-0 to machista, but feminism worldwide is on the comeback in this new era of extra time. I know whose side I’m on.

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