On Monday evening, Spain’s men’s team captain Alvaro Morata read a statement on behalf of the entire squad that said that Luis Rubiales’ behaviour at the Women’s World Cup final had been “unacceptable”.
He said the players were “firmly and clearly on the side of the values that Spanish football represents — respect, inspiration, equality and diversity”.
However, according to sources familiar with the situation, speaking to The Athletic anonymously to protect their positions, some squad members did not believe it was important to issue any statement, and some staff at the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) attempted to have criticism of Rubiales’ actions in Sydney watered down.
Asked whether there had been any interference before the statement was issued, an RFEF source told The Athletic that they had no comment to make, but they were in agreement with the words of the players.
None of the 24 players called up by coach Luis de la Fuente for this week’s Euro 2024 qualifiers against Georgia and Cyprus had previously commented since Rubiales kissed Jenni Hermoso on the lips, made inappropriate physical contact with various Spain and England players, and grabbed his crotch while celebrating the final victory on August 20.
Many of those players who arrived at the RFEF base at Las Rozas near Madrid on Monday felt a responsibility to say something. After lunch, a players’ meeting was held at which various individuals spoke. Different versions of the statement were prepared, before the final version was issued at a hastily arranged press conference.
Morata’s delivery of the statement on Monday was halting, avoiding eye contact with those present, and there were no questions taken at the end. The Atletico Madrid forward is Spain’s captain by seniority as he has the most caps (64) of the current squad, although he is not as strong a leader in the dressing room as past captains such as Iker Casillas, Carles Puyol, Sergio Ramos or Sergio Busquets.
Cesar Azpilicueta was chosen by the RFEF to be the first player to speak publicly from the camp. Speaking to media at Las Rozas on Tuesday, the Atletico Madrid defender accepted that there had been different opinions among the players before they agreed on the final wording, as had been reported in the Spanish media on Monday.
Luis Rubiales: The man at the centre of a scandal watched by the world
“We are 24 players and to release a statement with the same words, commas and full-stops is not easy,” Azpilicueta said. “It took some time. But it is what we considered we had to do, with our responsibility as players of the Spain national team. And we tried to do that as quickly as possible.”
Multiple sources close to various squad members said that the debate had not been easy. Younger squad members generally remained to the side, leaving it to the four ‘captains’ — Morata, Azpilicueta, Dani Carvajal and Rodri — to lead a debate that took three hours.
There was an awareness among the squad that the statement would likely be criticised by people outside who do not believe it goes far enough, especially in its support for Hermoso and her 80 colleagues who are refusing to represent Spain. Some men’s players wanted to include more words of support for their female counterparts, but in the end, there was universal acceptance of the version Morata delivered.
Senior squad members, especially, would also be aware of the way the RFEF works — traditionally, players would not have criticised anything in its workings. “Even this statement was a big step forward,” said a source close to various past and present internationals. The players also know that while Rubiales is unlikely to return as president (FIFA has suspended him from all football activities for 90 days), there have been as yet no serious structural changes at the federation.
When asked by The Athletic on Monday whether he had considered following the example of the 81 female players stepping down from the national team, Azpilicueta shifted in his seat before replying that he felt he could do more to bring about societal change by accepting a call-up.
“It is the decision they took, and I respect it totally,” Azpilicueta replied. “We have our sporting situation and the coaching staff picked me in the squad. You feel a responsibility, with all that is happening, to come here and sit before you and show your face, to try and fight for a better Spanish society in the future, to be an example for the next generations.
“Then there is the reality in the football sense, on the pitch. We are not in a good position (fourth in their Euro 2024 qualifying table) and have two very difficult games (against Georgia and Cyprus). We want to be at another Euros, and have seen big teams like Italy miss out on the last World Cup. So we have to try and give the most we can in both senses, as individuals and collectively. We represent millions of Spanish people, those who came to watch us train (last night), kids with their parents, it makes you proud.”
Spain manager defends applauding Rubiales’ speech: ‘I couldn’t control my emotions’
Also on Tuesday afternoon, the RFEF released a statement in which it “offered the most sincere apologies to the whole of world football… for the totally unacceptable behaviour of its highest institutional representative during the final”.
It also said that the federation had removed from its website past statements issued in defence of Rubiales in the week following the final, which had included accusations against Hermoso, who again was not named in this statement of apology.
On Tuesday, Azpilicueta was also asked for his opinion on whether De La Fuente should continue in the job, having so publicly applauded Rubiales’ speech defending his actions and attacking Hermoso, then only criticising his former boss after FIFA had issued its suspension.
“The naming or firing of coaches… I had many at Chelsea and I never get involved,” Azpilicueta said.
“When I met him yesterday we just talked about football. All of this has surprised me, he did what he did, issued the statement and had his press conference. At the moment, he is the coach of the Spain national team, and, speaking about sports, we will fight to win these next games.”
(Top photo: Aitor Alcalde – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)