Controversial World Cup Kiss Exposes Spain’s Toxic Masculinity

For Spain, lifting the Women’s World Cup should have been a moment of celebration.

(Bloomberg) — For Spain, lifting the Women’s World Cup should have been a moment of celebration. 

Instead it laid bare the toxic masculinity that still pervades the euro’s fourth-biggest economy more than 40 years after the end of Franco’s dictatorship — a period when the country went through radical social change that saw it become one of the world’s most progressive nations.

Within hours of that sporting triumph the mood soured, from nationalist Madrid to secessionist Barcelona, as images circulated of the president of the Spanish soccer federation kissing a player at the awards ceremony. 

Nationwide the conversation turned from joy to dismay at how pervasive machismo remains in a country that has aggressively modernized, from legalizing same-sex marriage to the controversial “Only Yes Means Yes” law on rape and other sex crimes.  

“There is still a very sexist culture, very much part of the old-style Spanish school, very traditional, very rooted in certain parts of society,” said Cristina Monge, political science professor at the University of Zaragoza, in the heartland of Spain. “One example of this is the football federation.”

Spanish football chief Luis Rubiales was photographed grabbing star forward Jennifer Hermoso, who had missed a penalty during the final match, and cupping her face with both hands in what he called a consensual consolation peck in the “euphoria of the moment.”

Hermoso’s take on the kiss, via a live Instagram feed in the locker room, was quite different: “I didn’t like it.” Later, she issued a statement denying she had consented to it. 

Rubiales’s reaction spiralled quickly from initial regret to angry defiance, tapping into the broader culture wars raging across the developed world. In Spain, it highlighted an uncomfortable debate that’s been bubbling under the surface: For some defending the rights of women have gone too far, while others say it hasn’t gone far enough.

In Spain, you see those actions unfold.

Its main paper, Socialist-leaning El Pais, reported that Rubiales would step aside on Aug. 25. But in front of an audience of mostly gray-haired men at an emergency assembly of his association, he took a different tack. 

They clapped as he decried “fake feminism” and said five times he would not resign. FIFA, soccer’s governing body, still suspended him. His record was already tinged by scandal, but his behavior during the match was his undoing. 

Social media in Spain was ablaze with memes of Leonardo Di Caprio’s famous “I’m not leaving” scene in the “Wolf of Wall Street” but with the voice-over of Rubiales.

Water cooler talk had also turned to another aspect of Rubiales’s behavior at the match: how he had grabbed his crotch when the Spain scored its first goal. 

That he did it within close proximity of Queen Letizia was precisely the kind of optics that royal-loving conservatives trying to form a government didn’t want.

In fact, it was an unusual week for King Felipe VI. He’s an institutional figure, who much like Charles III in the UK is expected to stand above the fray but also set an example.

This week he had to stick around in Madrid to try and break the political impasse. 

An inconclusive July election left the conservative People’s Party with the most votes — but not enough to rule — and a Catalan secessionist in exile has emerged as a kingmaker able to keep Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, currently a caretaker, in power.

The controversial kiss — consensual or not — quickly took a political dimension. For traditionalists, Sanchez has caved too much to liberals and to secessionists seeking to tear Spain apart. 

The PP and its ally, the far-right group Vox, have called on Rubiales to resign but have also tried to draw a connecting thread to a controversial law on sexual consent and its unintended consequences, which has seen convicts released early. 

The association threatened to bring legal action against Hermoso and to defend Rubiales’ honor. Rubiales tried to “portray himself as a victim of feminism,” said Javier Redondo, a professor of politics at Vitoria University in Madrid. “But not even the far-right has taken the bait.”

Sanchez has done his bit to seize on the ever-shifting political winds. A few hours before he met with King Felipe on Aug. 22, he condemned Rubiales’s action as “unacceptable” and said his apology wasn’t enough. His government later pledged to do its best to oust him. 

Yet only a few days before the July 23 election, when polls showed he was losing, Sanchez told a radio interviewer about how his own male friends in their 40s and 50s felt his women’s rights policies had gone too far.

The reality is that there always have been two Spains. 

One is deeply Catholic and traditionalist, and at times chauvinist. The other, the one international audiences see in Pedro Almodovar films, is radically progressive.

This combination of both tradition and subversion are in evidence when driving across hundreds of miles of arid countryside in Spain, when travelers can spot a 46-foot-tall black silhouette of a bull. This commercial billboard dates from the 1960s and taps into the collective imagination of a country that both reveres and loathes bull-fighting — and is forever associated with it.

But a few things are clear to many ordinary Spaniards who watched their team win only to see it all overshadowed. 

For Desiree Acuna, an administrative worker, “this has all just turned into a big circus.”

And for Jose Diaz, an air-conditioning engineer, it’s all a quite sad. “Instead of talking about the fantastic women’s football team, we’re talking about him” — Rubiales.

–With assistance from Alonso Soto, Macarena Muñoz and Charles Penty.

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