Luis Rubiales issues damning response after FIFA disciplinary accusation he ‘forcefully kissed’ England’s Lucy Bronze

On Wednesday 6 December, FIFA published its full verdict following their suspension of Luis Rubiales, the disgraced former president of the Spanish football federation (RFEF), from all football activity for three years. The 35-page document contains a lot of information that we have already heard – be it from FIFA, Rubiales, or Spanish news – but also a lot that was yet to come to light.

One of the most shocking parts is that in their accounts of the Women’s World Cup Final medal ceremony, FIFA Council members FA president Debbie Hewitt and NZF president Johanna Wood recalled that on top of allegedly forcibly kissing legendary Spanish forward Jenni Hermoso on the mouth, Rubiales also did the same – on the face – to other Spain players and the Lionesses’s most-capped current international, Lucy Bronze.

Hewitt and Wood felt so strongly about Rubiales’ behaviour that they initially sent a joint statement to FIFA when it opened disciplinary proceedings, requesting ‘the opportunity [to] share [their] experience’, before following up with separate accounts.

Hewitt noted that while Rubiales mostly shook the hands of England’s silver medal-winning team, touching some on the arm, he did cup and stroke Laura Coombs’ face as well as being as overly-friendly and exuberant with Bronze as he was with some of the Spanish players.

This isn’t a complete revelation: the broadcast of the medal ceremony showed Rubiales pull Bronze into a hug, while the fifth most notable editorial image, per Getty Images, of Bronze from the World Cup final was one of Rubiales putting his mouth close to the side of her face.

This incident and photo was also commented on at the time, interpreted by some on social media as the former RFEF president perhaps speaking into her ear, as her head is turned away from him.

Wood was was stood five people down from Rubiales; she saw the Hermoso kiss incident and based on what she saw thought Rubiales ‘was holding [Hermoso]’s head firmly to ensure that she could not move away’.

Her interpretation is apparently informed by what she’d seen him do already, telling FIFA that other Spanish players had turned their heads away from Rubiales when greeted, with kisses landing ‘to the side of their lips’.

While a cheek kiss – beso – is the typical Spanish greeting, this is often performed nowadays with a cheek-to-cheek brush, the kiss directed only to the air, parties looking away from the other. Having seen the players turn away and Rubiales not doing so, Wood felt that his actions towards them all appeared ‘forcible as players appeared to not be able to avoid’ him.

It is worth noting that Rubiales, in his response to Hewitt’s account, acknowledged that he did treat Bronze more like the Spanish players than the rest of the England team, due to her playing for Barcelona. Hewitt said she, stood directly next to Rubiales on the podium and right after him as players went down the line, was embarrassed and uncomfortable with how he treated the Spanish players.

In the months since the final, Rubiales has repeatedly described his manner of greeting them as a matter of culture – something FIFA rejected in its verdict, saying that any culture he was referring to was an outdated masculine one that does not reflect Spain today. By his accounts, Rubiales had close relationships with the Spanish players and thereby considered his behaviour normal for someone celebrating with friends.

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The Spanish team, meanwhile, had felt that he got too close, especially for someone who was essentially their boss’s boss within the RFEF structure. They felt that he was behaving like a friend, not a football president, and they were not familiar enough with him – which forms part of Hermoso’s account submitted to FIFA explicitly says he crossed such lines.

It also seems confusing as to why Rubiales would, as he did with Hermoso, excuse his behaviour towards Bronze as the act of celebrating with someone he knows well, even if that was a good reason. He had not spent the preceding month with Bronze like he had with the Spanish players and, to point out the obvious, she had just lost the biggest match of her life, somewhat by her own fault: she’d hardly be in the mood for celebrating.

That his ‘supporting evidence’ for the pair knowing each other beforehand was that he had been part of the medal ceremony for the Spanish Supercopa (that Barcelona won in January 2023), when in fact this event had caused its own controversy in Spain due to Rubiales not leaving the VIP area to hand out medals, makes for even more absurd reading. Why would he bring up something that is not only inaccurate but also establishes a track record of his unprofessional behaviour at medal ceremonies?

Rubiales also responded confusingly to Hewitt’s discomfort with how he had touched Coombs. Per his statement, he was comforting Coombs and went further than a stroke of her arm because she had been injured in the match, required stitches, and was wearing a head bandage. Coombs had been an unused substitute in the final – Rubiales appears to be referring to defender Alex Greenwood instead. A still from the broadcast of the medal ceremony shown in The Telegraph does show Rubiales touching Coombs’ face, with her face visibly not bandaged. Greenwood also did not appear to be wearing a bandage during the medal ceremony.

While Bronze has spoken several times about Rubiales’ behaviour towards Hermoso and actively supported the collective action of the Spain team since at least that notorious Supercopa in January, neither she or Coombs have commented on his behaviour towards the England team at the World Cup final. Bronze also refused to shake hands with FIFA president Gianni Infantino during the medal ceremony, seemingly because of a widely-decried speech he gave days before, and had a verbal altercation with former Spain coach Jorge Vilda on the touchline during the match.

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As part of Rubiales’ frankly railing response to Hewitt, he makes an effort to point a finger of blame at her – something in keeping with his overwhelming attitude of self-vindication that has done so much damage of its own that nearly every men’s and women’s football team in the top two tiers of Spanish football called for his resignation.

In this instance, he was suggesting that Hewitt hugged some of the England players whose body language suggested they only wanted a handshake; in the context of an investigation into Rubiales, all this statement really does is prove that deep down, he does know there should be at least judgment of how much physical contact somebody wants – that one’s own mood does not mean one should be hugging, lifting, jumping on, or kissing other people unless they ask for it.

And this understanding is in stark contrast to some of his other statements quoted, in translation, at length in the FIFA verdict. While he admits he should not have carried Athenea del Castillo over his shoulder, he wrote that this ‘has to be considered as nothing but a happiness expression’ because he ‘was overcome by joy’.

It can be inferred that he never asked Castillo if she was happy with it – his statement simply says that photographs of the incident don’t show her in distress and she never protested; materially, Castillo may have been fine, but he still did it without making sure.

Of course, it wouldn’t be entirely fair to write this long read without acknowledging that one of Rubiales’ responses was, well, not as damning as everything else. FIFA’s disciplinary panel were looking into four specific incidents as well as Rubiales’ wider behaviour, with one of those incidents being the infamous crotch-grab in the VIP box next to the Queen of Spain’s 16-year-old daughter

It felt inappropriate, and it was inappropriate, but Rubiales quite rightly pointed out that FIFA haven’t sanctioned Argentine goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez for a similar gesture in Qatar. A valid point, but then again, Martínez didn’t grab and kiss anything but a trophy afterwards.

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Hermoso’s statements provided to FIFA and quoted, in translation, in the verdict also reveal more on the coercion allegations that are currently the subject of legal proceedings in Spain. As the Spain team were travelling by bus to the airport in Australia after the match, Hermoso says the bus stopped and she was told to get off, being met by RFEF communications officials who told her she ‘was obliged to’ give a statement through the RFEF playing down the kiss incident.

Hermoso, in trying to get them to leave her alone, recalled saying something like ‘do whatever you want’. Per the verdict, this wasn’t the first or second time that RFEF officials had pulled Hermoso away from her teammates to try and convince her to let Rubiales off, with both Rubiales and the sports director -presumably referring to Vilda – having done so before leaving the stadium.

She said Rubiales then told her on the flight to Doha that he would get Vilda, referred to by the nickname Chema, to speak to Hermoso’s brother, after she had asked him to ‘let [her] talk to [her] people’ before making any statements.

This declaration of intent of the alleged coercion of Hermoso’s family was made during the same plane conversation that has been notorious in Spain for Rubiales reportedly telling Hermoso to support him for the sake of his daughters. In an apparent attempt at appealing to Hermoso’s good nature, he said – per her statement – that he had ‘done a lot for women’s football’ and that he had ‘always been very good to [Hermoso]’.

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Rubiales never stopped trying to excuse his actions either, seemingly trying to make Hermoso believe that the kiss was a non-issue because they ‘both know that [they] both like the same thing’ – a crude reference to the fact Hermoso is a lesbian, as if that was somehow meant to make it more excusable for a straight man to allegedly forcibly kiss her than if she was of any other sexual orientation.

It is also an example of how Rubiales and the RFEF have kept their approach extremely personal – and almost certainly too personal, including allegedly pressuring her and a friend while she was on holiday in Ibiza.

But we can’t avoid all of the personal elements, like the emotional toll on Hermoso and her family, her feelings in the immediate and the later aftermath that underline the importance of consent. Hermoso provided statements to FIFA on her mental state, reflecting at times on how vulnerable and humiliated she had felt because of the kiss and how she continues to feel about the final, her career, her image, and her teammates.

She has been rallied around by these teammates who, according to a recent interview with captain Alexia Putellas, were never in doubt about their support for Hermoso and are secure in the knowledge they get to keep being world champions for, at least, the next four years.