Last summer, when Beatriz Álvarez landed the job as president of the Spanish women’s soccer league, she asked to meet the chief of the country’s soccer federation by videoconference, she said, so she could remain home with her newborn child.
After decades of being an inconsistently run afterthought, women’s soccer had recently become fully unionized and professional. Ms. Álvarez had much to discuss.
But Luis Rubiales, the now-embattled president of the soccer federation, refused, Ms. Álvarez recalled in an interview. He told her to send someone else. She said he told her that, rather than attending a meeting, she should set an example by “devoting myself to my maternity.”
Ms. Álvarez said the meetings went on without her. She said the incident was just one of many subtle and not-so-subtle reminders over the years that, in the eyes of Spain’s top soccer official, women should know their place.
This power imbalance burst into public view after Spain won the World Cup last month and Mr. Rubiales forcibly kissed the star player, Jenni Hermoso, on live television. On Wednesday, Ms. Hermoso filed a criminal complaint with state prosecutors, advancing an inquiry into whether the kiss was an act of sexual aggression.
The kiss unleashed widespread backlash and provoked a reckoning in women’s soccer in the country. On Tuesday, Spain fired its women’s national coach, Jorge Vilda, whom players had separately criticized for his domineering, even humiliating management style. Replacing him is Montse Tomé, 41, the first woman to hold that position in Spain.
In interviews with The New York Times, more than a dozen women involved in Spanish soccer described more than a decade of systemic sexism ranging from paternalism and offhand remarks to verbal abuse. Women said they got bedtime checks and were ordered to leave their hotel doors ajar at night. One high-ranking official quit after concluding that her hiring was just window dressing. And Veronica Boquete, a former national team captain, recalled that Mr. Vilda’s predecessor, Ignacio Quereda, told players, “What you really need is a good man and a big penis.”
Mr. Quereda has denied being verbally abusive.
With his kiss and his defiance in the face of suspension and public recrimination, Mr. Rubiales is the face of that system. Ms. Álvarez called him an “egocentric chauvinist” who never cared about the women’s league and ran the sport “based on belittlement and humiliation.”
Mr. Rubiales did not respond to an interview request, and his soccer federation declined to answer questions from The New York Times or even forward them to Mr. Rubiales, citing his suspension by FIFA, soccer’s world governing body. He has described himself as a victim of “false feminism.”
While players say they will boycott the national team unless Mr. Rubiales is gone, they also say that his departure would not be enough. The issues in Spanish soccer predate his arrival and require major changes to address, they say. Dozens of current and former players have signed a statement demanding management changes. They air their grievances and strategize in a WhatsApp group called Se Acabó, Spanish for “It’s Over.”
Players want higher wages, contracts that continue during maternity leave and access to the same nutritionists and physical therapists as men. And they are discussing a potential strike to get them. Union officials say that the minimum wage for women is 16,000 euros (a little over $17,000), compared with 180,000 euros, over $193,000, for their male counterparts.
Ana Muñoz, the soccer federation’s former vice president for integrity, said that instead of prize money at the end of a competition she witnessed, players received tablets. “I have daughters,” she recalled Mr. Rubiales remarking. “I know what women would want.”
Ms. Muñoz, who resigned in 2019 after a year on the job, recounted for the first time the reasons for her departure. “I was just there for decoration,” she said. “A flower pot.” She said she questioned the ethics of several of Mr. Rubiales’s decisions, including a $43 million deal to move a soccer competition to Saudi Arabia. That move is under investigation, along with public allegations by his former chief of staff and others that Mr. Rubiales used federation money to host a sex party at a coastal villa in the south of Spain. (Mr. Rubiales has previously denied any wrongdoing in either case.)
Fifteen of the federation’s 18 board members were men, Ms. Muñoz recalled. When she called for the temporary removal of a member pending a criminal investigation into whether he had spent federation funds on home renovations and his wife’s business, she said she was swiftly voted down. She said she had no authority. “I couldn’t understand that a department of integrity didn’t deal with integrity issues,” she said.
Players tried and failed to force change last year over the behavior of Mr. Vilda, the now-fired national coach.
Ms. Boquete recalled that on the national team from 2015 to 2017, when she was captain and Mr. Vilda was coach, he insisted that, when women gathered for coffee, they do so where he could see them. She said he wanted to monitor their body language, whom they were meeting and whether they were complaining about him. Team captains were told where to sit at meals, she said, so he could maintain eye contact with them.
Mr. Vilda also required players to keep their doors open at night until he could check that each of them was in bed. “If you go into the other rooms, maybe you’ll talk about him,” Ms. Boquete said. “He wanted to control everything.”
It’s unclear whether that continued for the most recent national team. The players have declined to speak publicly amid the controversy. People close to the players said the women feared retribution. And in the few cases in which agents said their clients did want to talk, the clubs shut them down.
Fifteen players ultimately banded together and refused to play under Mr. Vilda. Mr. Rubiales refused to fire him, and the federation responded by requiring that the players apologize for their actions before considering whether to allow them to return to the team.
Some players were particularly angry last month, after the World Cup victory and the controversy over the kiss, when Mr. Rubiales not only refused to step down and apologize but also announced that he planned to renew Mr. Vilda’s contract and give him a raise. That plan came to a halt this week with Mr. Vilda’s termination, but Mr. Rubiales is clinging to his job. Though the federation has not fired him, it called his behavior at the World Cup “totally unacceptable.”
Mr. Rubiales resisted the idea of professional women’s soccer from the beginning, records obtained by The Times show. In 2020, during discussions about creating a unionized, official women’s soccer league, the national federation under Mr. Rubiales opposed the idea, according to a document from Spain’s National Sports Council.
Mr. Rubiales questioned whether clubs could afford the upgrade, recalled María José López, the top lawyer for Spain’s chief players’ union, who was involved in the discussions. But she suspected Mr. Rubiales really did not want to cede power to the women’s teams. “In particular, he didn’t want the clubs to negotiate TV broadcasting rights,” Ms. López said.
Generations of female athletes have endured demeaning comments.
When an unofficial Barcelona women’s team played its inaugural match on Christmas in 1970, the public announcer kept asking, “Has her bra broken?” as players ran the field, team members have recalled.
The following year, José Luis Pérez-Paya, then the president of Spain’s soccer federation, said: “I’m not against women’s football, but I don’t like it, either. I don’t think it’s feminine from an aesthetic point of view. Women are not favored wearing shirts and shorts.”
Decades later, Mr. Rubiales cracked a similar joke on live television. Monica Marchante, a Spanish sports commentator, recalled being on air with him as players wore T-shirts and shorts after practice. “They’re in their underwear,” he joked. In an interview, Ms. Marchante said she smiled politely but realized then that Mr. Rubiales was “old-fashioned and rancid.”
Ms. Álvarez, the league president, said the soccer federation also tried to sabotage the opening of the 2022-23 women’s season by helping to orchestrate a referee strike that postponed the opening weekend. The federation, she said, is a “corrupt structure.”
In January, when the Barcelona club team won the Women’s Super Cup, an important Spanish competition, Mr. Rubiales and other top federation officials skipped the medal ceremony. Players had to collect their medals from containers.
Spain is far from alone in its treatment of female players. In 2004, FIFA’s president at the time, Sepp Blatter, suggested that women could enhance their sport by wearing tighter shorts. During a 2015 interview in Zurich, he repeatedly petted a Times reporter’s hair.
European powers like England and Germany barred women from playing for years until 1970.
“The Spaniards are not outliers,” said Andrei Markovits, a University of Michigan politics professor and the author of “Women in American Soccer and European Football.” “They are totally the norm.”
Spain’s professional women’s soccer season kicks off this weekend. But on Wednesday, the attention was on an office in downtown Madrid, where league and union representatives were meeting to discuss salaries and working conditions. Union leaders say that, if no agreement is reached, a strike is possible that could delay the season.