It was a record-setting FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia-New Zealand, which saw the brave Spanish players overcome a dysfunctional relationship with coach Jorge Vilda and the related absence of many of their stars to beat England in the final and secure their first World title.
But their tale of triumph was tainted by the shadow of impropriety cast by Luis Rubiales, president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation. Rubiales’s theatrics on the grand stage — a lewd crotch grab, an unwarranted kiss on the lips of Jenni Hermoso, and the fireman’s lift of Athenea del Castillo — was a crude reminder of misogyny that continues to rule sports.
Despite the justifiable clamour for his removal — 81 women players have refused to play for Spain while he is in charge, and men’s football superstars like Andres Iniesta and Hector Bellerin have also been vocal in their condemnation — and a 90-day ban by FIFA, pending investigations, he clings to his throne, refusing to retreat.
FIFA’s promise of “Safe Sport” in 2021, a harbinger of change, has once again proved hollow.
Zambia, playing on the global stage for the first time, was coached by Bruce Mwape, who allegedly rubbed his hands over the chest of one of his players days before the team’s historic win over Costa Rica. Though stained by long-standing allegations of sexual misconduct, Mwape is still in contention for a role with the men’s national team.
Footage has also emerged of Vilda — 15 first-team Spanish players have refused to play under him since last year — inappropriately touching a female staff member moments after Olga Carmona scored the only goal of the final.
The resonance with past episodes is eerie. In 2018, Afghanistan’s national team players had recounted harrowing abuses by their federation’s president, who was subsequently banned for life.
Three years earlier, all 23 members of the Spanish national team had called for the ouster of the then manager Ignacio Quereda, later revealing, in a documentary ‘Breaking the Silence’, that the coach had overseen a culture of sexism, homophobia and bigotry during his 27-year reign.
Similar stories of misdemeanour have emerged from Haiti, Canada, Australia, Zimbabwe and India, reflecting a sinister underbelly that the sport refuses to acknowledge and rectify.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino asked women to “pick the right battles. Pick the right fights”. But it is now FIFA’s battle to overhaul a structure that for long has shielded this darkness. The consequences that Rubiales faces should not be tokenistic or a gentle rap on the knuckles, a mask to veil the systemic rot. The call is to take the fight across the global pitch and offer the sport, its women and children, robust mechanisms to report misconduct that will lead to swift, strict actions to eradicate this menace.
Incidentally, the Women’s World Cup saw a 300 per cent increase in prize money to USD 110 million, but the amount was still significantly lower when compared to USD 440 million for the men’s 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Football, FIFA and its president can’t continue to feign commitment to equality and women’s rights. And if football cannot offer sanctuary to its players, it’s an accomplice in their betrayal.