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Spanish leader greets World champs, criticizes soccer head for kissing player

Forced kiss caused an immediate outcry both inside Spain and abroad
Spain’s acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez stands with Spain’s Women’s World Cup soccer team after their World Cup victory, at La Moncloa Palace in Madrid, Spain, Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023. Spain beat England in Sydney Sunday to win the Women’s World Cup soccer final. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Spain’s acting prime minister praised the country’s Women’s World Cup champions during an audience at the presidential palace on Tuesday, and later slammed the head of the Spanish soccer federation for kissing a team member on the lips without her consent.

“You have achieved something very important. The girls who watch you see soccer as a place where they can develop athletically and personally,” Pedro Sánchez said while posing for a group photo with the soccer team in Madrid. “The 21st century will be the century of women on all fronts, and the century of effective equality between men and women.”

Sánchez said the team members will be awarded Spain’s golden medal of sports achievement in honor of their 1-0 victory on Sunday in the final against England in Sydney, Australia.

Gender equality and women’s rights have been cornerstones of Sánchez’s leftist government. But Spain’s Women’s World Cup success has been marred by the forced kiss on the lips that Spanish soccer federation president Luis Rubiales gave to player Jenni Hermoso during the medal ceremony following the final.

After claiming that those who criticized his kiss were “idiots and stupid people,” Rubiales was forced to apologize on Monday.

“What we saw is unacceptable”, said Sánchez later Tuesday. “And the apologies offered by Mr. Rubiales are not sufficient, I would call them inappropriate, so he must continue taking further steps to clarify what we all saw.”

Rubiales accompanied the team and staff to the meeting with Sánchez, who greeted him with a handshake.

The forced kiss caused an immediate outcry both inside Spain and abroad. Deputy Prime Minister Yolanda Diaz said Rubiales “has harassed and assaulted” a woman and called for his resignation.

The country’s equality minister said it was an act of “sexual assault.” Under a new sexual violence law, the unsolicited kiss, during which Rubiales grabbed Hermoso’s face before giving her a kiss on the mouth, could potentially be pursued as a crime.

Immediately after Spain’s victory, Rubiales also grabbed his crotch in a victory gesture. That occurred with 16-year-old Princess Infanta Sofía and Queen Letizia of Spain standing nearby.

The country’s leading opposition party has joined in denouncing Rubiales’ behavoir, leaving him without any support from major public or political figures.

Asked if Rubiales should go, Sánchez said that it was not his call to make because the Spanish soccer federation is not controlled by the government. But Sánchez did say Rubiales “has yet to be clear and compelling in his apologies.”

During the celebrations on Monday in the capital, Hermoso avoided commenting on the incident.

“We’re world champions, aren’t we?” she said. “Right now I think it’s too much.”

Players and staff landed late Monday in Madrid after a 20-plus hour flight from Sydney. They were greeted by thousands in a celebration that lasted until past midnight.

The 45-year-old Rubiales is a former player who led the world players’ union’s Spanish affiliate for eight years before being elected to lead the national soccer federation in 2018. Since then, he has revamped the Spanish Super Cup, taking it to Saudi Arabia for millions of dollars, in a move criticized by human rights groups.

Rubiales is now promoting a joint bid by Spain, Portugal and Morocco to host the men’s World Cup in 2030. The bid could potentially include Ukraine as well. Neither FIFA nor UEFA have commented on his conduct at the final.

Rubiales is up for re-election next year. The president of the soccer federation is chosen by representatives of clubs, players, coaches, referees and regional federation heads.

The Spain squad was in near-mutiny last year because of some players’ complaints about the culture under coach Jorge Vilda, demanding better coaching and preparation to get more out of the team.

Rubiales backed Vilda and only three of the 15 players who complained were included on the World Cup team. The federation did take some steps toward improving the conditions of the players, which included a financial package to allow them to bring family members to the World Cup and permission for players with children to spend time with them.

READ ALSO: Spain clinches Women’s World Cup title with 1-0 win over England