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The kiss: sexual abuse in women's soccer and beyond

Updated: Oct 12, 2023

Art by Jessica Calaguas

On August 20th, after a month of trials and tribulations, Spain won its first ever FIFA Women’s World Cup against England 1-0. Jenni Hermoso, one of Spain’s highest scorers, gathered with her teammates for their medal ceremony: the crowning moment for any winner. However, after being medaled on the world stage, she was forced into a kiss by Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) president, Luis Rubiales.

This moment, one that was supposed to be monumental for the soccer player, had stripped her victory of its merit and reduced it to where even in women’s sports: men had the power to take all the attention. Hermoso wrote in a statement, “I felt vulnerable and a victim of an impulse-driven, sexist, out of place act without any consent on my part.”

Following her statement, the RFEF defended Rubiales and threatened to pursue legal action against Hermoso. After this 81 players, including all 23 members of the winning team, went on strike and refused to play for Spain until leadership changes were made. On August 26th, FIFA made the decision to suspend Rubiales for 90 days as investigations pursue. Finally on September 10th, he resigned as president of the RFEF.

Though appalling, sexual harassment in women’s soccer is nothing new. About five years ago, the Afghanistan Football Federation came under fire for sexual abuse allegations against its president. A year after that, the Haitian Football Federation was in a similar situation.

What Hermoso and all of the players affected have in common is that they’re forced into silence while the cold-hearted cruelty of their stories are tainted. Rubiales claimed on a radio station, “‘We do not pay attention to idiots and stupid people… It was a peck between two friends celebrating something. [The criticism] is really all just nonsense, [from] dickheads and dumbasses.” In the case of Afghanistan and Haiti’s players, the consequences for releasing their stories to the press under their name can result in heavy punishment due to the connections their perpetrators have.

Eventually, the presidents of Afghanistan and Haiti’s Football Federations were banned from soccer for life. After that, there were talks of FIFA and a UN agency creating a global network of qualified individuals in the field to address sexual abuse within international soccer. However, this was two years ago, and no organization has been made.

Not having any sort of regulation or education about sexual harassment or misogyny in general makes the effects of systemic sexism in these institutions clear. Before the Women’s World Cup, ex-coach Jorge Vilda had been feuding with some of Spain’s best players who felt his coaching methods were inappropriate. Vilda called their claims a “farce on the world stage.” But following this controversy, the players risked a five-year disqualification from playing for the national team if they didn’t ask for forgiveness from Vilda and the RFEF.

Mapi Leon, one of the players that spoke out against Vilda, refused to be considered when players were being chosen for the Spain’s Women’s World Cup team. She said, “It will really piss me off not to go to the World Cup. But my values come first.” Similarly, some of the anonymous Afghan and Haitian players were kicked out of their teams because they fought back before the abuse occurred.

These players' dreams of becoming a soccer star or even a World Cup champion were crushed because they were punished when they spoke out against men who abused their power. They were punished for wanting basic respect and proper treatment as a human-being, and instead they were objectified and taken advantage of because of their gender. This kind of response from each country’s soccer administration and FIFA cannot be tolerated as it diminishes the reason why we hold the Women’s World Cup and other female sporting events: to give women their own time to shine in the spotlight.

And they shine spectacularly. Spain not only won the main portion of the Women’s World Cup but also won the circuits for players under-20 and under-17. Haiti was also the second-ever Caribbean country to make it to the WWC.

It’s with this that we must educate ourselves and one another on sexism, misogyny, and sexual harassment when these incidents occur. By fighting these issues, not only do these female athlete’s dreams thrive, but all women’s dreams thrive. We need to build a world where nothing stands in the way of them.

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