The messy dispute between Spain's soccer federation and its Women's World Cup-winning players reignited Monday with a devilish ploy that Jenni Hermoso called "manipulation" — and that proved, even with Luis Rubiales gone and Jorge Vilda fired, that "nothing has changed," Hermoso said.
All but two of the players, citing insufficient changes, had asked last Friday not to be selected for upcoming games against Sweden and Switzerland. On Monday, the now-infamous Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) selected most of them anyway.
Players were reportedly shocked. Hermoso said in a statement that they were all "certain that this is yet another strategy of division and manipulation to intimidate and threaten us with legal repercussions and economic sanctions."
Victor Francos, a government sports official, said that if the players refused to report for national team duty, they could be disciplined under Spanish law, which stipulates that they could be suspended for multiple years.
So an initial wave of players did report to a Madrid hotel Tuesday. The first to arrive, goalkeeper Misa Rodriguez, was hounded by cameras and reporters, and asked if she was happy to be called up.
Misa Rodríguez arriving to Spain camp in a Madrid hotel
“Are you happy to be on Montse Tome’s squad list?”
— Alex Ibaceta (@alexibaceta23) September 19, 2023
"No," she said.
Most of the 23 players selected published a statement Monday night reiterating their previous pleas for change. In private and public, in the weeks since Rubiales kissed Hermoso during the World Cup medal ceremony, amid a reckoning with decades of misogyny and inequities in Spanish soccer, the players demanded "real structural changes that help the [women's national] team continue growing."
Last Friday, even with a new head coach and RFEF president in place, they said: “The changes made are not enough for the players to feel safe, where women are respected, where there is support for women’s football and where we can maximize our potential.”
Their statement, and their corresponding vow to refuse call-ups, mirrored the original explosion of this dispute last September, when 15 players pushed for better working conditions, saying that the environment around the national team had "significantly" affected their physical and emotional health, and sent emails to the federation asking not to be selected until the environment improved.
The federation's astounding response Monday also mirrored its battle cry last September. Back then, it publicized the players' private emails, allegedly mischaracterized them to win over public opinion, and called the players' resignations a "very serious infraction" that could disqualify them from national team selection for 2-5 years.
On Monday, it was less explicit. In fact, in a statement alongside the roster announcement, the RFEF acknowledged "the need to make structural changes," and said it was "aligned" with the players and Spanish society.
But the decision to select the striking players sent a very different message. It triggered "open war," the front page of Spanish newspaper AS blared.
"The wound gets bigger," Marca wrote.
"We regret once again that our federation has placed us in a situation that we never would've wanted," the players said in their joint statement.
External criticism of the federation swiftly mounted. "Everything keeps getting WORSE in the [RFEF]," Spain men's national team legend Iker Casillas tweeted.
"This is insane," wrote Ana-Maria Crnogorčević, a Swiss star and club teammate of many Spanish players at Barcelona and now Atletico Madrid. "How can you threaten your own player[s] like this."
Hermoso's individual statement went a step further. She'd been left off the roster, and interim head coach Montse Tomé said the omission was "to protect her." Hermoso responded: "Protect me from what? And from whom?"
"We have been searching for weeks — months, even — for protection from the RFEF that never came. The people who now ask us to trust them are the same ones who today [selected] the list of players who have asked NOT to be called up."
— Jenn1 Hermos0 (@Jennihermoso) September 18, 2023
She said it was "yet more irrefutable proof" that nothing had changed at the RFEF.
Tomé, a former Vilda assistant for five years, said at a Monday news conference that she had spoken with players and none had told her they did not want to be called up. But Revelo reported that this was a lie. The players wrote that, since their Friday request to not be selected, "nothing different has been transmitted to any member of the RFEF."
Hermoso concluded: "I want to once again show my full support to my colleagues who have been caught by surprise and forced to react to another unfortunate situation caused by the people who continue to make decisions with the RFEF. This is why we are fighting and why we are doing it in this way."
With the legal threats looming, though, a half dozen players did report to the team hotel in Madrid on Tuesday. They then traveled to Valencia, where the rest of the squad, including its FC Barcelona contingent, is scheduled to join them ahead of a Nations League match against Sweden on Friday.
It's the team's first game since its World Cup triumph. In normal circumstances, in any country with a competent soccer federation, it would be an occasion to celebrate.
Instead, the Madrid-based players began their journey to Valencia with sour expressions spread across their faces.
— Radioestadio Noche (@RadioestadioN) September 19, 2023
Star midfielder Alexia Putellas, also seemingly en route to the training camp, was followed by reporters through a Barcelona airport, with microphones bobbing up and down in front of her unflinching face.
🛫Las azulgranas ya están en El Prat para poner rumbo a Valencia con el resto de jugadoras
💥Alexia: "No voy a decir nada"
🗣️Y ha respondido a una pregunta sobre cómo se sienten: "Pues mal"
— Diario SPORT (@sport) September 19, 2023
"I'm not going to say anything," Putellas told them, but then she gave two Spanish words when asked how she felt: "Well, bad."