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Luis Rubiales, From Union Boss to Spain’s Football Federation Chief

Spain’s football federation chief Luis Rubiales, who on Sunday said he will resign following the scandal over his kiss on the lips of a Women’s World Cup player, is a former attacking midfielder who went on to become a combative players’ union head. The controversial 46-year-old has been under fire after he cupped star player Jenni Hermoso’s head and forcefully kissed her after Spain beat England 1-0 in the World Cup final in Australia last month.

Born on Spain’s Canary Islands but raised in Motril on the country’s Mediterranean coast, Rubiales played for various lower division teams before finishing his football career in 2009 at Scotland’s Hamilton Academical. “He was a modern defender, physically very strong. He liked to attack. He was always a model of dedication and loyalty with everyone,” former Levante coach Manolo Preciado once said of Rubiales, who played for the Valencia-based side between 2003 and 2008.

At Levante, Rubiales led a player revolt against unpaid wages, possibly inheriting a taste for public life from his father who served as the Socialist mayor of Motril in the mid-1990s. The team went on strike and the players eventually collected their wages, a success that likely encouraged him to fight for his colleagues at Spanish football players’ union AFE which he headed between 2010 and 2017. Under his watch AFE called two national players’ strikes –- in 2011 and 2015 –- and oversaw the creation of a fund to cover unpaid salaries. He also persuaded La Liga to agree to pay AFE a percentage of its TV broadcast rights.

– ‘Win for sure’ –

His first clashes with La Liga president Javier Tebas began during this time, and they continued when Rubiales was elected president of the football federation in 2018. Tebas once said he felt Rubiales was “not qualified” for the post. Rubiales defeated Juan Luis Larrea, the federation’s former treasurer and interim chief, in the election to become president. Larea had taken the post on a temporary basis after the federation’s longtime president, Angel Maria Villar, was suspended on suspicion of embezzlement and other offences.

“I’m going to win for sure,” Rubiales, a divorced father of three girls, told reporters before the vote. Shortly after he was elected, Rubiales in a surprise move sacked Spain’s men’s national coach Julen Lopetegui just two days before the start of the 2018 World Cup. Re-elected president of the federation in 2020, Rubiales angered Spanish football traditionalists by expanding Spain’s Super Cup contest between the league champions and Copa del Rey winners to a four-team format. He also faced a huge backlash for signing a lucrative deal to play the competition in Saudi Arabia, which is frequently accused of human rights abuses.

– ‘Falsehoods’ –

In 2022 Spanish media published leaked audio recordings from 2019 that suggested a company called Kosmos owned by former Barcelona defender Gerard Pique made millions of euros in commission over the deal to relocate the Super Cup to Saudi Arabia. Rubiales dismissed the allegations as “falsehoods” and said he was “extremely angry for having information illegally stolen from my mobile”.

At the same time Rubiales won praise for boosting the number of sponsors of the federation and its revenues, and improving the conditions of lower-tier teams, which won the support of regional football federations. “He has achieved a sea-change. He put a 19th century institution in the 21st century,” the president of the football federation in the northeastern region of Aragon, Oscar Fle, told sports radio Marca last year.

Rubiales tripled the budget for women’s football to 406 million euros ($439 million) in 2022 but at the same time he sided with the national women’s team coach Jorge Vilda when 15 internationals staged a mutiny last year over the manager’s methods. The bet paid off with the squad winning the Women’s World Cup but the way Rubiales celebrated put his job on a razor’s edge. After world governing body FIFA provisionally suspended him for 90 days and Spanish public prosecutors filed a lawsuit against him for sexual assault and coercion, he finally gave into pressure on Sunday and called it quits.