Spain manager Luis de la Fuente has described his standing ovation for Luis Rubiales’ incendiary speech last week as “unjustifiable”, but insists he “has no reason to resign” over an issue that has focused global scrutiny on the country’s football.
Last Friday, Spanish Football Association (RFEF) president Rubiales made an aggressive defence of his behaviour at the Women’s World Cup final, where he grabbed his crotch in celebration in the stands, planted an unsolicited kiss on the lips of Jenni Hermoso, and hoisted another Spain player, Athenea del Castillo, over his shoulders during celebrations.
In a 30-minute rant, Rubiales dramatically stated he was refusing to step down, claimed he was the victim of a long-running campaign of “social assassination”, and said “false feminism” was a “great scourge in this country”.
De La Fuente was among the first to rise in a standing ovation at the end of Rubiales’ speech, made in front of an RFEF general assembly.
In reaction, 81 Spanish female players, including all 23 of the World Cup-winning squad, removed themselves from national team selection. The only male player to do so was Real Betis striker Borja Iglesias.
Rubiales was suspended by FIFA the day after his speech. Two hours later, De La Fuente released a statement distancing himself from the RFEF chief.
Speaking to the media before he announced his latest Spain squad this Friday, De La Fuente tried to tread an unconvincing line between showing contrition while still maintaining that he and everyone involved with the men’s side can now continue as normal.
“I have received very strong criticism, which is totally deserved,” he said. “I am sorry and I apologise.
“Those who know me know that those gestures do not represent my values or way of being in life. I have always been on the side of respect and equality.”
During a 90-minute press conference, De La Fuente at times appeared very uncomfortable, while repeating on various occasions that he had been taken aback by Rubiales’ speech. He said he had been expecting him to resign.
“I was not able to control my emotions,” he said. “Later, when you reflect and see the images, I did not recognise myself.
“I applauded because of the context, the atmosphere, the pressure. It was uncomfortable, I had never experienced any situation so stressful and emotional.”
The 62-year-old Basque rejected any idea that he had only moved to distance himself from Rubiales and his behaviour after FIFA had acted and his former boss was off the scene.
“I am just a football coach,” De La Fuente said. “I needed time to reflect, gain perspective, speak with friends and my coaches. It (his statement) was released just an hour after the FIFA statement. It is impossible that I could prepare it in that time.”
Rubiales’ statement was actually released a little under three hours after FIFA’s.
De la Fuente also repeatedly said that while he realised an apology was necessary, he had not considered resigning from his job.
“I have the support of all the regional presidents and the acting president (Pedro Rocha). Without that confidence, I would not be here.”
When asked by The Athletic whether it was coherent for the men’s national team to be continuing as normal while 81 Spain women’s players had withdrawn from selection, De La Fuente appeared surprised by the question. After first asking for clarification on who the 81 players were, he only said he believed his RFEF employers were working to improve the situation.
“I think we have to keep working, and the federation is a very clear example of that, in terms of equality and rights,” De La Fuente said.
“Can it be improved? It will improve with time, like it has improved in other times in the Spanish federation. With equality and rights, we have to keep working on it in a natural way. Whether they play or not is something for each individual, but in the men’s team, this has not occurred.”
‘It’s a question for women’ – no protest from men’s team
Following last week’s events, only one senior Spain international men’s player removed himself from selection: Betis striker Iglesias.
The 30-year-old has played twice for Spain, most recently in March when De La Fuente’s side were beaten 2-0 by Scotland in a European Championship qualifier.
In the lead-up to Friday’s squad announcement, The Athletic got in touch with several football agents representing 15 regular Spain players. We asked them whether any of the squad were also considering stepping down.
Jenni Hermoso: Record goalscorer, serial swearer and icon of Spanish sport
One agent said it was “a question for women” to deal with. They added: “When are we men going to come out in defence of our rights?”
Others reflected a belief that the issue had been dealt with now that Rubiales had been suspended by FIFA for 90 days.
Others said the topic had simply not been discussed.
One agent singled out Iglesias for criticism, claiming his actions were motivated by a desire to “be in the limelight”.
“I have a fantastic relationship with Borja from when he was here before,” De La Fuente said. “He does not come this time solely for sporting reasons, nothing else. I respect his views. I never want anybody here who is not happy to be here, but the doors are still open for him here, whenever he wants to come.”
What about Jorge Vilda’s position?
The position of the Spain women’s manager, Jorge Vilda, does appear precarious. Several regional RFEF presidents have told The Athletic they expect Vilda to be removed from his position in the coming days.
Speaking to reporters at the Champions League group-stage draw in Monaco yesterday, acting RFEF president Pedro Rocha said De La Fuente’s job was “totally” safe but was more vague regarding Vilda’s future after reports that the Women’s World Cup winner would be sacked.
“We can’t say that because we won’t meet with him until next week,” Rocha said. “Once we’ve met, obviously we’ll give the relevant news.”
And what’s next for Rubiales?
Rubiales was suspended for 90 days by FIFA last Saturday. Its disciplinary committee may well decide on further punishment.
That suspension means Rubiales can no longer serve his position as RFEF president, nor can he fulfil his role as UEFA vice president. His salaries from both positions have been frozen.
Rubiales could also face punishment from Spain’s Administrative Sport Tribunal (TAD) after the country’s Higher Sports Council (CSD) asked the body to begin an investigation. Rubiales could be suspended for up to two years if the TAD considers the case “serious”. If it is considered “very serious”, he could be banned for up to five years.
Speaking in Monaco yesterday, acting RFEF president Rocha was non-committal on the subject of what further action the federation might take against Rubiales.
Luis Rubiales: The man at the centre of a scandal watched by the world
“We are very clear that the institution is above individuals. Unity and consensus is required,” he said.
“I’m an institution man, the presidents have all backed me, and I have a duty to the RFEF. If there is no resignation (from Rubiales), then it’s just about working, working and working. We’ve navigated against the wind before and now must do it again. We’ve made a great federation and must keep on.”
Having already called on Rubiales to resign, the RFEF’s regional presidents could ask for a motion of censure against him, though sources close to the situation describe that as unlikely to happen any time soon.
Another option would be to elect a new permanent president quickly by moving up elections currently scheduled for the second half of 2024. If the RFEF makes a request to the Spanish government, these could be held in the first half of next year.
Goalkeepers: Unai Simon, David Raya, Kepa Arrizabalaga
Defenders: Cesar Azpilicueta, Aymeric Laporte, Pau Torres, Alejandro Balde, David Garcia, Dani Carvajal, Robin le Normand, Jose Gaya
Midfielders: Gavi, Rodrigo, Fabian Ruiz, Mikel Merino, Martin Zubimendi, Alex Baena
Forwards: Nico Williams, Alvaro Morata, Marco Asensio, Dani Olmo, Joselu, Abel Ruiz
Yamal could become Spain’s youngest-ever player
Pol Ballus, The Athletic’s Barcelona correspondent: Barcelona forward Lamine Yamal will be 16 years and 57 days old when Spain play their next fixture — a Euro 2024 qualifier in Georgia next Friday.
His club team-mate Gavi became Spain’s youngest-ever player in October 2021, at the age of 17 years and 62 days.
Yamal’s call-up was expected after RFEF executives rushed to meet him and his camp last week in Barcelona in order to make sure his mind was set on representing the country of his birth.
Yamal’s dad is from Morocco and the winger is also eligible for the African country.
There are no doubts Yamal deserves the call-up. He can deliver and make the difference for Spain right now. He could slot into the starting line-up and no one would guess he is only 16.
Lamine Yamal: Barcelona’s 15-year-old talent ‘who can define an era’
Is it good, though, for him and his development to deal with the spotlight of the national team so young? Well, that’s another story.
It’s crystal clear that the main reason for his call-up is Spain’s move to retain an exceptional talent such as his. They just can’t afford to lose him and if that involves calling him up at the age of 16, this is a price they will pay.
(Top photo: Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP via Getty Images)