The emails arrived at the federation at about seven o’clock on Thursday evening: 15 of them written in the first person but all saying the same thing in exactly the same words. “I inform you that the events that have occurred and the situation that has arisen in the Spanish national team, a situation of which you are aware, are having an important effect on my emotional state and by extension my health,” the letters read. “As I result I do not currently consider myself to be in a condition to be chosen for the national team and I ask not to be called up until the situation is resolved.”
Another mutiny had begun, three weeks since the last. In a single minute, more than half of the Spain team had pulled out, determined that they would not go back for as long as nothing changes and Jorge Vilda is in charge – even if they did not explicitly express it in those terms, the coach not named. In August they had pushed for the president of the federation, Luis Rubiales, to make changes in women’s football that included Vilda; when Rubiales had refused, they had tried to get Vilda to walk but he would not. Now, they had decided they would do so instead. This could not continue, on more levels than one.
For some of those players, the reference to their emotional state, their health, was not empty words. There is no suggestion of inappropriate behaviour, but the relationship with Vilda had broken down – insofar as there was even a relationship at all, and the impact of that was detrimental to them all. Now the relationship with the federation has too, played out in public and only getting worse. A subsequent statement published by the players on Friday night deepened the divide.
Many of the Spain players consider Vilda controlling; most consider him incapable. He had also become a symbol of something wider: a sense, borne out repeatedly, that Rubiales did not truly believe in women’s football. The means they chose, according to those close to the players, the only means they could. The statement from the players on Friday lamented that it had “come to this extreme” in order to “advance”.
In part, this can be seen as part of a process of professionalisation in women’s football in Spain: as the game progresses, as the level rises and demands increase, so some get left behind. Put bluntly, many players believe that Vilda should have been. Instead, he is still there, seven years after taking over as national team coach. Others are too. They, meanwhile, have become increasingly aware of their collective cause, of the success they could and perhaps should aspire to, ambition they feel others have failed to share.
And so the emails were sent simultaneously, one each from Patri Guijarro, Mapi León, Aitana Bonmatí, Mariona Caldentey, Sandra Paños, Andrea Pereira, Clàudia Pina, Ona Batlle, Laia Aleixandri, Leila Ouahabi, Ainhoa Vicente, Lucía García, Lola Gallardo, Amaiur Sarriegi and Nerea Eizagirre. Six players from Barcelona, the nucleus of the team, and two each from Manchester City, Manchester United, Atlético Madrid and Real Sociedad, plus one from the US.
It was more than just them. Alexia Putellas, the Ballon d’Or winner, had not written but injury meant that she would not be available for selection for October’s matches anyway. She had previously expressed support for her teammates, and did so again by publishing their joint statement on Friday. Irene Paredes, the captain, had felt fingers pointed her way when she had been the figurehead of the squad’s rebellion in August and chose to take a step back, but agreed with the aims. If none of the Real Madrid players had written, that was at least partly due to pressure put on them by their club not to join in, a political dimension to how all this is played out.
The players did not consider this a case of definitively renouncing the national team; the choice of language in their first letter had reflected a desire to avoid that and their statement the following day even claimed that the RFEF had asked them to confirm whether they were available, only to then reveal their collective response. They called the RFEF statement “partial and interested”.
The original email insisted that they were “absolutely committed to the national team” in the past, present and future, keen to “seek the best for our national team”. What that solution would be went unsaid and a full, public explanation was absent. When the players had spoken up in August no real details were given and both the emails and the statement were short on detail, with references instead to “the situation” and “events” which went undefined. The key question – why? – was not answered.
In part that was because it did not need to be defined, not then at least: these emails were sent privately to the RFEF – it was not until the next day that the exact content was revealed by Cadena Ser radio – and they correctly referred to a situation “of which you are aware”. The federation was not entirely mistaken when it interpreted the emails as “question[ing] the continuity of the coach”, a means of “pressure being exerted”. It already knew, but did not side with the players, instead moving against them.
It was the federation that made the letters public, something the players were unhappy about, when it responded with a statement a little over four hours later. The statement’s belligerent pitch and content did not invite a rapprochement. Describing the move as “unprecedented in the history of football”, unethical and lacking in dignity, the letters “coincidentally written the same way”, the federation insisted that it would not give in to pressure. There would be no talks; this rebellion would simply be put down. That may not prove so simple, though.
It reminded the players that refusing to play for the national team could result in bans of between two and five years and declared that it would not call up any of the players involved until they “admit their error and apologise”. “The RFEF will not allow the players to question the continuity of the coach, as taking those decisions are not part of their role,” the statement vowed. The following night the players responded by saying they would “not tolerate” the RFEF’s “infantile” tone.
In August, in an emergency press conference led by the captains and supported on social media by Putellas after the story broke of a mutiny against their coach, Paredes claimed that the players had not asked for Vilda’s sacking. She said they knew their job was simply to play but did insisted “sometimes you have to speak even when it doesn’t please people” and revealed that they had been reassured that things would change.
They have not. If the federation thought it had kept a lid on the crisis, games against Hungry and Ukraine comfortably won in early September, it has blown up again. There is not one simple explanation, but rather a series of small, cumulative ones.
For some Spain players joining the national team has become something to endure, not enjoy. One source close to them talks of anxiety, players in tears, of an atmosphere that is unsustainable. There is little communication with Vilda, who is the coach and sporting director in one and who they see as overbearing. The environment has become tense, unpleasant at times.
Some within the squad consider the coach to be in a position that he does not merit, put there more by personal relationships than qualifications, protected by the president who they doubt truly believes in women’s football. In their view, others who are equally unqualified occupy positions of power round him.
Vilda’s tactics, methods and group management have faced internal criticism by players who demand more, his gameplans considered deficient or even nonexistent. A statement released by the players on Friday reiterated that they had not called for his sacking “as has been claimed” but had “expressed constructively and honestly what we think can improve the performance of the group”.
Spain are no longer at the level they were in 2015, but far beyond it, Vilda becoming in many of their eyes a symbol of something far bigger: of a federation not keeping pace with that progress. The players decided something had to be done. Traditional routes were unavailable to them so they opted for collective action.
“Maybe the players have gone too far,” said José Manuel Franco, the head of Spain’s sports council. “Vilda’s situation is very difficult at the moment. I hope there can be dialogue and they can reach an agreement. The federation has to resolve this – for the good of women’s football.”
Which is not so different to what the players have been saying all along. On Friday evening, at 6.35pm local time every player posted the same thing on social media, a collective statement in which they stood firm, playing this conflict in a wider context and reminding everyone of the risk they were taking. “Could anyone seriously see this as a whim or an act of blackmail?” it asked.
“We lament the fact that in the context of women’s sport, we should have to reach this point, as sadly has historically been the case in other teams and other sports, in order to advance a strong, ambitious professional project for the present and for future generations.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism