MADRID (Reuters) -Spanish regional soccer chiefs demanded federation boss Luis Rubiales resign for grabbing and kissing World Cup winner Jenni Hermoso, as the country's caretaker government promised on Tuesday to ensure women play a bigger role in running sports.
Prosecutors have opened a preliminary investigation into whether Rubiales might have committed an act of sexual aggression when he grabbed Hermoso and kissed her on the lips after Spain's victory in the women's World Cup in Sydney on Aug. 20.
The incident has divided the country into supporters of Rubiales, 46, who says the kiss was innocent and consensual, and those who say the incident is a watershed moment that must signal an end to macho behaviour and casual sexual abuse in the country.
"It was terribly disgusting," said Guadalupe Martin, one of a crowd of protesters who gathered in Madrid on Monday evening to demand Rubiales' resignation, some holding signs saying "It's over", which has become the social media slogan for the movement.
"I thought, 'what is that? That's disgusting, so out of touch.' Such an abuse of power because he is the president," Martin said.
The soccer federation's regional representatives late on Monday demanded the immediate resignation of Rubiales, but stopped short of proposing a motion of no confidence, and called for a restructuring of leadership "to allow for a new phase of management in Spanish football" with more gender equality.
Many of the federation representatives had initially applauded Rubiales when he announced on Friday he would not quit.
"Following recent events and the unacceptable behaviour that has seriously damaged Spanish football's image, the (regional) presidents demand that Luis Rubiales immediately resign," they said in a statement.
Acting Sports Minister Miquel Iceta welcomed the plan by the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), and added that gender parity with a presence of at least 40% of women in the leadership of all sports organisations would be enforced under a recent sporting law.
'NO MORE DISCRIMINATION'
"It's over, no more discrimination for women," Iceta told a press conference. "We are witnessing a real social and sporting backlash."
Gender issues were a prominent political issue in Spain before Rubiales' kiss.
The outgoing Socialist-led government has presided over a raft of legal reforms around gender change, abortion and sex work. The sports law was approved in December 2022 and will fully enter into force in January 2024.
Rubiales, who was suspended by FIFA from all soccer-related activities for three months on Saturday, does retain some support, including from his mother, who is holed up in a church in the family's hometown of Motril and has started a hunger strike.
A few dozen residents of Motril on Monday gathered outside the church, shouting, clapping and holding up signs in support of Rubiales and his mother. "Stop hunt against Rubiales, enough!", read one of the signs.
Some residents said calls for Rubiales to step down were an "excessive" punishment.
"We are talking about a little kiss, he didn't kill anyone," Amparo Macias said.
Hermoso, her teammates and the Spanish government say the kiss was unwanted and demeaning.
Acting Labour Minister Yolanda Diaz demanded the dismissal of the head coaches of both the men's and women's national teams.
(Reporting by Inti Landauro, Mariano Valladolid, Belén Carreño and David Latona; additional reporting by Emma Pinedo; writing by Charlie Devereux; editing by Andrei Khalip, Ed Osmond and Conor Humphries)