It has been 31 days since Spain’s national team won the World Cup. Alongside a traditional open-top bus parade, they have been rewarded with one sexual assault case, a three-week saga to get the offending federation president to resign, as well as threats of legal action if the players refused to return to the national team. In essence, a series of public humiliations to go with the most enviable trophy in world football.
It is difficult to sum up the events of the past 31 days, since Luis Rubiales planted a non-consensual kiss on the lips of Jenni Hermoso. But the faces of the players arriving at camp on Tuesday morning went some way to doing so. Sullen, angry and mostly silent, the women picked their way through the dozens of journalists and cameras to fulfil their duties. They did it not because they wanted to, but because new head coach Montse Tome and the federation (RFEF) had summoned them despite their protestations.
Last week 39 players (including 21 members of the World Cup squad) said they would not return to national team duty until further structural changes were made by the RFEF, but they were called up anyway. If they did not show up, they could face fines of up to €30,000 (£26,000) and the suspension of their licence to play domestically. So, under legal advice, they showed up. A solution seems to have been found before Friday’s match against Sweden, as 21 out of 23 players have agreed to stay in camp, after negotiations which ran through the night until 4:40am on Wednesday morning. But there is still a way to go.
Vero Boquete knows better than most the precarious situation these footballers – some of which are her former team-mates – face in pushing back against the federation. As Spain captain in 2015, she led the revolt which successfully forced the RFEF to sack long-time coach Ignacio Quereda. The players got what they asked for, but Boquete was never selected to play for Spain again.
“I paid a high cost, but have no regrets,” the 36-year-old says now, speaking to Telegraph Sport from Florence, where she now plays club football for Fiorentina. “The team now are fighting for something that is worth it. They are a little afraid, but they are world champions, they will never have more power than now – so it’s now or never. If not, everything will be like before, like always.”
In 2015 their revolt was top of the news agenda in Spain, a level of attention never seen for women’s football. But still Boquete and some of her colleagues had their careers derailed by those in charge at the federation. There are fears history could repeat itself.
Boquete has watched the federation’s actions in sadness, frustration and embarrassment. But she remains hopeful things will turn out differently for the players now than it did for her – not because of the federation but because of wider societal shifts.
“Society is different now than 2015, we’re in a feminist moment where people are not taking macho things anymore. In 2015 we tried to use the media and our moment, but women’s football was still really small. In the last eight years, women’s football became a big sport, now it is closer to more people. Football is the part of society that is harder to change, it’s culturally more a macho scene. The ones that we still have to change are the ones that are inside football for so many years and don’t want to lose their seats.”
Barcelona-based sports journalist Semra Hunter agrees, and says it is no exaggeration to call this Spain’s MeToo moment finally arriving. “This really has become a MeToo moment, it really has spilled over into society and culture. We were so slapped in the face with it, that there was no other option than to talk about it. There is a general feeling we can even use this opportunity to be almost like an example for other countries where maybe they also suffer from machismo or sexism in wider society. It is more than just a kiss, it’s symbolic of something much deeper than that.”
The question is whether the federation will ever catch up with society. Boquete says the players’ demands for structural changes are fair, and is critical of Tome’s appointment as head coach. She was part of the old Jorge Vilda regime, Boquete argues, as are other employees at the federation who have survived Rubiales and Vilda’s exits. Boquete says guilty parties who published bogus statements attributed to Hermoso in the wake of the kiss and failed to support the players over the past year “needed to leave yesterday”.
Above all, she is backing the players to continue this fight for equality, which she believes will remain in Spanish women’s football’s DNA for generations to come. “Full respect to the women who worked really hard before me, years before me, and I think me and my team-mates did the right thing, we provoked a change,” Boquete says. “Now the players are following that example and showing the younger ones the same example. All this process will be in the character of Spanish players in the future. A tougher character, more professional, no compromise.”