Luis Rubiales & Brij Bhushan: Spain Stood by Its Sportswomen, Will India Ever?

Luis Rubiales was suspended from the post of RFEF chief for planting an unwanted kiss on a Spanish footballer.

6 min read

Luis Rubiales, the now-suspended chief of Spain's football federation RFEF (Royal Spanish Football Federation), is today his nation's villain numero uno.

One moment, he was at the pinnacle of his career, as Spain's women's football team won the World Cup. The next moment, at the medal ceremony at Sydney, after the historic win, he planted an 'unwanted' kiss on the lips of Spanish footballer Jenni Hermoso.

And right there, it was all over for him. Since then, no amount of stubborn macho bluster, or even clever attempts to tar Jenni as a liar, has worked for Rubiales.

As he looks for inspiration on how to stay afloat, his search may bring him to Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the now-suspended president of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI). Rubiales would applaud the man for his survival skills.

Despite facing multiple charges of sexual assault by multiple women wrestlers, during events in India and abroad, and even at his own home, Brij Bhushan Singh has not been dislodged.

Despite allegations that add up to more than a kiss, despite some of India's finest global medal-winning wrestlers – Vinesh Phogat, Bajrang Punia, Sakshee Malikkh – protesting on India's streets for months, the powers-that-be in India have not dared to find a replacement for Singh as the head of WFI.   

Luis Rubiales was suspended from the post of RFEF chief for planting an unwanted kiss on a Spanish footballer.

Indian wrestler Vinesh Phogat, with wrestler Sakshi Malik, reacts during a press conference regarding the wrestlers protest against the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, in New Delhi, Wednesday,18 January.

(Photo: PTI/Shahbaz Khan)

So, let's try a straight comparison – Luis Rubiales vs Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. Spain vs India. Which country responded better to charges of sexual misconduct against one of its sports czars? Which country backed its women sportspersons, and which country let them down?

I'm afraid, for us Indians, the answers to these questions will not make for good reading. 

How the Rubiales Incident Played Out

Rubiales tried hard to play down his offence, going on record to say the kiss was "spontaneous, mutual, euphoric and consensual." He tried brushing it off as a 'mistake'. He got the RFEF to paint Jenni as a liar, and even threaten her with legal action.

But none of this has worked with the Spanish government, the football fraternity, or even Spain's football-crazy public.

Jenni denied that the kiss was consensual, and said that she felt extremely vulnerable at that moment. Like Brij Bhushan Singh, Rubiales also tried talking tough. Addressing the media, he insisted he would not resign, and claimed he was being attacked by 'false feminists'. But he could not contain the outrage, nor the swift and firm institutional response.  

He was immediately suspended by FIFA for 90 days, and the fact that he was a vice president of the mighty Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) didn't help him. The Spanish government started legal proceedings against him.

Even the RFEF, that he has headed and controlled since 2018, has had to set up an inquiry into the incident. The Spanish Prime Minister and other ministers have criticised him. Top Spanish football stars, including Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Iker Casillas, David De Gea, have spoken up against him.

The whole Spanish women's team is fully with Jenni – they have refused to play for Spain again, unless Rubiales resigns.

Spanish La Liga teams and spectators are running banners and sporting wristbands saying 'Contigo Jenni', meaning 'With You Jenni'. The Sevilla men's football team wore t-shirts saying #SeAcabo, meaning 'It's Over'. Within days of the infamous kiss, it does look like it is over for Rubiales.


The Silence Surrounding Brij Bhushan

In contrast, look at Brij Bhushan Singh's case. The Prime Minister has not criticised him. Needless to add, nor has any other minister. If anything, they have actually close ranks behind the man.

The Anurag Thakur-led Sports Ministry set up an internal oversight committee looking into the allegations, headed by none other than Mary Kom, arguably India's most iconic sportswoman. But the report, submitted by the committee in April 2023, has not been made public. And Mary Kom herself has been silent.

Another huge Indian sports star who could have spoken up was PT Usha, the first woman and current chief of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA). Instead, Usha ended up criticising the protesting wrestlers, saying they were 'tarnishing India's image' and described the protest as 'indiscipline'.

It's no surprise that both Mary Kom and PT Usha are members of Parliament, nominated by the BJP. It seems party loyalty has trumped their responsibility towards the wrestlers who risked their sporting careers by levelling charges of sexual assault on the man who runs their sport.

Even leading wrestlers like Yogeshwar Dutt and Babita Phogat, both now BJP leaders, preferred to criticise the protesting wrestlers. This, despite the fact that Babita's sister Sangeeta, and cousin Vinesh, were among the leading protestors. Party loyalty ran thicker than blood!

Luis Rubiales was suspended from the post of RFEF chief for planting an unwanted kiss on a Spanish footballer.

Sakshi Malik during wrestlers' protest.

(Photo: PTI)


In contrast, take a look at UEFA's big award night on 31 August, where again Rubiales was not spared. Jenni Hermoso's national and Barcelona teammate Aitana Bonmati, while accepting the UEFA Women's Player of the Year award, said,

"These are not good times for Spanish football… as a society we must not allow abuses of power, nor displays of disrespect.. To all the women who have been subject to what happened to Jenni, we stand with you."

Bonmati could have felt beholden to football's chieftains, who control her career, her livelihood. But she understood her responsibility as a sporting icon, and used the biggest platform available to her, to support Jenni. It's a lesson for India's many mighty sporting icons, who are often silent when their voices are needed the most.

Political Clout Does the Trick

The images that sum up this ironic situation, are those of Vinesh Phogat, Bajrang Punia, and Sakshi Malik being manhandled by the police as they protested peacefully in front of our new Parliament House.

The images contrasted jarringly with those of Brij Bhushan Singh on the steps of the new Parliament, attending its inauguration. The question to ask is – why so much support for a sexual assault accused, even as India's top wrestlers are treated like common criminals?

Luis Rubiales was suspended from the post of RFEF chief for planting an unwanted kiss on a Spanish footballer.

Security personnel detain wrestler Vinesh Phogat during wrestlers' protest march towards new Parliament building.

(Photo: PTI)

The answer is simple. Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh is a 'neta'. And not just any 'neta'. In Uttar Pradesh, he can influence the results of upto 6 Lok sabha seats – Gonda, Shrawasti, Kaiserganj, Bahraich, Domriaganj, and Faizabad.

The 6-time Lok Sabha MP and Thakur leader is so aware of his value to the BJP, that he has even had the temerity to criticise Yogi Adityanath in the past. In 2008 he even quit the BJP for a while and joined the Samajwadi Party. He was recently smart enough to hint that he could exit the BJP again.

It's this kind of real political clout that a Luis Rubiales lacks. While politicians running sports is almost the norm in India, in countries like Spain, it's a rarity. With good reason.

Pollsters say the gap between the ruling NDA and the new INDIA opposition coalition is closing, just ahead of the 2024 general elections. Which means the value of the 6 seats Brij Bhushan 'controls' in UP, which was already huge, has now gone up further.


The argument doesn't rest here, there's more – at the upcoming World Wrestling Championships in Belgrade in September 2023, India's wrestling team will NOT be allowed to participate under the National Flag! Why? Because the WFI has been suspended by its world body, United World Wrestling (UWW). And, why is that? Because the WFI has not been able to hold elections to find a new chief.

The long overdue elections were postponed multiple times – from 7 May to 6 July, to 11 July, to 12 August. And when even that date wasn't met, the UWW had to suspended the WFI.

In a country where national symbols matters a lot, the Indian government has preferred the national embarrassment of our wrestlers participating without the India flag, over replacing Singh. That's how much he matters. Red tape and an array of legal obstacles ensured the charade of ‘tareekh pe tareekh’!

Had the WFI election happened and if the candidate backed by Brij Bhushan had lost, it would have led to a political disaster that the BJP couldn't afford. The challenge will be to keep up the charade till May 2024, so do keep watching this space.

Meanwhile, Luis Rubiales is now left grasping at straws. His latest move is getting his mother to go on a hunger strike in his support. A bit melodramatic, and unlikely to work. The hombre must dearly wish he was in India, and not in Spain.

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