After Spain were eliminated from the Women’s World Cup in 2015, senior officials from the country’s football association (RFEF) met with players before they headed home from Canada.
It was the first World Cup that Spain had qualified for and an exit at the group stages was a disappointing outcome for everyone. What happened next might seem shocking but, to the players, it was just another example of the broken relationship and toxic attitudes they’d become used to living with. Soon after, they would come together to fight for change — just as we’ve seen happen this year.
“I still remember what one of the top RFEF officials told us after we were knocked out,” says Vero Boquete, a key player of the time and still an icon of women’s football in Spain.
“He said: ‘This is how you pay us back for getting you here — wasting our time instead of us being with our families so that you can enjoy yourselves for a while?’
“To this day, that’s the mentality of the majority of people within the RFEF; they don’t see us as footballers. That is what I experienced during my 14 years with the national team and that is what I still see today.”
After this meeting with officials in 2015, Boquete, now 36 and playing for Fiorentina, explained everything in an unflinching radio interview. Her team-mates then decided to unite for the same cause. They spoke to all the captains of the Spanish clubs and warned the press of their next plans before flying back to Spain.
They asked for a meeting with Ignacio Quereda, who by then had been the national team coach for 27 years. They also wanted to speak again with top RFEF officials. The players told them it was time for change.
“Quereda was dictatorial,” Boquete says. “He had all the power. He was the absolute boss of all women’s football.
“You knew that you were going to have to listen to shouting, that you were going to have to hear things that, on a personal level, you weren’t going to like. And at the same time, you were going to hear it from someone who wasn’t qualified for the position he was in.
“There are many players who have a trauma from suffering what they had to live through.”
Alicia Fuentes was 17 when she was called up to Quereda’s team for her international debut.
“One of the first times we met was in an elevator,” she says.
“There were several players and members of the technical staff and directors (in the elevator). He turned to me and asked: ‘Do you know how roosters impregnate hens?’
“I froze, I didn’t know if he was asking me. ‘Yes, you, the country girl,’ he said. I told him I didn’t know. He came up to me and with his fingers started to hit me on the back of my head. He did it to me several times. He thought it was a joke — I didn’t. We all knew what the connotation was: as if he were the rooster and I were the hen.
“Another day, he came up to me and pinched me on the buttock. In the end, I just wanted to go unnoticed, to have as few dialogues with him as possible.”
— Alicia Fuentes (@Alicia10Fuentes) August 25, 2023
In the 2021 book, No las llames chicas, llamalas futbolistas (Don’t call them girls, call them footballers), written by Spanish journalist Danae Boronat, the goalkeeper Ainhoa Tirapu describes how, when Quereda had left her out of the team for one match, he told her to “next time show a bit of cleavage”. She was 23 years old at the time.
In the documentary, Romper el Silencio (Breaking the Silence), produced by Movistar Plus+ and first broadcast in 2021, there are images of Quereda pinching Tirapu’s face while she looks pained and uncomfortable. Several other players are humiliated by having their ears pinched. Natalia Pablos was one of them.
“The ear pulling, the shouting, him making comments about the weight of some players — we normalised it all,” she says. “He would tell a player that she had an ‘Arse like a bullring’.
“The structure of the federation was so ironclad that we didn’t feel it could change because everything was managed by Nacho (Quereda).”
For the 2015 Women’s World Cup, Spain travelled in economy class, “with two or three stopovers”, Boquete says.
“We arrived in Canada two days before the first game,” Pablos adds. “I remember team-mates playing the first game with jet lag.
“We had been preparing for two or three weeks without playing any friendly matches for six months. The training was at the level of 25 years ago. The staff was half of what it is now. The analysis of the opposition was practically nil.
“It was all very unprofessional. In the 14 years I was there, Quereda would sometimes put out 12 players (on the board) instead of 11 in his tactical team talk. Not just once, twice or three times — on many occasions.
“We had absolutely nothing. And you couldn’t do anything about it.”
When the team stayed in hotels, Quereda would ask the players to keep the doors of their rooms open until midnight. He would walk the corridors, entering their private space without permission. He would also ask them to show them the contents of their bags.
After the 2015 World Cup, following the mobilised action by Spain’s players, Quereda was eventually replaced. The players felt like they had achieved something… until they soon realised that the essence remained the same. Quereda’s place was taken by Jorge Vilda.
The RFEF, Quereda and Vilda did not respond to The Athletic‘s request for comment for this article.
In September last year, 15 Spain players — later known as ‘Las 15’ — stepped down from selection over concerns about standards and attitudes. They felt they lacked specific preparation, analysis of the opposition and training. Another of the things denounced was how Vilda would insist on checking the contents of their bags.
Three of those 15 returned for the World Cup this summer, but the issues were far from resolved. Even as Spain were crowned champions, there were tensions over Vilda’s management style and the way the RFEF had handled the dispute.
Almost two weeks ago, Luis 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 a seemingly unsolicited kiss on the lips of Jenni Hermoso, and hoisted another Spain player, Athenea del Castillo, over his shoulders during celebrations.
Breaking down what Luis Rubiales did after Spain won the Women’s World Cup
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”.
Vilda was among the first to rise in a standing ovation at the end of the speech. After Rubiales was suspended by FIFA, he released a statement distancing himself from the RFEF chief.
In response to Rubiales’ speech, 81 Spanish players said they would “not return to the national team if the current leadership continues”. It included all of the 23 who featured at the World Cup, four of whom were part of the squad with Boquete back in 2015.
For Hermoso, Alexia Putellas, Irene Paredes and Ivana Andres, the situation now is deja vu. It shows how the problem they are trying to solve is not just about individuals: it’s systemic and institutionalised.
Rubiales has been suspended by FIFA, Vilda has been sacked as Spain manager and replaced by female assistant manager Montse Tome, but nothing the RFEF has said in recent days suggests they are about to embark on a deeper cultural shift.
“After the 2015 World Cup, I spent a few months with Jorge Vilda in charge,” Boquete says.
“In those months, the only thing I felt was that he was looking for a personal confrontation so that he could have the justification for not calling me up any more.
“When that didn’t happen, they stopped calling me in the ugliest way possible, without even giving me an explanation.
“At least you could see Quereda’s intentions; he was coming from the front. As captain, I had many conversations and discussions with him. You also have to understand that he was from a very different generation with a very different mentality. I don’t want to absolve him for some things, but I understand that in the social moment in which he grew up… we lived in different realities.
“But not with Jorge. A guy six years older than me, with no experience whatsoever (at senior international level), came along and was given a piece of team candy. We were all happy to at last have a change. From the first moment, we saw that there had actually been none.”
With ‘Las 15’, Barcelona goalkeeper Sandra Panos was one of those punished by Vilda in a clear repetition of what has been going on in the RFEF for 34 years. She was among those who stood down from selection. She then asked to come back but was not called up — and there can be little argument that it was a football decision. She had been Spain’s starting goalkeeper at the previous three major international tournaments. She was punished for protesting. It’s another reflection of a climate of fear.
“We were afraid to say anything because of the consequences,” Boquete says of her time playing under Quereda.
“They conditioned our speech to the press. If you did an interview, they knew exactly what you said and what you didn’t say. In Vilda’s case, it’s worse because he controlled absolutely everything.”
It is worth remembering what happened after Rubiales’ kiss on Hermoso after the World Cup final.
The RFEF released a statement attributing quotes to Hermoso which she later denied having said. She was threatened with legal action if she did not change her stance to agree with Rubiales’ version of events. The RFEF also released photos it claimed backed up Rubiales’ claim that his kiss on Hermoso was consensual.
Many have been left in shock after the events of the past few weeks.
But none of the players who have ever played for Spain — of any generation — have been surprised. And despite all the global support behind them, they have doubts that anything will truly change.
“It took us by surprise that the president kissed Jenni, but only because it’s the most stupid thing he’s ever done,” Boquete says.
Hermoso files legal complaint, Rubiales could face criminal charges
“That patriarchy, that behaviour, everything they’ve conveyed this week doesn’t surprise us at all. It’s a very sad situation.
“We have all experienced different realities in theory, but it’s really the same. The basic problem is the same and that’s why the solution is not only to sack Rubiales, Vilda or some others. There is a much bigger problem that is cultural — and that is the system within the RFEF.”
Pablos says: “They saw us as girls, not as football players. They have never taken us into account.
“In the Spanish national team, there have been female staff but only because FIFA gave subsidies for this, otherwise the RFEF would never have given roles to them.
“It makes me sad that achieving improvements has always been at the cost of something. In 2015, it was at the cost of six or seven of us not returning to the national team. At the cost of Las 15, some improvements were achieved, and at the cost of Jenni, hopefully, a really significant change will be made.”
Those 81 Spanish players, of which Boquete is one, have now united again to dignify women’s football in Spain once and for all by cleaning up the archaic and ugly structure that has long held it back.
They are mobilising against an RFEF that left Spain without its best players for generations — when they were only fighting for a better and fairer football. An RFEF that managed to turn the dream of many footballers of representing their country into a nightmare.
But now, as Pablos puts it: “Those at the federation are being overtaken by the pace of change.”
(Top photo: Lars Baron – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)