Spanish football federation president Luis Rubiales might have expected he could just brush off kissing Women’s World Cup-winning player Jenni Hermoso on the lips during the trophy ceremony following the 1-0 victory over England on Sunday.

Some 24 hours later however, Rubiales had realised he could not just brazen out the controversy and criticism, as he has so often done during a five-year spell as Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) president marked by numerous questionable situations.

The incident, which diverted much attention away from the players’ amazing, against-the odds achievement in Australia and New Zealand, came as Hermoso and her team-mates were receiving their medals from FIFA president Gianni Infantino and Spain’s Queen Letizia on the podium in Sydney’s Accor Stadium.

As Hermoso passed further down the line of dignitaries and got to Rubiales, he first picked her up in his arms, then took her head in both hands, and planted a kiss full on her lips.

Intentado entender el beso de Rubiales a Jenni Hermoso.

— Memphys Colina (@MemphysColina) August 20, 2023

Hermoso soon afterwards said that she had been surprised by the kiss and had no way to avoid it.

“Yeah (it happened), but I didn’t like it,” Hermoso replied, while watching a video of the incident with her team-mates in an Instagram live broadcast. “But what could I do? Look at me.” (Rubiales, now 45, played professionally for 10 years as a defender, with his clubs including Levante, Valencia and Atletico Madrid, and is several inches taller than Hermoso, even in her studded boots.)

Footage from the dressing room afterwards, shared by the players, showed Rubiales with an arm around Hermoso, as he announced a holiday to Ibiza for the team, saying “there, we will celebrate the wedding of Jenni and Luis Rubiales”.

As criticism of such scenes mounted, both in Spain and internationally, the RFEF released a statement to Spanish-based news agency EFE. This quoted Hermoso as saying she had no problem with what was “a mutual gesture that was totally spontaneous due to the immense joy of winning a World Cup”.

The statement also had Hermoso saying “there should be no more made of this gesture of friendship and gratitude”. This was not accepted by many people in Spain — including the country’s equality minister Irene Montero.

“We shouldn’t assume that kissing someone without their consent is something ‘that happens’,” Montero wrote on Twitter. “It is a form of sexual violence that we women suffer regularly and until now invisibly, and that we cannot normalise. It is a task for all of society. Consent must be central. Only yes means yes.”

Member of parliament Adriana Lastra rejected any comparison with Spain goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas kissing reporter Sara Carbonero live on TV directly after the men’s team won the 2010 World Cup final — Casillas and Carbonero were a couple at the time.

“What Rubiales did is not something small, it is pure sexism,” Lastra wrote on Sunday evening.

Rubiales kisses Hermoso

Rubiales kisses Hermoso after the World Cup final (Screengrab/RTVE)

“We should not dismiss it, or compare it with Iker and Sara. Do not just laugh off these people who believe they have the right to grope women. He should have apologised and resigned already.”

Rubiales showed no intention of apologising, never mind resigning, when speaking that night.

“We do not pay any attention to idiots and stupid people,” he said on Spanish radio station Cope. “It was a peck between two friends celebrating something. (The criticism) is really all just nonsense, (from) dickheads and dumbasses. These are just losers who did not know how to see the positive side.

“Viva Espana. We have the best players in the world, and that is what we should be talking about. With one friend I celebrate with a kiss, with another giving her a hug, and whatever else.”



The mixed emotions of Spain’s World Cup win amidst federation battle

On the same programme, Hermoso herself was questioned about the reaction to the “peck” from Rubiales, and was asked to agree with the presenter Juanma Castano that it was not so important. “It is just a small thing,” Hermoso said, still in party mode after winning the trophy. “If people want to blow it up, they will. For sure, I won’t be making more of it.”

Hermoso may have preferred not to have to talk about the incident any more, but there were many people back home who believed it needed more attention.

“Yesterday we experienced a sporting occasion but also a moment of equality, of rights and respect for women,” Spain’s culture and sport minister Miquel Iceta told Radio Nacional on Monday morning. “It is unacceptable to kiss a player on the lips to congratulate her.”

Asked if someone who had performed such an act should continue as RFEF president, Iceta suggested an apology at the very least would be required.

“It was a special moment with lots of emotion, but those of us with public responsibilities must be especially careful,” Iceta said. “We have to avoid any circumstance which can be interpreted as misuse of power. I’d like to hear explanations, and for an apology to be offered, because probably when (Rubiales) sees the images he will realise something that maybe in the moment he did not.”

Kissing Hermoso was not the only behaviour from Rubiales critics took issue with on Sunday.

Just after the final whistle, while still in the VIP seats, right alongside Queen Letizia and her 16-year-old daughter Sofia, TV pictures showed him grabbing his crotch in a most undignified way as he celebrated the win.

Ay señor ! 🫣🫣😧😧

— JesúsGallego🐬 (@JGALLEGOonfire) August 21, 2023

Down on the pitch a few minutes later, he surprised Spain’s captain and scorer of the only goal in the final, Olga Carmona, with a kiss on her cheek. Carmona was celebrating without yet having been informed that her father had died two days before the match with England following a long illness.

Such behaviour suggested maybe Rubiales had forgotten himself in the emotion and joy of the occasion. Although his comments when speaking on Spanish TV directly after the whistle show that he still remembered things he wanted to make sure he said.

Rubiales embraces Bonmati

Rubiales embraced several Spain players on the podium (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Amid the jubilation as Spain won their first Women’s World Cup, many supporters of the team had mixed feelings, given not all the country’s best players were actually present at the tournament.

The October 2022 protest by 15 players was, for many, a key moment in ensuring the team had the resources and preparation required to challenge at this World Cup.



Spain are a divided team on the brink of Women’s World Cup glory

Rubiales made no direct mention of the players who have not rejoined the squad since. But he did make sure to state that winning the trophy proved that the criticism of himself and head coach Jorge Vilda had been mistaken.

“We’ve worked very hard, although there were people who would not let us work,” Rubiales said on Spain’s RTVE. “That small percentage of people who always showed frustration and resentment must learn that. I am with the other 99.99 per cent. I am with Spain. We have the best country in the world.”

This attitude fits perfectly with the pattern of Rubiales’ behaviour over his five years as federation president, when his response to criticism has generally been to brazen it out, or even to go on the attack himself.

When his 2019 decision to take the Supercopa — a larger, four-club equivalent of the Community Shield in England — overseas to be played in Saudi Arabia was criticised by many in his home country, including government ministers, due to human rights issues in the Gulf state, Rubiales responded by branding it the ‘Equality Supercopa’ and the ‘Supercopa for Women’.



Apart from the financial benefit, there’s little ‘magnificent’ about the Supercopa being held in Saudi Arabia

Rubiales’ behaviour at the most recent Women’s Supercopa, which is still played on Spanish soil, in January this year also drew attention.

The RFEF president did not, as he usually would, present the winning team’s medals. Instead, they were left in a box by the sidelines for players to collect. This was understood by many as a reaction to some of the victorious Barcelona squad having been among the 15 who protested about the national team last year.

It doesn’t look like it, but it’s the Spanish Supercopa final

— Laia Cervelló Herrero (@Laia_Cervello) January 22, 2023

Rubiales’ uncle Juan, a former RFEF employee himself, alleged in September last year that federation money was used to pay for a “party” at a rented house near the Andalusian town of Salobrena, to which “a group of eight or 10 young girls” were invited, he told anti-corruption prosecutors. Luis Rubiales has always maintained that it was a work event although, after a judicial investigation was launched, the costs were reportedly repaid into federation coffers, and no charges were brought.

“We were working,” Rubiales told Spanish newspaper El Pais the following month. “And there was also some leisure time, with a barbecue with friends — men and women. It seems now you cannot have people of different genders having a drink and a paella together, which is what we did.”

Another episode saw an architect, Yasmina Eid-Macheh, accuse Rubiales of physical aggression when they disagreed over payments due for work on a property he owned. After a four-year legal battle, Rubiales was cleared of all charges, and Eid-Macheh found guilty of harassing him and his family.

Spain fans in Madrid

Spain fans pictured in Madrid for Monday’s celebrations (Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

Through these different incidents, Rubiales has been able to continue as RFEF president without any significant consequences either for him or the federation. It may be why he felt so secure in asserting that those who felt he had done wrong in kissing a subordinate without her permission were “idiots”, “dumbasses”, “losers” and “dickheads”.

But the size of the team’s achievement in winning the Women’s World Cup also meant that the attention drawn to his actions was of a completely different scale than before.

Criticism from Spanish media and elsewhere had usually just been ignored in the past, or seen as an opportunity to fire back. But with even the country’s sports minister suggesting Rubiales’ position was under threat, some kind of more measured and less aggressive response was clearly required.

A video released to selected Spanish media outlets on Monday afternoon (but not carried on RFEF social media channels or its website) showed just how serious Rubiales had realised the situation was.

🙏 Rubiales se disculpa por el polémico beso a Jenni Hermoso

🗣️ “Seguramente me he equivocado, fue un momento de máxima efusividad”

🗨 “Tengo que aprender de esto y que cuando uno es presidente de una institución tan importante como la Federación tiene que tener más cuidado”

— MARCA (@marca) August 21, 2023

There was an admission of regret that the incident with Hermoso (who is not named in the video) had happened, and also that an apology was required. However, there was also an insistence he hadn’t actually done anything wrong, and that nobody “inside” the Spain camp (which would include Hermoso, her team-mates, and staff members) felt he had.

Instead, Rubiales said his message was for those “outside” who had “felt damaged” and “generated a lot of noise”. He was also “sure” those making the noise “will have their motives”, which fits with a mood of paranoia and mistrust in much of what the federation does, above all in their constant jostling for influence with La Liga, Spain’s top club competition.

There was still no impression given that Rubiales agreed he had committed an act of “sexual violence” or that there was any reason why he should be considering his position as RFEF president.

That evening, Spain’s second-deputy prime minister Yolanda Diaz told a press conference that she had not been convinced. “We continue to ask for the resignation of Rubiales, who has harassed and assaulted a woman,” Diaz said. “His excuses do not serve for anything.”

It would be unprecedented for a government minister to intervene and force out the head of the country’s football federation — it could also cause problems with FIFA, the sport’s global governing body, especially given Spain are bidding to co-host the 2030 men’s World Cup — but the Spanish government does have a lot of power under the complex system of sports governance here, especially over how public funding is distributed.



Vilda’s position with Spain is stronger - but World Cup win will embolden players too

Monday also saw a legal complaint brought by Miguel Galan, the head of an independent Spanish coaching association, using a regulation in Spain’s sports law under which the government’s sports council (Consejo Superior de Deportes) could remove the RFEF president for sexist behaviour. A former referee, Xavier Estrada Fernandez, also said Rubiales’ behaviour in kissing Hermoso without permission was in contravention of the federation’s regulations.

Galan is a serial taker of legal cases against Rubiales, none of which have so far caused serious problems for him.

Estrada Fernandez was already at odds with the RFEF over the Barcelona-Negreira scandal, having broken ranks and made his own individual complaint, a move widely seen as undermining the federation’s attempts to show a united front in response.

Hermoso holds the World Cup trophy during Monday’s celebrations in Madrid (Burak Akbulut/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Beatriz Alvarez, president of Liga F — the top division of the women’s game in Spain — said she was “ashamed of the image of Spanish football due to the unacceptable federation of the federation president”, adding it was “not just the kiss, but his general behaviour in the VIP balcony, the pitch, the dressing room or hours later insulting those who had criticised his repugnant attitude”. Alvarez has previously been very critical of Rubiales’ lack of support for her attempts to organise and professionalise women’s club football in Spain.

It will be interesting to see whether other more powerful figures within the Spanish football system now look to move against Rubiales, and how the whole affair will affect his ongoing struggles with La Liga president Javier Tebas. A possible change of government in Spain following a general election in late July could also be a boost for Rubiales, given most of the criticism came from left-leaning politicians, with the conservative People’s Party and hard-right VOX party staying quiet.

An enigmatic but potentially powerful response came on Monday afternoon from Spain’s 2010 World Cup-winning captain Casillas, who flirted with challenging for the RFEF presidency in 2020, but decided not to run before Rubiales was re-elected unopposed for a new four-year mandate.

Casillas tweeted: “Let’s see if I understand this: has someone resigned then or not? I don’t get it…”, complete with the popular ‘confused John Travolta’ meme from the movie Pulp Fiction.

A ver que yo me entere: entonces alguien ha dimitido o no? Qué ando perdido…

— Iker Casillas (@IkerCasillas) August 21, 2023

Monday evening’s welcome-home event for the squad in Madrid did bring a surprise in that Rubiales, previously always front and centre following any high-profile, federation-related success, did not even take to the stage as coach Vilda and the team were cheered by an estimated crowd of 20,000 fans.

Hermoso and her team-mates becoming world champions in such unusual circumstances is really deserving of such a huge celebration.

It is a shame the behaviour of Rubiales, and his subsequent self-justifications, have taken much of the focus away from their spectacular achievement.

The long-term consequences for his own position remain to be seen.

(Top photo: Oscar J. Barroso/Europa Press via Getty Images)