May 20, 2024

Turns out winning the World Cup was the easiest thing the Spanish women’s team did this summer. Dragging the country’s misogynistic, neanderthal soccer federation into the 21st century has proved to be much more difficult.

Yet they might finally be on their way to making that happen after a players’ boycott of the national team led to the sacking of Andreu Camps, the federation’s general secretary, and a complete overhaul of the organization. The fact the first accomplishment, the World Cup title, had to be followed by the second is more proof — as if any more was needed — that simply winning isn’t enough for women athletes.

What a wasted opportunity. With the top-ranked U.S. reeling after its worst World Cup performance ever, Spain, which is also the reigning world champion at the U-17 and U-20 levels, should be ascending to the throne the Americans have vacated. Instead, the players are having to fight their own bosses for their dignity as women and professional athletes, the glory of their World Cup victory stolen. The moment has become a turning point.

“We want to play in decent conditions and in which we are respected,” defender Irene Paredes said. “Up to now, it’s been impossible.

“We are tired, and we can’t yet see the light at the end of the tunnel. This is grueling. [But] we know we have a megaphone right now.”

Unlike their male counterparts, women have had to turn their victory podiums into soapboxes from which to demand respect, equality and support — sometimes while fighting off sexual assault during the awards ceremony. That’s not a responsibility for which the women signed up, but it’s one most have accepted along with their medals.

The American women needed three decades and a relay team of powerful athlete-activists that ran from Julie Foudy through Abby Wambach to Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe to win pay equity. Yet without their success in winning four World Cups and four Olympic gold medals, would people have sat up and listened to their demands?

Now other countries are picking up that baton. Spain, which didn’t win its first women’s World Cup game until 2019 and didn’t have a fully professional women’s league until 2021, is now arguably at the center of the women’s soccer universe. In addition to the unparalleled success of its national teams — it is the first country to hold all three women’s World Cup titles at the same time — Barcelona’s club team has won two of the last three Champions League finals, losing just two league games in the last four seasons.

Spain players Alexia Putellas, left, Jenni Hermoso and Irene Paredes celebrate after defeating England.

Spain players Alexia Putellas, left, Jenni Hermoso and Irene Paredes celebrate after defeating England for the World Cup title on Aug. 20.

(Alessandra Tarantino / Associated Press)

Last year, Barcelona drew the two largest crowds in women’s soccer history, both topping 91,500. People are paying attention to women’s soccer in Spain and the players, like the Americans before them, are seizing the platform. And they’re not alone.

Ireland’s players, on the way to their first World Cup appearance this summer, complained publicly about poor treatment from their federation and forced a number of institutional changes, including an equal pay deal agreed to last year. Australia and Norway also have fought successfully for equal pay in recent years.

Canada’s team, the reigning Olympic champion, threatened to strike last February in a pay dispute while both Nigeria and South Africa boycotted games or training sessions in the run-up to this summer’s tournament.

When several of France’s best players said they would no longer play for longtime coach Corinne Diacre, the federation fired her. Clearly women soccer players have grown tired and are insisting to be heard.

Spain’s women showed up at the World Cup already locked in battle with their federation. Late last year, 15 players asked not to be considered for the national team as long as Jorge Vilda was the manager. The federation eventually entered into talks with the players, but little came of that or the team’s threatened boycott, so Vilda remained the coach, taking Spain to its first World Cup title.

That’s when things really went off the rails.

After the championship game in Sydney, Luis Rubiales, president of the Spanish federation, charged the pitch and lifted forward Athenea del Castillo over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. Then during the trophy presentation, he put his hands on both sides of Jenni Hermoso’s head, pulled her close and kissed her on the mouth without her consent, images that were broadcast live on global TV.

What Rubiales and his defenders in the federation saw as an enthusiastic reaction to the victory others saw as sexual assault.

It wasn’t the first time — or second or third time — that Rubiales has been accused of inappropriate behavior with women. So why was Rubiales, also a UEFA vice president, allowed to occupy two seats that oversaw the development, sponsorship and promotion of women’s soccer in Spain and the rest of Europe?

Less than a week later, after Vilda was reportedly offered a new contract and Rubiales defiantly refused demands to resign, 81 women in the national team pool — along with two men’s national team players — said they would not play for Spain if Rubiales remained in charge. When Vilda’s entire coaching staff also resigned in protest, the manager’s position became untenable, and he was fired in early September. Five days later, Rubiales resigned.

The Spanish federation thought they could weather the storm. The players proved otherwise.

That didn’t end the boycott. That happened just before dawn last Wednesday, after the government intervened in nearly seven hours of meetings involving players, the Spanish federation and the players’ union FUTPRO, helping shape an agreement that calls for immediate reforms.

As part of the deal, at least seven senior members of the federation, including Camps, will resign or be sacked and the team will no longer be referred to as the women’s team, but as simply the Spanish national team.

“We all want the same: for there to be respect towards our profession in the same way that it’s been for years in the men’s game,” star midfielder Alexia Putellas told TUDN. “The union between the players is the first step. The legacy we want to leave is that they no longer have to worry about these things.”

Two days later, the Spanish women returned to the field for the first time since the World Cup, beating Sweden in a UEFA Nations League match behind a goal from Del Castillo, the woman Rubiales hoisted onto his shoulders in Australia. It should have been business as usual, but when the 11 starters posed for photographers before the game, they served notice that business will no longer be done the usual way: Each player raised a clenched fist to display the team’s new motto “se acabó” (it’s over) written in black marker on their wrist.

In this fight, the Spanish women are just getting started.

You have read the latest installment of On Soccer with Kevin Baxter. The weekly column takes you behind the scenes and shines a spotlight on unique stories. Listen to Baxter on this week’s episode of the Corner of the Galaxy podcast.

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