Equality in Soccer for All Women – A Case Study of the Royal Spanish Football Federation

The Primera División Femenina, the top division for women’s soccer in Spain, boasts some of the most amazing talents in the sport, with Spain’s national team already pushing the United States to their limits. The league is still in the early stages becoming one of the world’s most highly regarded divisions, with a prospering set of international youth development squads and wide-ranging interest. The Primera División is known for being technical, competitive, and passionate towards improvement and success. Even with recent improvements, the Primera División has been hindered by the lack of support given from the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), the federation that all registered top division soccer teams in Spain are held under.

These hindrances are concerning in regards to gender equality. Greater assets and recognition within the women’s game are further developed elsewhere. Young talents such as Damaris Egurrola and Ona Batlle are departing Spanish league for other opportunities. Although England’s FA Women’s Super League (WSL) has attracted major talents in the past few seasons, the RFEF and other organizations linked have prevented the growth of talent in women’s soccer through gender inequality and illogical decision-making.

The Strike

Over the past decade, the treatment of female players in Spain has not gone unnoticed. Players have resigned from the national team both on their own merit and unwillingly, who could have easily been on the roster for this past World Cup. By this time last year, the Selección Española de Fútbol Femenina (the Spanish National Team most commonly referred to as the Selección) had waited over a year for the RFEF to discuss concerns. The Selección were tired and ready for change. As strides towards gender equality were made in other countries, Spain were fighting for recognition.

Last November, all but one player from the Primera División forgoed play to highlight the ongoing issues with the Asociación de Clubes de Fútbol Femenino (the union that represents all Primera División clubs with the exceptions of Barcelona, Athletic Club Bilbao, and Real Madrid), commonly referred to as the ACFF. In direct action against ACFF, these 200 players boycotted their league fixtures by way of the Asociación de Futbolistas Españoles (Association of Spanish Footballers) or AFE. The RFEF held the position of moderator for the discussions. The RFEF’s biased point of view showed in their unacknowledgement of other representitives.

The AFE made clear in their requests that lavish treatment is not the goal. It is apparent to the players, that taking small steps forward is far better than not moving at all. Major points in the statement from the AFE include a minimum yearly salary of 16,000 euros (19,062 dollars), maternity leave, and a protocol for injuries on the field. Without these basic rights, a full-time women’s league is not a sustainable option. As is pointed out year after year, clubs making Champions League finals, packing 60,000 people into a stadium, or competing with the best teams in the world deserve to be valued by the people that represent them professionally. Regardless of gender and economic status, no league should be left behind in the larger fight for equality in women’s sports.

The excuses from the RFEF and the ACFF are based in a document published in 1991, older than close to 90% of the latest Spanish Women’s National Team roster. The RFEF holds control over royal decrees given out to enforce policy. The official Royal Decree on Spanish Sports Federations and Registry of Sports Associations states that no one sport can have two professional leagues simultaneously. This decree disallows the Primera División’s professionalization. In 1991, the RFEF had not put significant thought into creating a women’s division. Thirty years of dedication from both the players and societal shifts have proven the decree to be severely outdated.

On August 26, 2020, the AFE released a statement in contingency with the players, highlighting their fight against injustice. The declarations stated that although the RFEF does not recognize the Primera División as professional, the obligations placed upon their players are reason to counteract these claims. These are athletes who have full working weeks and sacrifice their livelihood for a sport that will never earn them money. These are athletes that have fought endlessly against a federation that will only benefit the opposite gender.

This year, the league started the first weekend of October due to the lack of attention given to COVID-19. Already, 12 matches have been postponed. The opening weekend of the Primera División puts their starting date as later than every other top five ranked league within the UEFA women’s association. In addition, the RFEF refused to make significant changes to a transfer compensation placed on 17 players under the age of 23 over the summer. Complaints were expressed and further turmoil bubbled up under the surface.

ACFF finally caved a month after the start of the season. They put forth a protocol to meet the obligations from a strike just over a year before, allowing for maternity leave, adding to their agreement for 16,000 euro salaries, and providing a protocol for detrimental injuries. The biggest news came from a long overdue announcement by the RFEF. The top two women’s divisions in Spain would now be able to call themselves professional. The players would finally receive minimum decency, and namesake to their work, but still remain in the fight for what they rightfully deserve as professional, full-time, athletes.

The Transfer Clause

In light of the continuous fight for rights against the ACFF and the RFEF, a collective agreement was signed to standardize working conditions. This is the first step to ensure the continued advancement of women’s sports in Spain. Inexplicably, the agreement also put forth restrictions for any player looking to switch clubs under the age of 23. This left a group of 17 talents looking to improve their careers elsewhere. For those viewing through the lens of a general male soccer fan, it may come across as a mere annoyance or a possible delay in stardom. For a woman, getting the chance to move to a larger club does not just allow for successes within the sport but also better in housing, injury prevention, mental health, and a cushion for life after retirement. Female players do not get the luxury of a well paid career in athletics.

As the compensation fees do not extend to different leagues, two players opted to leave the Primera División entirely, while many decided to go on loan. As Barcelona midfielder Aitana Bonmatí stated, it is not possible for clubs to pay a sum of 250,000 or 500,000 euros to buy a player. As yet another misconception about the women’s game arises, audiences must realize that clubs in the Primera División could not possibly possess that amount of money with such limited funding. These 17 players must either choose to battle against their federation or leave the Spanish league entirely. For Ona Batlle and Damaris Egurrola, this meant venturing to England.

Although the WSL holds its fair share of questionable decisions towards women’s sports, the league is thriving. The WSL turned heads in 2020 with the most expensive transfers in the history of the women’s game in Pernille Harder and Sam Kerr.

For Batlle and Egurrola, the sky is the limit in the WSL. Both players have the ability to put their full focus into soccer, officially being able to call their job a legal profession. They will challenge the top players in the world and, in Batlle’s case, play alongside World Cup champions. Every league match will be streamed for free on an app that can be accessed via any place with an internet connection, and media channels will focus on big competitions. This is not to say the WSL will live up to their male counterparts in terms of pay and accommodation. Nevertheless, it is a possibility. By driving young players out of the Spain, the Primera División not only loses valuable talent, but also fails to give younger players a chance to learn from experienced teammates and opponents.

Lessons Already Learned

No one can explain the incompetence of the RFEF better than the players who have played for the Selección. Spanish players are brilliant, brave with the ball, and quick and tidy going forward. Each youth age group of the Spanish National Team have reached international finals in the past few years, carrying home silverware and being coined “the Golden Generation.” There have been “Golden Generations.” The RFEF views these youth international successes as their job well done in women’s soccer.

The first time a Spanish women’s under-19 team won the UEFA Women’s European Championship (Euros) was in 2004. Star players Vero Boquete and Natalia Pablos reigned supreme. Barcelona legend Soni Bermúdez competed in the same tournament the year before. Three years prior to that, prolific forward Adriana Martín was the top-scorer at the under-18 level. The Spanish federation had heaps of talent to work with, but it was not until 2013 when the Selección qualified for a major tournament. This was 16 years after their previous Euros appearance.

Spain found limited success in 2013, with their greatest triumph beating England 3-2 in added time. The 2004 “Golden Generation” were entering their final years of prosperous play and a new generation had begun to take over. This generation, coined again as future stars, had won the Under-19 Euros twice at the turn of the decade. Vero Boquete, Natalia Pablos, Soni Bermúdez, and Adriana Martín realized that better opportunities lay outside of the Primera División. England, the United States, and Germany were the hotspots for international competition.

The Spanish league was described in 2013 as “first division, with second category workers.” One of the players of Rayo Vallecano explained that it was hard to pay bills, let alone dream about becoming a professional player. At the international level, Ignacio Quereda had been manager of the Selección since 1988, an absurd amount of time for a man labeled controlling and manipulative. Similar to the recent strike, the power lay in the hands of the players. In 2015, the players of the Selección filed a public complaint against Quereda following their lackluster performance at that year’s World Cup.

In this public letter, the players highlighted their experiences not only with Quereda, but with the RFEF in its entirety. Vero Boquete was the face of the Spanish national team. Boquete had played abroad in Sweden, Russia, and the United States and was a role model for women in Spanish soccer. Throughout the continuous fight against the RFEF, Boquete took the brunt of the impact. After the World Cup in 2015, Jorge Vilda, a well known commodity in the Spanish youth age groups, took over as head coach. Boquete was at the height of her career, playing in the Germany with Bayern Munich and in France with Paris Saint-Germain. After continual tensions between the RFEF and veterans of the Selección, Boquete was dropped from the Spanish National Team in 2017.

Without Boquete and her 2004 “Golden Generation” compatriots, Spain fell short of their expectations at the Euros in 2017. The absence of that generation messed up the gradual takeover of leadership roles within the team. In recent years, midfielders such as 26 year old Alexia Putellas are labeled as veterans of the squad. In comparison, Rose Lavelle, just a year younger than Putellas, is said to be the future of the United States National Team. The majority of Americans play well into their thirties. For Spain, a longer international career would give more opportunities for success with the same squad members. This leads to a longevity in style of play. Longer careers with the Selección would also bring money and a chance to acquire an occupation after sports. The loss of an entire generation after those 2004 stars has not yet replenished itself, giving younger players a steeper trajectory than is desired for ensuring long term success. Luckily for Spain, the leaders of the team create an atmosphere of strength, with players like Putellas and soon to be Spanish top-scorer Jenni Hermoso improving year after year.


The women of the Primera División have navigated the inequalities within Spain through perseverance and hunger to succeed. The stronghold of the RFEF is steadily weakening against the successes of the women it chooses to disregard. Lack of recognition, money, and care put into the Primera División has left past stars of the women’s game nameless to a great many. While other leagues evolved across the world, players within the Primera División have started to contemplate leaving the maturing league. It is player talent that keep the Spanish league from falling behind. In order for Spanish women’s soccer to realize its potential, the RFEF needs to nurture its developing league and prioritize gender equality.


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