By Tales Azzoni
Spanish soccer is ready to move forward, three weeks after its women’s team won the Women's World Cup but had its celebrations marred by a kiss that ignited a crisis.
Luis Rubiales, the Spanish soccer federation president who kissed a player on the lips without her consent during the trophy ceremony in Australia last month, resigned late Sunday following weeks of relentless pressure from inside the sport and Spanish society in general.
The decision, which many in the country had been hoping to see much earlier, was expected to help Spanish soccer start overcoming one of its most embarrassing chapters. It should also clear the way for Spain to get back on track with its bid to host the men’s World Cup in 2030 along with Portugal, Morocco and possibly Ukraine.
“It’s over,” Irene Montero, the acting minister of equality in Spain, wrote on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
Rubiales had been widely criticized after he kissed Jenni Hermoso on the lips during the awards ceremony following Spain’s 1-0 win over England in the Women's World Cup final on Aug. 20 in Sydney. Hermoso said the kiss was without her consent.
Rubiales had been expected to resign at an emergency general meeting of the federation shortly after the World Cup final, but instead said he was victim of a “witch hunt” by “false feminists.”
His defiant stand did not make the problem go away.
“The feminist country is advancing faster and faster,” Yolanda Díaz, Spain’s acting Deputy Prime Minister, wrote on X after Rubiales made his resignation public. “The transformation and improvement of our lives is inevitable. We are with you, Jenni, and with all women.”
Spain’s National Court announced Monday it has agreed to a request from prosecutors to look into whether Rubiales should face charges of sexual assault and coercion. That means the court will gather evidence in the case, likely including asking Rubiales to testify before deciding whether it can go ahead.
According to a sexual consent law passed last year, Rubiales could face a fine or a prison sentence of one to four years if found guilty of sexual assault. The new law eliminated the difference between “sexual harassment” and “sexual assault,” sanctioning any unconsented sexual act.
Rubiales had been without public supporters other than his mother, who held a short-lived hunger strike in a church in southern Spain. His own federation also publicly asked him to step down and one of his biggest supporters, women's team coach Jorge Vilda, was fired last week.
Pedro Rocha has been in charge of the federation since Rubiales was provisionally suspended by FIFA, the governing body of world soccer. The Spanish federation said in a statement early Monday that it would start proceedings to call for a new presidential election.
“The reputational damage that this has caused to Spanish soccer is tremendous,” said Spanish soccer league president Javier Tebas, who often clashed with Rubiales in the past. “Now we have to work to recover from it, and it’s not going to be easy.”
Rubiales also said he has resigned as a vice president of European soccer body UEFA because of the reputational danger the scandal could inflict on Spain’s joint bid to host the men's World Cup.
“I don’t want Spanish soccer to be hurt by this exaggerated campaign against me, and above all, I take this decision after being assured that my exit would help contribute to the stability that will allow both Europe and Africa to stay united for their dream of 2030, which will permit the greatest sporting event in the world to go to our country,” Rubiales said.
“Insisting in waiting and hanging on would not contribute anything positive (for) either the federation or Spanish soccer, among other reasons, because the powers that be would stop me from returning (to my job).”
The next men’s World Cup will be played in the United States, Mexico and Canada in 2026.
The statement from Rubiales late Sunday came at about the same time as the release of clips of an interview he did with TV host Piers Morgan on Britain’s TalkTV.
“What I hope is that he goes away through a conviction, a sentencing, not because of his voluntary decision,” Victoria Rosell, a government official dealing with gender violence, was quoted as saying by Spain’s EFE news agency.
Spain, which has moved up to No. 2 in the FIFA rankings, is scheduled to start the Women’s Nations League on Sept. 22 with a visit to top-ranked Sweden. Spain beat Sweden in the Women's World Cup semifinals.
In domestic soccer, Spain’s women’s league players are on strike and pushing for what they call a dignified minimum wage.
Updated September 11, 2023 at 11:14 a.m. ET with latest details.