Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Bradford. His book Europe’s Leadership Famine 1950-2022: Portraits of Defiance and Decay was published on 22 June. A biography of Portugal’s enduring 20th century leader, Salazar, the Dictator Who Refused to Die,was published by Hurst Publishers in 2020 and his twitter account is @cultfree54
Rubiales and Sanchez in happier days.
The triumph of the Spanish side in the World Cup women’s football competition held in Australia this month delighted millions of Spaniards. It was an occasion for pride and even ecstasy for a country that has been reeling from years of economic adversity and currently finds itself politically polarised after an election in July resulted in a dead-heat. The affectionate embrace and kiss which Luís Rubiales offered to the team captain, Jenni Hermoso, seemed to encapsulate the joyous occasion. Two hours after the match, Hermoso’s team colleagues greeted him with calls of ‘Presi, Presi, Presi’ [short for President’) and immediately after wards ‘Kiss, Kiss, Kiss’.I
But soon their joy was followed by long faces and censure as Rubiales was slammed as a sexual dinosaur by radical feminists whose reach in Spain extends to the heart of government. A dispute has ensued which it is already clear is having profound repercussions extending beyond football.
Arguably, this ongoing controversy has done much harm to already-frayed male-female relations in Spain, left victims of gender-related violence at a disadvantage, shown the ability of global corporate bodies like FIFA to invade the private sphere of human relations, and not least shown the readiness of ruthless politicians to whip up a scandal in order to advance their power in the state.
Scandal has never been far away from the world of Spanish football and in his management role Rubiales has been embroiled in controversy and has made enemies. But until now his conduct has never troubled his left-wing allies.
It is likely that the gesture of the tall, extrovert President of the Spanish Football Federation grated with many on the Spanish left who saw their path to power lying through reshaping the cultural environment on terms that dethroned the traditionally influential position of men in Spanish society. Progressive social media outlets had hailed the 1-0 victory over England as a feminine triumph but it was the image of Luís Rubiales displaying his runaway enthusiasm which became perhaps the defining image of the occasion.
Soon the world of social communications was abuzz with claims that what had happened was nothing less than a sexual assault. The knives were out for Rubiales when Yolanda Diaz, a longstanding member of the Spanish communist party, and head of the far-left electoral coalition, Sumar, said that Jenni Hermoso and her team mates felt harassed by their male boss. Within a few days, he found himself assailed from almost all directions. The crucial occurrence was the decision of Hermoso to acquiesce in the developing left-wing narrative and say that she had felt intimidated in what to her was a non-consensual incident.
She declared on 25 August:
‘With time and after delving deeper into my initial feelings, I feel the need to denounce this act because nobody in any working, sporting or social environment should be the victim of this kind of unconsented behaviour.’
Events then moved very quickly. FIFA, the powerful world footballing body, condemned the gesture of Rubiales and demanded that he resign. Threats were made that unless the Spanish football association toed the line, it could become a pariah in European football, with huge financial losses resulting. It duly obliged and Rubiales was suspended from his position for three months. The clamour grew louder when after reflecting on his situation, Rubiales decided not to fold. Threatening statements were issued by figures in the government. These were dutifully taken up by a compliant media much of which relies on state subsidies. On 28 August prosecutors opened up investigations on the basis that Rubiales had committed sexual assault.
Initially, only his mother Ángeles Béjar seemed prepared to take a strong stand on his behalf. On the same day she embarked on a hunger strike in a church in her home town of Motril to complain about her son’s media execution. The irony is that the family have left-wing sympathies. Rubiales was on easy terms with Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sánchez. His mother had tweeted her ecstasy at the news that he had polled well in last month’s election. But he now shunned the disgraced football figure and called for him to go. There was even persistent speculation that the campaign to drive him out was being orchestrated from the very heart of power. If it wasn’t Sánchez himself who was playing a direct role, it was certainly Yolanda Diaz who had become his key government partner. In some quarters, they were seen as a duo keen to take Spain fully down the populist path which Argentina had traversed with fateful results under Juan and Eva Peron, 75 years earlier.
Holding the labour minister just like Eva Peron had done, Diaz had turned this office into a powerful engine for increasing left-wing influence across state and society. She is a very self-confident person with a dominating presence who claims to be in regular contact with Pope Francis as well as enjoying close ties with other figures on the Latin American radical left. She and her allies had helped ensure that plenty of state money had been channelled into the union representing women football players. Sport was an important area where the burgeoning influence of the left has hithero been weak. It would make sense if a very competitive, not to say ruthless political operator like Diaz would have seen the Rubiales affair as a way of bringing the influential world of football into the orbit of the left.
As a stand-off ensued between a defiant Rubiales and his many detractors, a small number of journalists forsook the robotic chants of much of the media to hunt him down and began to probe beneath the surface. Claims, backed up with evidence, emerged that enemies of Rubiales in the soccer world, the players association, and others, had sought to ally with critics in the political world to topple him for their own advantages.
The image of Jenni Hermoso as a noble sporting great whose hour of fame had been tarnished by the gross conduct of a male chauvinist superior was a powerful one in the hands of a range of interests who hoped to profit from his demise, not just professional rivals but radical feminists who had already gone some considerable way to turning identitarian feminism into the new official religion of the Spanish state.
But the tide suddenly began to turn on 29 August when videos emerged showing the Spanish women players commenting light-heartedly on the kiss that supposedly constitutes a macho assault on womanhood just hours after it happened. On the team bus Hermoso asked her supposed molester for a kiss ‘as a joke’ and laughed when Rubiales declined. She and her team-mates seemed to celebrate the kiss which in statements delivered with solemn expressions became tantamount to a serious sexual assault.
The England women’s football captain Leah Williamson argued that it was ‘conditioned behaviour by women’ to laugh off unacceptable male behaviour. Butt Jenni Hermoso will surely be forced to explain why her attitude towards Rubiales changed so radically. Interestingly, she has stopped short of making a formal complaint to the authorities without which a criminal prosecution cannot be mounted. But the 33-year-old was willing to join the clamour against Rubiales in return, it has been claimed (from within the footballing world) for concessions meant to assist and prolong her footballing career.
Spain has been shaken up by a controversy which has highlighted and, arguably, greatly deepened a fracture on cultural lines between, on the one hand, those in lower-income groups and older age ones who are content with a slowly evolving model of inter-personal relations and, on the other an arguably rather smaller number of social radicals. They see the need to dethrone what they describe as male patriarchy and press ahead urgently with implanting a new progressive model for Spanish society. It is one that cannot take hold without the intervention and supervision of a state with a transformative agenda and powers to curb opposition.
These determined radicals are unlikely to step back now that different narratives are swirling around ‘Kissgate’. There is simply too much at stake, not least state funds for social engineering policies. Moreover, turf wars have continued between rivals on the ruling far-left seeking to derive capital from escalating the sense of outrage. Equalities minister Irene Montero, recently supplanted by Diaz as the left’s main main female voice, has been especially outspoken. She is seeking to claw back ground after introducing a clumsily-worded law which had the effect of both widening and diluting the definition of sexual assault. It soon led, inadvertently, more than 130 convicted sex offenders having their sentences reduced or else being set free early.
It is equally unlikely that the Spanish media, much of which has been given large state subsidies to be a tool (according to some) of disinformation for the cultural left, will raise its game. A near-complete media black-out was imposed on the hunger strike of the mother of Rubiales in Motril perhaps because locally it seems there is a strong belief that her son has been framed.
Media outlets have been assiduous in requiring prominent figures to take sides. Lists published with the names of those who stood by Rubiales quickly emerged. Other lists include lists of sporting figures and politicians who have declined to speak out on the matter. People have been urged to come out and show their solidarity with Hermoso, small rallies having occurred in various Spanish cities. This is a very strained which shows how insistent moralising can have a corrosive impact on society.
Perhaps victims of real gender violence are among the biggest losers. Their claims may appear less credible in future given how much official backing as been given to a very flimsy accusation of assault whose veracity people are able to judge for themselves due to the ample media footage. How little troubled, the government is by violence of this kind is perhaps shown by the appointment to be speaker of the Spanish parliament of a local politician from the Balearic islands who has been unable to shake off accusations that she covered up a scandal involving the sexual abuse of girls when in charge of the regional government there.
Spain is the current holder of the presidency of the European Council of the EU. It is somewhat troubling that so far nobody prominent beyond Spain has denounced the stitch-up which it is increasingly clear was organized and directed by prominent office holders.
The main international intervention has come from the scandal-ridden world football body, FIFA which has forbidden Rubiales to have any contact with Hermoso. He has not been found guilty of anything and such contact might conceiveably result in the situation being defused. When a powerful global organization can assume a role normally confined to a court or law-enforcing body on a human rights matter, it raises troubling questions about how fragile personal feedoms now appear in an interconnected world.
The evidence is growing that the left and global businessees and bureaucracies who see left-wing themes and posturing as important marketing tools, corporatism have been instrumental in driving forward Woke values worldwide. Luis Rubiales’s determination not to go quietly has complicated what increasingly seems to be a power-grab by forces with little love for core individual freedoms.
Those fearful about the ability of the democratic monarchy in Spain to survive much beyond its 50th anniversary believe that the Kissgate controversy has been fomented by the ruling left in order to detract attention from a power-grab meant to hollow out Spanish institutions. There is growing despondency that even without a strong governing majority, the Sánchez government will slip through an amnesty for terrorist offences and turn Spain into a confederal state in which different units can secede by holding referenda.
Democracies might founder not just in Spain if disinformation is used on a similar scale to create a moral panic or further a political agenda during a time of tension and instability.
It is a sobering thought that what should have been a sporting triumph that could have a unifying role has, instead, fuelled a bitter controversy whose most serious repercussions could occur beyond the sporting realm.