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The bitter aftertaste of that unwanted World Cup kiss on the lips

There was no fairytale ending for the Lionesses – and away from the pitch, there was a disturbing sting in the tale of Spain’s victory, writes Alex Greenwood

Monday 21 August 2023 17:31 BST
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Moment Spanish FA president Luis Rubiales kisses Jenni Hermoso on the lips after world cup win
Moment Spanish FA president Luis Rubiales kisses Jenni Hermoso on the lips after world cup win (ZDF)

Last summer we saw the Lionesses emerge to national stardom, with a decisive victory at a home tournament, the country united behind them and a generation of girls inspired. While the men’s game became more muddied by scenes of violence at the Euros, sportswashing and corrupt ownership, women’s football offered the perfect therapy – complete with a fairytale ending.

Yesterday, I willed myself to find the same level of optimism. The sun shone much like last year, and though there didn’t seem to be quite the same level of national euphoria, my corner of London’s women’s football fandom was giddy ahead of the match.

Ultimately, it was not to be. We failed to find an equaliser. As the England manager graciously referenced in her post-match interview, Spain were the better team on the day and that is, as pundits have somewhat comically laboured over the last month, “tournament football”.  Yet the day after the final, and as the pain of the loss subsides, it remains tough as a fan to countenance what is ultimately an imperfect narrative, for both this match and the tournament as a whole.

In a World Cup marked by disputes between teams and their federations, women players’ successes seem more in spite of their national structures, than thanks to them. The Spanish squad that lifted yesterday’s World Cup trophy lacked a number of key players. As last year, we saw Spanish players refuse to play under the manager Jorge Vilda, boycotting his style of management and raising “significant concerns” for their “emotional state” and “health”.

During yesterday’s post-match jubilation, there were audible boos for Vilda in the stadium and he was seen awkwardly celebrating alone.

The celebrations of the team were further sullied when Spanish forward Jenni Hermoso was kissed on the mouth by Luis Rubiales, president of the Spanish federation, while collecting her medal, in an act she initially spoke out against (but subsequently diminished).

For me, this deeply uncomfortable display of “affection” appeared – at best – a gendered act with willful disregard for personal boundaries.

Even before this occurred, the optimism of the women’s football tournament was punctured yet again on the eve of the final with bizarre patronising comments of Fifa president Infantino, again reflecting a complete lack of awareness around the women’s game. The president of world football encouraged women to “pick the right battles” and “convince us men” to implement changes in the sport.

(This is not the first time Infantino has displayed a confounding lack of awareness in his public comments. In my opinion, it is indicative of a male-dominated governing body that continues to systematically and monetarily devalue the women’s game.)

For England fans, yesterday might have offered a neat narrative of good vs evil, with a team united around the talismanic manager Sarina Wiegman facing the controversial Jorge Vilda, yet this too glosses over a less perfect reality.

The FA failed to resolve pay dispute issues with the team ahead of the tournament, despite the Lionesses’ great accomplishments. The national team that came a hair’s breadth from lifting the World Cup trophy for the first time since 1966 had no assurances of financial remuneration for this, in a situation that would never be permitted for our less-decorated men’s side.

Optimists might rightly point to reasons to be cheerful; the sell-out stadiums and record viewing figures will further boost the commercial viability of the women’s game, surely securing further investment, which can trickle down to all women’s sports. This World Cup’s expansion to 32 teams, with many shock results – in particular the African nations excelling – reflects the gulf between teams finally closing.

The product of women’s football has once again proven itself worthy on its biggest stage, and with a far more diverse cast of superstars. Importantly, we are seeing new generations of girls inspired to pick up a ball, and walk onto a pitch where they might have never felt welcome, and we must celebrate this.

But while we applaud the great strides made on the professional and grassroots pitch, questions linger unanswered. Hermoso has subsequently taken back her comments against the Spanish football president’s kiss, yet a bitter taste remains. Meanwhile, Olga Carmona was informed of her father’s death just minutes after the final ended. Her family had kept it secret from her for two days.

So: while the temptation is to grasp at fairytales, there is no neat ending to this tournament. And there’s still no perfect ending for women in sport, either. We haven’t won it yet.

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