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 its national team already pushing 2019 World Cup winners the United States to their limits. The league is still in the early stages becoming one of the most highly regarded divisions, with a prospering set of international youth development squads and global wide-ranging interest. Although the league is known for being technical, competitive, and passionate towards success, it has been hindered by the lack of support given from the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF). The RFEF is the federation that all registered top division soccer teams in Spain are held under. These obstructions have added concerns to the position of the league in regards to gender equality. This is not only the case for money given to support female players, but also in generalized resources. Greater assets and recognition within the women’s game are further developed elsewhere. This causes young talents such as the England bound Damaris Egurrola and Ona Batlle to depart Spanish league contenders for other opportunities. Although the FA Women’s Super League has attracted major talents in the past few seasons, the RFEF and other organizations linked with Spanish women’s soccer have prevented the growth of immense talent because of the disregard towards equality in women’s sports and illogical decisions made to prevent development of women’s soccer.

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. At this point, they were tired and ready for change. As strides towards gender equality were made in growing forces England and the United States, Spain found themselves fighting for generalized recognition.

 

Last November, all but one player from the sixteen teams in the league 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 almost 200 players for the Primera División 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, but kept an already biased point of view based on their unacknowledgement towards various other representatives.

 

The AFE themselves have 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 the allowance of 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 come in the form of 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 stated that no one sport can have two professional leagues simultaneously, therefore disallowing any thought of the Primera División from becoming professional.  While in 1991, the RFEF had not put significant thought into creating a women’s division, almost thirty years of dedication on both the parts of the players and societal shifts have proven this decree to be severely outdated.

 

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

 

The league ended up starting a month after the original dates, on the first weekend of October due to the lack of attention given to COVID-19. Already, 12 matches have been postponed, reflecting the further incompetence of the RFEF in the women’s division. 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. Justifiably so, complaints were expressed and further turmoil bubbled up under the surface.

 

It was not until the month after the start of the league when the ACFF finally caved. 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 to date for the league came in the form of a long overdue announcement from 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 required working conditions. This is the first step among many to ensure the continued advancement of women’s sports in Spain. In contradiction to the apparent beliefs, 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, most of whom would prefer to play in their home country, stranded and looking for better options. 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 successes in housing, injury prevention, mental health, and a needed cushion for life after retirement. As shown to be especially apparent in Spain, 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 players such as Barcelona midfielder Aitana Bonmatí have 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 embark on a journey that takes them out of the Spanish league entirely. For Ona Batlle and Damaris Egurrola, this meant venturing to England, a place that now bears the label of the best league in the world.

 

Although England’s Barclays FA Women’s Super League (WSL) holds its fair share of questionable decisions towards women’s sports, the league proves to be thriving. The WSL turned heads in 2020 with the historically expensive transfers of Pernille Harder and Chelsea teammate Sam Kerr. This is not to mention the countless other big-name stars scattered throughout the English cityscapes.

 

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 get the chance to challenge against 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 be focus-heavy on the big time competitions. This is not to say that the English women’s league will create the same standards and protections as it has for its male counterparts, but for those who are willing to dream, it is a possibility. In comparison to women’s soccer in Spain, the WSL brings a more advanced framework to its league system. The RFEF further proves this conclusion by acceptance of its stance on equality. By driving young players out of the Primera División, the league not only loses valuable talent, but also fails to give younger players a chance to learn from experienced teammates and opponents.

Lessons Already Learned

Nothing can explain the incompetence of the RFEF better than the players who have partaken in the fruitless endeavors of fielding a women’s national team. The Spanish players themselves 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.” The issue for Spain lies in the fact that there have been many “Golden Generations” the RFEF enjoy labeling as their duty well fulfilled in the field of women’s sports. The first time a Spanish women’s under-19 team won the UEFA Women’s European Championship (Euros) was in 2004, where star players such as Vero Boquete and Natalia Pablos reigned supreme. Barcelona legend Soni Bermúdez competed in the same tournament the year before and 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 next qualified for a major tournament. This was 16 years after their previous Euros appearance. Spain found limited success this time around, their greatest triumph being a last minute goal against the English. By this 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. All four players mentioned as part of the original “Golden Generation” were now starting to realize that better opportunities lay outside of the Primera División. As is similar to now, England, America, and Germany were the hotspots for international competition.

 

The Spanish league was described at this time as a “first division, with second category workers.” One of the players of Rayo Vallecano, a team that had been at the top of the table for many years, explained that it was hard to pay bills at the end of the month, 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 strike, the players were aware that the power lay in their hands. They ended up filing a public complaint against Quereda at the culmination of their lackluster performance in the 2015 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, at this point in her career, the face of the Spanish national team. She played abroad in Sweden, Russia, and the United States, and had become the role model for many younger players looking to make waves within 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 the job as head coach. Boquete was at the height of her career, playing in the German Bundesliga with Bayern Munich and spending two years with French powerhouses, Paris Saint-Germain. After continual tensions between the RFEF and veterans of the Selección surrounding the reformation of the team, Boquete was dropped from the Spanish National Team in 2017.

 

Without the leadership qualities of Boquete and her 2004 “Golden Generation” compatriots, Spain had fallen short of their expectations at the Euros that year. Quereda had caused national team stars of this era such as Laura del Río and Sandra Vilanova to leave the team all together. This messed up the gradual takeover of leadership roles within a team environment. In recent years, midfielders such as 26 year old Alexia Putellas are being 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, with the majority of Americans playing well into their thirties. For Spain, a longer international career would give more opportunities for success with the same squad members, and therefore a longevity in style of play. Individually, longer careers with the Selección would bring money and a chance to make a name for one’s self 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.

Conclusion

The women of the Primera División have navigated the currents of inequality in women’s sports with perseverance and a continued fighting spirit that has carried through the generations. The stronghold of the RFEF is steadily weakening against the successes of the women it chooses to disregard. Lack of rightful recognition, money, and care put into the Primera División has left past stars of the women’s game nameless to a great many. As it stands, members of the 2004 “Golden Generations” will unfairly sit on the sidelines to watch a federation take away value the same way it once did to them. While other leagues have started to evolve across the world, players within the Primera División have started to contemplate leaving the maturing division. It is these talents and stylish flairs of play that prevent the Primera División from falling behind. In order for Spanish women’s soccer to realize its potential, it is necessary for the RFEF to nurture its developing league and prioritize gender equality to realize the immense potential that it holds.

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