That kiss

Enough already with this hysteria about an unwanted kiss. The New York Times devoted a front-page story to the scandal of the president of Spain’s soccer federation, Luis Rubiales, kissing star player Jenni Hermoso on the mouth after Spain won the women’s World Cup soccer for the first time.

If the burbling of BBC Sport's Spanish football expert is to be believed, “this is one of the most important weeks for Spain in living memory”. Climate change, the war in Ukraine, Spain’s gridlocked national election – nothing can compete.

For anyone who has been living under a rock, the ruckus broke out at the end of the August 20 final in Sydney when Spain clobbered England 1-0. As the players queued up to be congratulated, Rubiales grabbed Hermoso and kissed her. Afterwards, she said that the kiss was non-consensual and that she felt disrespected.

Rubiales apologised, sort of, but denied that he had intended to take advantage of her. Women’s soccer in Spain erupted. Eighty-one players said that they would not play until Rubiales resigned. Angeles Bejar, Rubiales's elderly mum, locked herself inside a church on a hunger strike until Hermoso told the truth. It did no good. Rubiales has been suspended and the government may even press charges for sexual assault.

What’s going on?

First of all, let's be clear: Rubiales is a jerk, a vulgar, entitled, paid-up member of the machismo club. What he did was completely inappropriate. Would he allow one of his male coaching staff to kiss his daughter that way? No way, José. Case closed. 

We’ve been there before, though. Last year in the United States, an investigation found that abuse in the National Women’s Soccer League was systemic. There’s probably an inherent danger in hiring high-achieving alpha males to coach young females. Perhaps men should be banned from coaching in women’s sports. 

But the case of the Spanish kiss is different.

Like flutter of a butterfly’s wing in Peru, this storm in a Sydney teacup is causing a hurricane in women’s sport. Everywhere it has been hailed as Spain’s #MeToo moment, when the patriarchy begins to crumble and sexually abused sportswomen get justice. The New York Times described it as a “generational fault line between a culture of machismo and more recent progressivism”.

In this battle between mediaeval machismo and 21st century women’s sport, we’ve defined the loser, but who is the winner?

The answer seems to be Team Lesbian. Although most viewers of the women’s World Cup focused on the brilliant footwork and strategy of teams like Spain and Australia (to be unabashedly chauvinist), the media were framing it as a queer festival.

This is the gayest World Cup ever (and no one’s batting an eyelid)” trumpeted The Washington Post. According to gay media, there were about 100 openly LGBTQI+ players and coaches in the 32 teams. One site, Autostraddle, noted that the 2023 women’s World Cup “just might be the most openly queer sporting event in history.” In Australia, Brazil, Ireland and Sweden, almost half the squad is openly gay. Australian media featured a photo of a sultry kiss between the Matildas' captain, Sam Kerr, and her partner, Kristie Mewis, an American soccer pro. 

Bésame Mucho

If the future is pink in women’s soccer, will sexual abuse disappear? No, it won’t. It will shift from men abusing women to women abusing women.

This is not an angle which often surfaces in the media. But in 2021, retiring striker Lisa De Vanna, Australia’s second-highest goal scorer in senior international games, spoke out about appalling sexual harassment in the Matildas, including indecent assault, sexual harassment, and grooming. She described incidents which she had personally experienced – and they are not for publication in a family-friendly publication like Mercator.

"Have I been sexually harassed? Yes. Have I been bullied? Yes? Ostracised? Yes. Have I seen things that have made me uncomfortable? Yes … In any sporting organisation and in any environment, grooming, preying and unprofessional behaviour makes me sick,” she wrote. “Football Australia don't want to admit there is a toxic culture in the sport but 20 years on, what I went through is still happening”.

Her story was supported by Rhali Dobson, another Matilda, who said that she had experienced sexual grooming as a young player. "It's a world that's very much still going, in the world at the top levels, and until you start addressing this, nothing is going to change," she said.



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What happened to these allegations? They were buried beneath a blizzard of boilerplate. The Matildas locked arms and released a press release praising themselves as amazing human beings: we’re a safe haven, a second family, etc, etc. “We have a strong professional, inclusive and supportive culture that does not condone any of the behaviour mentioned within the numerous media articles about historical incidents,” they declared.

No one, be it noted, denied the allegations.

"In the event that Lisa chooses to lodge a formal complaint through the appropriate channels, we will be in a position to investigate and, if appropriate, act accordingly,” said Football Australia

As sports journalist Jessica Halloran wrote in The Australian, these emollient words “scream brand protection. It’s clearly a heartless PR move to reassure the Matildas’ major sponsors such as the Commonwealth Bank.”

If this happens in Australia, there can be little doubt that it must be happening elsewhere.

By all means, sack that jerk Rubiales. He’s not fit to represent his country on a world stage. But a hard line on male harassment must extend to same-sex harassment as well. And the media can't pretend that it doesn’t happen. As another woman involved with Australian women’s soccer tweeted the other day:

Zero tolerance for sexual abuse in sport – and zero tolerance, too, for omertà.


Michael Cook is editor of Mercator 

Image credit: screenshot, BBC News   

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