Wordlessly, their eyes fixed straight ahead, Spain’s players filed in to the Alameda Hotel not far from Madrid’s airport. It had been a month, almost to the day, since they won the World Cup. It should have been a joyful reunion, a welcome and gleeful chance for the women to revel in the greatest glory of their careers. Instead, they looked as if they were heading into battle.
In a way, of course, they were. Many of Spain’s players have been locked in open conflict with the country’s soccer federation — its employer, in effect — for more than a year. The disagreement expanded to envelop almost all of them pretty much from the moment the whistle blew to end the World Cup final.
Over the last week or so, all of their efforts have — finally — borne fruit. The players have secured something that looks a lot like victory; in the war, at least, even if the peace still has to be won. Concessions have been made, commitments assured, and heads are starting to roll. Three major figures have fallen. More will follow in time.
This is what the players have wanted all along. The original protest, the one last year that led 15 members of the squad to temporarily refuse to play for the national team, was rooted in a desire to force the federation to change. The team wanted better facilities, a proper support staff, a professionalized environment, a coach who did not track their every move.
To persuade some of the rebels to return for the World Cup, the federation had made some accommodations. The team traveled to Australia and New Zealand with a nutritionist and a psychologist. The players were consulted on where they would stay and where they would train. Each squad member was given an allowance that permitted family and friends to join them. An uneasy truce held long enough for Spain to conquer the world.
Quite how little had changed, though, became clear even before the players had lifted the trophy. Luis Rubiales, the federation’s president, kissed the forward Jenni Hermoso forcefully on the lips as they celebrated on the podium. It had been consensual, he insisted afterward. When Hermoso made perfectly clear that had not been the case, Rubiales doubled down rather than apologize.
The federation did not so much as back him as follow him down the rabbit hole. At one point it adopted the posture that it was prepared to pull out of European competition — its women’s teams, its men’s teams, its club sides — entirely if anyone dared to try to remove Rubiales from his post. His mother locked herself in a church. Hermoso’s reputation was impugned; she was accused of lying. This was not a federation that appeared dedicated to change.
It was more than the players could tolerate. Dozens of them released a statement declaring that they would not represent their country while Rubiales remained in place. It became increasingly clear that the coach, Jorge Vilda, was in an untenable position, too. This time, there would be no half-measures, no awkward cease-fire.
Eventually, both did go — Rubiales, in particular, through gritted teeth — but still the federation found a way to undermine the prospect of any good will.
Vilda was replaced by one of his assistants, Montse Tomé, hardly a break with the old regime. When 39 players announced that there had still not been enough meaningful, structural change to persuade them to return to the fold, she called them to camp anyway. If they ignored the summons, they players were threatened, they could be fined and banned even from club competition. That was how they arrived, jaws clenched and against their wishes, at the Alameda Hotel.
What happened next is testament not only to their perseverance but to the validity of their cause. In a meeting brokered by the Spanish government, the players finally forced the federation to bend to their will. They requested the departure of three more senior staff members, petitioned for stronger safeguarding measures, demanded changes that should prevent a repeat of all they have been through.
They won. It was not an easy victory — the meeting, at a hotel a little south of Valencia, reportedly lasted seven hours, and drew to a close only at 5 a.m. — but it was a victory nonetheless.
And yet this is not a triumph for the underdog forces of all that is right and virtuous over their uncaring oppressors. Or, more accurately, that is not how it feels. What Spain’s players have been through over the last year, and particularly in the last month, is too outrageous to be erased by the silhouette of an uplifting outcome. The aftertaste is too strong, and too bitter.
Perhaps, in time, they will come to regard the past few weeks as a sacrifice worth making. If the federation follows through on the promises it has made to ensure subsequent generations do not have to fight the same battles, to endure the same indignities, then perhaps the Spanish women who stood for what they believed in will have a legacy cast in both concrete and gold.
More potent even than outrage, though, is sadness. Spain’s players had worked for years to win the World Cup. That is true of all athletes, of course, but it is particularly true of women’s soccer players, so consistently overlooked, so reliably underfunded, so frequently deprived of things their men’s counterparts would regard as basic necessities.
That Spain’s players achieved their goal — that they reached the apex of any player’s career, delivering to their country the greatest prize imaginable with such verve and panache and dazzling talent — should have been an unyielding source of pride and contentment and joy. The afterglow should have shimmered for years.
Thanks to Rubiales and to Vilda and to the rest of the federation power brokers, the ones who refused to listen until the very last moment, the players have been denied all of that. Their World Cup victory is not tarnished — that would be the wrong word — but their memories of it will be, their glory always carrying with it an undercurrent of anguish.
That was clear as they trooped into the Hotel Alameda, their faces stern and their shoulders slumped, forced into battle once more. This should have been a moment to relish, the world champions together again. It seemed, instead, one of pure dread. And no matter what happens now, they will never have it back.
There is, as there always has been, an existential tension within soccer — in all sports — that it does not especially want to confront. It relates to the purpose of the endeavor. Is it, primarily, a form of entertainment? Or is that more accurately depicted as a byproduct of the activity? Is its actual aim to establish which team is better and which worse, and the fact that people seem to find it compelling just a happy accident?
Perhaps it is best framed in less theoretical terms. This season, the all-knowing, all-seeing referees of the Premier League have decided that there is no greater threat to the well-being of the most popular leisure pastime the world has ever known than time-wasting.
This is, in part, because they have been instructed to eradicate it: The game’s rule-making body has passed down an edict that time-wasting — dawdling over set pieces, pretending to be injured, strolling off the field after being substituted as if you don’t have a care in the world — is no longer to be tolerated.
But it is also the product of the Premier League’s own consultation with “fan groups,” which the league said had revealed the diminishing amount of time taken up with the actual playing of soccer has become something of an issue. “We are seeing a lowering number of effective playing time minutes to a point where people are concerned about that,” Howard Webb, the man in charge of the referees, said earlier this season.
And so, this season, referees have shown a blizzard of yellow cards to players deemed guilty of time-wasting. They have even, according to Paul Heckingbottom, the Sheffield United manager, taken to hurrying along goalkeepers they determine to be contemplating the nature of their goal kicks just a little too deeply.
This is not a neutral act. The referees have in effect decided that players are entertainers, and therefore have a duty to provide as much entertainment as possible, as if a ticket or a television subscription is a form of covenant with the teams themselves. Not being sufficiently entertaining has now been turned into an offense.
The first problem, of course, is that “entertainment” is a subjective judgment. Who gets to decide what is good to watch? Is there not pleasure in the slow burn, in the grind to victory? Is breathlessly, relentlessly fast soccer the only good soccer? Isn’t the whole point that the sport is entertaining because it can take so many forms?
And the second problem is where this ends. Are certain styles of play to be outlawed because they are deemed insufficiently aesthetically pleasing? Should we ban players from running the ball into the corner in the dying minutes of a game their team is winning? Such a measure would seem ludicrous, excessive. But the logic, the strict excision of anything that might compromise the show, is exactly the same.
Seeing as this newsletter, more than anything, is a public service, it seems only right to help out Ilan Kolkowitz. “My partner and I are considering a wide variety of places to go on an upcoming vacation in Europe, and I’d be really interested in catching a soccer match somewhere,” he wrote.
“I was wondering if you had recommendations for your favorite places to go? In your recent ‘European Nights’ podcast, you referenced your running ice cream list, and I am certainly open to any factors that may contribute to the overall experience.”
If we’re going on the Ice Cream List — capitalization deliberate; it has taken many years of research to construct — then the top choices should be Florence or Lisbon: La Carraia (No. 2) for the former, and Nannarelli (No. 6) for the latter. Both have excellent soccer options, too, whether you see Fiorentina, Benfica or Sporting.
Purely on game experience, I would probably have to plump for Napoli, Marseille (try to go when they’re winning) or Rotterdam. If food is the priority, then it’s hard to see past San Sebastián, home to Real Sociedad and as many pintxos as you can eat. Go just up the coast to St. Jean de Luz, in France, and you can get a No. 9-ranked salted caramel, too.