Spain women's soccer players resign en masse amid fight with federation, 'dictatorial' coach

·4 min read

Fifteen of Spain's top women's soccer players are declining to play for the Spanish national team until working conditions improve, and alleged in Thursday emails that the situation around the team had "significantly" affected their "emotional state" and "health," Spain's soccer federation (the RFEF) and the players said in partially conflicting statements Thursday and Friday.

The temporary resignations come weeks after a few Spanish stars reportedly urged head coach Jorge Vilda to step down, and asked RFEF president Luis Rubiales to fire Vilda. Both men reportedly refused.

On Friday, the players clarified in their statement that they have not "renounced" the national team; they have, though, said they will not play for it until the situation is "reversed." In the statement, they cited an environment that has harmed their "emotional and personal state," and harmed the performance and results of the team, and led to "undesirable injuries."

Spanish newspaper Mundo Deportivo reported that players feel the environment is "dictatorial." Vilda has, for instance, allegedly checked their bags after they went shopping, and demanded to know who they were going to coffee with. "All movement was subject to strict surveillance," the Spanish outlet reported.

The players, in their Friday statement, claimed that they had "never asked for the dismissal of the coach." But they did say: "We want a firm commitment to a professional project."

The RFEF, though, had already intimated that the players wanted Vilda out; and, in a Thursday news release, the federation said it would stand firm. It said it would "not allow the players to question the continuity" of Vilda and his staff, and would not accede to "any type of pressure."

It called the players' resignations a "very serious infraction" that could disqualify them from national team selection for 2-5 years.

The players, in their Friday statement, said that the RFEF's incomplete and biased portrayal of "private communications" on Thursday was "regrettable." Their statement suggested that the RFEF's Thursday release was a public-relations ploy that undermined serious back-and-forth discussions around how the players could achieve "maximum professional and personal success."

BRIGHTON, ENGLAND - JULY 20: Spain line up during the UEFA Women's Euro England 2022 Quarter Final match between England and Spain at Brighton & Hove Community Stadium on July 20, 2022 in Brighton, United Kingdom. (Photo by Jose Hernandez/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Spain lost to England in the 2022 Women's Euro quarterfinals. (Photo by Jose Hernandez/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Among the players who reportedly resigned are several core members of the FC Barcelona squad that went undefeated in Spain's Primera División Femenina last season, and other core members of the Spain squad that entered Euro 2022 as a favorite.

A month after La Roja, as the team is known, succumbed to England in the Euro quarterfinals, the players reportedly met and decided, with support from most but not all of them, to push for change — change that reportedly included Vilda's departure.

Vilda had ascended to the job in 2015 after a separate player revolt ousted former coach Ignacio Quereda — who'd cultivated an abusive culture of fear and intimidation, yet was retained by the RFEF until players spoke up.

Initial reports on the revolt against Vilda last month suggested that the players' reasoning was rooted in Vilda's soccer tactics, decisions and results. In Thursday's emails and Friday's statement, though, the players also made clear that the environment under Vilda had affected their health. They are reportedly unhappy with his training methods and the staff's management of injuries.

The RFEF acknowledged none of this in its Thursday statement. It instead responded aggressively, and said that “the players who have submitted their resignation will only return to the national team in the future if they accept their mistake and ask for forgiveness.”

Those words offended the players. "We will not tolerate the tone of infantilization with which the RFEF concludes its statement," they wrote on Friday.

The players, on the contrary, argued that they "maintain and will continue to maintain an unquestionable commitment to the Spanish national team." They simply want conditions around the team to improve.

They do not, of course, want to "penalize" their own careers, their finances or the growth of women's soccer by declining to play for the team, as they said in their statement. Especially not ahead of two games next month against Sweden and the United States, and with less than a year until the 2023 Women's World Cup.

But they feel they must.

"We regret," they wrote, "that, in the context of women's sport, we have to go to this extreme, as unfortunately has happened in other teams and other sports historically worldwide, in order to advance a powerful and ambitious professional project for present and future generations."