Spain’s football federation chief Luis Rubiales has been under fire this week for instances of inappropriate behaviour during the FIFA Women’s World Cup final where Spain beat England 1-0 to lift its maiden world title.
The controversial 46-year-old is facing calls for his resignation after he cupped star player Jennifer Hermoso’s head and forcefully kissed her when the players were being given their medals at the trophy presentation at Stadium Australia in Sydney.
However, this is not the first instance of the Spain FA chief being in the news for controversial reasons. From his time as a union leader to his tenure as RFEF president, here’s a look at Rubiales’ career.
Midfielder to union boss
Born on Spain’s Canary Islands but raised in Motril on the country’s Mediterranean coast, Rubiales played for various lower division teams before finishing his football career in 2009 at Scotland’s Hamilton Academical.
“He was a modern defender, physically very strong. He liked to attack. He was always a model of dedication and loyalty with everyone,” former Levante coach Manolo Preciado once said of Rubiales, who played for the Valencia-based side between 2003 and 2008.
At Levante, Rubiales led a player revolt against unpaid wages, possibly inheriting a taste for public life from his father who served as the Socialist mayor of Motril in the mid-1990s.
The team went on strike and the players eventually collected their wages, a success that likely encouraged him to fight for his colleagues at Spanish football players’ union AFE which he headed between 2010 and 2017.
Under his watch AFE called two national players’ strikes — in 2011 and 2015 — and oversaw the creation of a fund to cover unpaid salaries. He also persuaded La Liga to agree to pay AFE a percentage of its TV broadcast rights.
Rubiales vs Tebas – the history
His first clashes with La Liga president Javier Tebas began during this time, and they continued when Rubiales was elected president of the football federation in 2018.
Tebas once said he felt Rubiales was “not qualified” for the post.
Rubiales defeated Juan Luis Larrea, the federation’s former treasurer and interim chief, in the election to become president.
Larea had taken the post on a temporary basis after the federation’s longtime president, Angel Maria Villar, was suspended on suspicion of embezzlement and other offences.
“I’m going to win for sure,” Rubiales, a divorced father of three girls, told reporters before the vote.
Shortly after he was elected, Rubiales in a surprise move sacked Spain’s men’s national coach Julen Lopetegui just two days before the start of the 2018 World Cup.
Re-elected president of the federation in 2020, Rubiales angered Spanish football traditionalists by expanding Spain’s Super Cup contest between the league champions and Copa del Rey winners to a four-team format.
He also faced a huge backlash for signing a lucrative deal to play the competition in Saudi Arabia, which is frequently accused of human rights abuses.
The good and bad chatter around finances
In 2022 Spanish media published leaked audio recordings from 2019 that suggested a company called Kosmos owned by former Barcelona defender Gerard Pique called millions of euros in commission over the deal to relocate the Super Cup to Saudi Arabia.
Rubiales dismissed the allegations as “falsehoods” and said he was “extremely angry for having information illegally stolen from my mobile”.
At the same time Rubiales won praise for boosting the number of sponsors of the federation and its revenues, and improving the conditions of lower-tier teams, which won the support of regional football federations.
“He has achieved a sea-change. He put a 19th century institution in the 21st century,” the president of the football federation in the northeastern region of Aragon, Oscar Fle, told sports radio Marca last year.
Rubiales tripled the budget for women’s football to 406 million euros ($439 million) in 2022 but at the same time he sided with the national women’s team coach Jorge Vilda when 15 internationals staged a mutiny last year over the manager’s methods.
The bet paid off with the squad winning the Women’s World Cup but the way Rubiales celebrated has put his job on a razor’s edge.
Vilda and the Las 15
The major crux of the Spanish women’s National team (which played in the Euros) had a fractious relationship with Jorge, who has been in charge since 2015.
Despite several players requesting his sacking, the 42-year-old has continued to be in charge of La Roja. In protest, 15 first-team players, now called the Las 15, ruled themselves out of national team selection last year, but nothing has worked in their favour so far. Of the 15, only three travelled to Australia and New Zealand for the World Cup.
The Spanish FA heavily criticised the move by the footballers.
“The FA is not going to allow the footballers to keep questioning the role of our national manager and his backroom staff. We are not going to submit to any sort of pressure,” it said, maintaining the fact that Jorge will stay on the job no matter what.
The FA also threatened the protesting players with sanctions between two to five years without being considered for selection.
Rubiales then was stoic in his dismissal of these concerns.
“What we have endured is a lot. Questions have been asked of Jorge Vilda, who is a hard-working man, a world-class coach, who has turned down other federations that have offered more money and stayed with Spain.
“We have stuck with those that have always wanted to be here, that have valued the great work that he has done to grow, and we have forgotten the people with resentments. He has continued working and not paid attention to those who wanted to destroy him.”
What happened at the FIFA Women’s World Cup final?
When the victorious Spanish side stepped forward to collect their medals, with FIFA president Gianni Infantino and Spain’s Queen Letizia on the podium to do the honours, Rubiales’ behaviour with his player came under the scanner.
As Hermoso came down the line of dignitaries and got to Rubiales, he first picked her up in his arms, then took her head in both hands and planted a kiss full on her lips.
Rubiales was then spotted carrying Athenea del Castillo Beivide on his shoulder as they celebrated the title win.
Footage from the dressing room afterwards, seen on Salma Paralluelo’s Instagram live, showed Rubiales with an arm around Hermoso as he announced a holiday to Ibiza for the team, saying: “There, we will celebrate the wedding of Jenni and Luis Rubiales.”
“I didn’t like it,” Hermoso said on an Instagram live stream a little while later, although she was laughing as she spoke.
Broadcast stills showed Rubiales, alongside Queen Letizia and her 16-year-old daughter Sofia, grabbing his crotch and celebrating the triumph when the final whistle was blown.
“Certainly I made a mistake and I have to acknowledge that,” Rubiales said in a video posted on social media by Spanish television.
“It was done without any ill intention in a moment of the highest exuberance. Here we saw it as natural and normal but outside it has caused a commotion.”
“I have no choice but to apologise and to learn from this… and when representing the federation take more care,” he said, adding that he thought the furore was “idiotic”.
Not always this big a cheerleader
An incident that kept being revisited during this controversy was the Women’s Supercopa in January.
Contrast the celebrations here from the federation and the president to the presentation of the Supercopa where the winning team, Barcelona’s medals were left in a box for the players to collect themselves.
Many believed this was because many of the players in the Barca squad were among those who had protested against the federation last year.
Hermoso’s ‘reaction’ and U-TURN
Later on Sunday, RFEF released their own quotes from Hermoso.
“It was a totally spontaneous mutual gesture because of the immense joy that winning a World Cup brings,” Hermoso was quoted as saying.
“The president and I have a great relationship. His behaviour with all of us has been outstanding and it was a natural gesture of affection and gratitude.
“A gesture of friendship and gratitude cannot be gone over so much, we have won a World Cup and we are not going to deviate from what is important.”
Spanish sports media website Relevo.com then reported that the statements given by the federation to news agencies like AFP and EFE are false, and they say the words didn’t come from Hermoso. The report claims the statement was written by the Federation’s communications department without consulting Hermoso.
Later last week, the midfielder called for action against the Federation president.
In a statement made on Wednesday, the 33-year-old announced that FUTPRO, the Spanish players’ union, will handle the case on her behalf. Hermoso said: “My FUTPRO union, in coordination with my TMJ agency, are taking charge of defending my interests and being the interlocutors on this matter.”
FIFPRO backed her in the effort: “We reiterate that it was deeply lamentable that such a special moment for the players of the Spain national team taking place before a global television audience should be stained by the inappropriate conduct of an individual in a role carrying so much responsibility.
“Uninitiated and uninvited physical approaches towards players are not appropriate or acceptable in any context, and especially not when they are put in a position of vulnerability by a person who holds a position of power over them in their workplace.”
How did the football community react to Rubiales’ behaviour at the World Cup?
Spain’s sports minister on Monday had demanded that Rubiales apologise.
“I think it is unacceptable to kiss a player on the lips to congratulate her,” acting minister Miquel Iceta told Spanish public radio.
“The first thing he has to do is to give explanations and make apologies, it is the logical and reasonable thing to do,” Iceta said.
The minister added that while the 1-0 victory over England on Sunday in Sydney was “a moment of intense emotions”, public officials “have to be extremely careful because we are giving a message to society and the message is equal rights, it is respect”.
The minister of equality in the caretaker government, Irene Montero, called it “a form of sexual violence that we women suffer on a daily basis and until now has been invisible”.
“We can’t normalise this,” she said.
Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez described Rubiales’ subsequent apology as ‘not adequate’. The Spanish women’s league, Liga F, filed a complaint with the National Sports Council (Consejo Superior de Deportes ) seeking his removal.
USWNT legend Megan Rapinoe called out the conditions the Spanish women’s team had to compete in.
“It made me think about how much we are required to endure. Think how much that Spanish team had to shoulder: Some of the players who stood up way back last year (in protest at poor treatment from their federation and their coach) still aren’t on the team. Maybe that was something that galvanized them, but you shouldn’t have to have that,” Rapinoe told The Atlantic.
“There was another picture that signals such a deep level of misogyny and sexism in that federation and in that man at the final whistle, just grabbing his crotch. What kind of upside-down world are we in? On the biggest stage, where you should be celebrating, Jenni has to be physically assaulted by this guy.”
Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti criticised Rubiales for his behaviour.
“It’s a very delicate topic, like most people it was behaviour that I obviously did not like,” Ancelotti told a news conference.
“It was not the behaviour of a president of the federation. I don’t know if he should resign or not, I think he will take the most adequate decision,” he added.
Sweden captain Caroline Seger also called out Rubiales.
“I can’t understand how it can happen, and to me it feels really weird,” said Seger, according to a translation. “I want the whole world to react and I want something to happen because it’s clear that there are problems in RFEF. If people think it’s not wrong, it’s just not acceptable!”