Let’s talk about…That kiss controversy

How big of a deal is the Rubiales kiss?

This year’s Women’s World Cup was already being hailed as the ‘most successful in history’ by the tournament’s halfway point. Attendances reached record levels, with just shy of two million people at the matches in Australia and New Zealand. New broadcast records were set too, with millions tuning in at home, all leading to a much-anticipated conclusion for the competition just over a week ago on Sunday, August 20th, with Spain triumphing over England in the final, via a 1-0 victory.

The headline news following this final should’ve been this win, or the general success of this year’s competition – or more aptly, it would’ve been, were it not for the now infamous incident that occurred during the post-match presentation ceremony.

  During this ceremony, as Spain’s players went up to collect their medals and receive congratulations, Luis Rubiales, the president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), kissed star forward Jennifer Hermoso on the lips.

Speaking in an Instagram Live soon after, Hermoso expressed that she “did not like it”, describing it in a later statement as “an impulse-driven, sexist, out-of-place act without any consent on my part.”. Rubiales apologised initially before later backtracking and claiming the act had actually been “spontaneous, mutual, euphoric, and consensual”.

Those later remarks have proved to be more indicative of the stance he has maintained since. Despite an overwhelming amount of calls for him to resign – including calls and public denouncement from government ministers and other leading politicians, players’ unions, and sporting organisations, as well as the Spanish team, who have vowed not to play until he steps down – Rubiales has stood his ground on the issue. Saturday even saw FIFA suspend Rubiales for 90 days “pending the disciplinary proceedings opened”.

There is a lot of differing opinions about whether the incident has been blown out of proportion, made too big of a deal, etc. For as great a backlash as there has been – with many people obviously believing this backlash is warranted – there are a lot of observers who believe the kiss was innocently intentioned and inoffensive, or that Rubiales should maybe admit wrongdoing but not actually resign.

At the time of writing, Rubiales remains president, and has continued to strenuously deny that he did anything wrong, criticising the uproar as “fake feminism”, and commenting that he has been the victim of “social assassination”.

And this continual denial of any wrongdoing by Rubiales has served to exacerbate the controversy and make it an even bigger deal; after all, it’s possible that a sincere apology on his part, while staying committed to this position, could’ve succeeded in quelling the backlash. But that has not been the case.

Even before he backtracked on it, the initial apology Rubiales made came across to many people as insincere, as being more about fixing things than regretting things – “people are offended, so I must apologise”. Especially since the day before, he outright dismissed the outrage during a chat show, calling his critics “stupid” and “losers” who “we shouldn’t pay attention to”, only moving to make the apology when he landed in Spain the next day, where condemnation of his behaviour had already become widespread within both the public and government circles. Whatever the consensus on whether it should’ve become such a big deal, within twenty-four hours it already had.

In a very short time, the kiss was already starting to become a more discussed news story in Spain than their first women’s World Cup trophy win. What should’ve been a jubilant moment for Spanish soccer was quickly becoming a damning one for its president. The RFEF attempted to rectify things without marring Rubiales, playing it down as a non-issue in a statement by quoting Hermoso as saying the kiss was “a totally spontaneous mutual gesture because of the huge joy of winning a World Cup” – quotes Hermoso has since dismissed as false and “invented”.

Both the RFEF’s contested statements about the act being consensual and Rubiales’s now-rescinded apology seem to have been attempts at stopping the scandal in its track and not letting it become such a ‘big deal’ – in favour of reclaiming the positive attention for Spanish soccer the win otherwise sparked.

And more attention should indeed be directed towards this win, because it’s a shame to see coverage of both the Spanish women’s team’s achievement, and the massive success of this year’s women’s World Cup in general, being overshadowed by the scandal surrounding Rubiales’ actions. But that doesn’t exactly mean there’s good reason to let the entire controversy slide altogether.

After all, a huge part of the reason this became the gigantic news story it did, particularly in Spain, is that it ties into a larger problem of sexism in the sport that long pre-dates this scandal. The former head coach of the Spanish women’s national team, Ignacio Quereda, was removed from his position in 2015 following allegations of sexism. And his successor, Jorge Vilda, encountered similar complaints, with more than a dozen players refusing to play last year due to unequal pay, intrusive behaviour by Vilda, and there being an unaddressed culture of sexism. People are arguing back and forth about how big of a deal a “spontaneous” kiss is, but the Rubiales scandal does not exist in a vacuum, it’s part of a larger pattern of similar incidents, both in women’s sport in Spain and Spain in general, and that’s fed into why it’s become the big deal that it has.

It has become a huge news story, arguably the most heavily publicised moment to come from this year’s competition. And it has been a shame to see both the Spanish team’s achievement and the success of this year’s women’s World Cup in general get overshadowed by the ‘big deal’ a controversy like this causes. Women’s sports have so often had to fight to receive the same amount of attention and appreciation as men’s, and only in recent years are we beginning to see real change in this regard. The success of this year’s tournament, and recognition of the standard of performance it showcased, is an example of this change and of the progress that’s been made; it’s such a pity that this isn’t the headline news from this year’s World Cup.

People continue to question the ‘big deal’ that has been made of this incident – because it has taken from Spain’s win, and from the tournament. But many are questioning the big deal it has become because they are not convinced the kiss was all that serious, or because they think no fuss should be made because it was just an “innocently intentioned”, “spontaneous” “gesture of celebration”.

However, it is not right for one person to make a “spontaneous” decision to do something intimate with another person without knowing whether the other person is comfortable with this, even if it is “only a kiss”. And the nature of Rubiales’s intentions doesn’t come into it: his intentions aren’t the issue, his actions are.

Honestly, I find it conceivable Rubiales kissed Hermoso casually, as a “gesture of celebration”. But casual or not, it was not something Hermoso consented to, nor something she even got the chance to consent to – that decision was made for her by Rubiales.

The Rubiales scandal is ongoing as I write. There have been non-stop updates and developments. The RFEF, for example, who had been standing by Rubiales for much of the controversy, even claimed Hermoso had “lied” in her statements and actually threatened to sue her. Yet, in the wake of even further backlash and FIFA’s suspension move, they have also requested Rubiales’s resignation, while promising a restructuring of the women’s game.

Hopefully this is indicative of the net good this whole thing will lead to, that this ‘big deal’ over the Rubiales kiss will do more than overshadow coverage for women’s sports, and also actually do something to address long-standing problems within them.