Spain World Cup heroes take the field, defiant and unbowed

CORDOBA, Spain -- The focus finally returned to the pitch on Tuesday as World Cup winners Spain ended a remarkable month by showing off the trophy they won in Australia in August in front of a record domestic attendance, hammering Switzerland 5-0 and being celebrated by supporters for being more than just footballers. "You weren't able to just be football players," read one banner among many at the Estadio Nuevo Arcángel in Cordoba. "Now you are legends."

Prior to the match, captains Irene Paredes and Alexia Putellas had hoisted the trophy aloft in front of the crowd of just under 15,000, while Olga Carmona's name was chanted every time she soared down the flank. (The left-back learned hours after scoring the winning goal in the World Cup final that her father had died.) Aitana Bonmatí (who scored twice against Switzerland), Ona Batlle and Athenea del Castillo's names were among those scribbled on various cardboard cutouts imploring "please, can we have your shirt?"

Just 37 days had passed since Spain were crowned world champions after beating England 1-0 in Sydney, but the players have hardly been able to revel in their success. It has felt like an eternity; in the time since, Carmona's brilliant goal, Bonmatí's player of the tournament performances and Cata Coll's exploits in goal have been overshadowed. Instead, the spotlight has been on ousted Spanish Football Federation [RFEF] president Luis Rubiales' conduct after the match.

Rubiales' unsolicited kiss on forward Jenni Hermoso finally forced him into resigning this month. He did so in an interview with British television personality Piers Morgan, a nod to the global appeal this story has garnered. Rubiales is facing charges of sexual assault and coercion -- the latter for putting pressure on Hermoso to support him after the events -- and a court case is ongoing in Madrid. As part of the fallout, World Cup winning coach Jorge Vilda also lost his job -- he was replaced by his assistant, Montse Tomé.

However, this was never just about Rubiales or Vilda for the players. This was about a years-long battle with the RFEF for better working conditions and more respect. "Decades of systematic discrimination," Putellas labelled it. This was something that had been brewing since last September, when 15 players renounced the national team until improvements were made to women's football. Rubiales' conduct in Sydney provided them with the global momentum to take on the RFEF.

The players want a more inclusive president's cabinet, a restructuring of the communications and media department, and significant changes to the integrity department. They want equal treatment as the men's team: they don't want to be on flights in the middle of the night for cost-cutting reasons or to be taking long bus journeys to important games. They want the same processes for staff appointments and decision-making as their male counterparts. They want it for themselves, but above all, they want it across society and for the generations that follow them.

So, with the squad announcement for this past week's UEFA Nations League games against Sweden and Switzerland -- a tournament that also doubles up as qualification for next summer's Olympics -- due to be announced, 39 players, including 21 members of the World Cup squad, communicated that they were not ready to return to national team duty. What followed was an extraordinary week of threats, midnight meetings, sackings and agreements. And, at the end of it all, following numerous sleepless nights, Spain's players did what they do best: win football matches.

How it started

New Spain coach Tomé was due to name her first squad on Sept. 15, though her announcement was delayed by the players' insistence that they would not return. On Sept. 18, she named them all anyway. Sources told ESPN the majority of the players learned they had been called up via television or on social media. Their initial reaction was shock.

Speaking at the time, with vague responses in a news conference, Tomé said she had spoken to the players before citing them. Days later, she clarified she had not spoken to all of them. Perhaps the most surprising decision was the omission of Hermoso, who plays in Mexico for CF Pachuca, "to protect her." Hermoso responded "Protect me from what?" via a statement on social media.

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Spain's Aitana Bonmatí and Mariona Caldentey on how they felt during the Luis Rubiales saga, caused by an unsolicited kiss on teammate Jenni Hermoso.

The players were compelled to report to camp given the potential repercussions if they didn't -- even Barcelona duo Mapi León and Patri Guijarro, two players who followed through on their boycott and did not go to the World Cup. If they didn't, they faced a fine or, potentially, the revocation of their license to play domestic football in Spain. It made for incredible scenes broadcast on every news channel across Spain, as players arrived with visibly glum and angry faces.

"No," goalkeeper Misa Rodríguez told reporters when asked if she wanted to be there as she reported for duty. "We are not happy about it," said back-to-back Ballon d'Or winner Putellas.

The players had held meetings until late on Monday night to decide whether they would answer Spain's call. They sought legal advice, too, which prompted them to turn up at the base, except it was not even clear where the base would be. In a hastily arranged change, and in an attempt to limit the media focus and attendance, the RFEF switched the camp from its Madrid headquarters to Oliva, a small town an hour's drive south from Valencia along Spain's east coast.

As the severity of the situation grew, the government intervened via the National Sports Council [CSD] and its president, Victor Francos. What followed was a summit in Oliva that will go down in Spanish sporting history. "I really believe it will serve as a before and after moment," Putellas said.

That summit finally ended at 5 a.m. local time on Wednesday. Francos came out and told reporters a series of agreements had been brokered and a committee would be setup featuring representatives from the players, the RFEF and the government to ensure everyone follows through on their commitments. The RFEF's general secretary, Andreu Camps, and the director of the integrity department, Miguel García Caba, have since lost their jobs at the organisation as a deep restructuring continues.

Despite that, Leon and Guijarro still decided to leave the camp, having received reassurances they would not be sanctioned. Given all they'd given up over the last year, they said it was neither the way nor the manner in which they wanted to return. The other players agreed to stay. Paredes said they felt they had a responsibility to do so to ensure all the agreements were followed through on. Plus, she added, leaving would only have passed the "bomb" on to less experienced players who would have been summoned in their place.

So after a week of meetings and, according to Putellas, an average of four hours of sleep per night, Spain had a squad for the start of their UEFA Nations League campaign.

How it ended

Throughout all of this, Spain's footballers have been forced to be much more than footballers. Putellas and Bonmatí have said their fight transcends Spanish football, as it's a problem faced by organisations inside and outside of football across the globe. "Our fight is the global fight," said a banner that Spain, Sweden and Switzerland players posed in front of before this week's games, with the "Se Acabó" ("It's over") hashtag, the slogan for their fight, also present.

"The changes needed are not just on a sporting level, but on a societal level as well," Bonmatí told reporters. "We want an egalitarian society in which men and women have the same rights.

"I hope we never have to experience the situation we have been through at this camp again. It's quite stressful the feeling that you always have to focus on other things and not just be a footballer. We are looking forward to being professional footballers and nothing else.

"Our generation and many before us have had to battle so that the next generations have better conditions. If that happens, we will leave a good legacy behind and we will be proud of what we have worked for, even if it meant not being 100% focused on football."

On Tuesday -- and after a brilliant 3-2 win over Sweden, the world's No.1 ranked team, on Friday -- Spain's players were finally able to be footballers back in their homeland again. They were celebrated, though, as much for their achievements off the pitch over the last month as for their World Cup win. "Thank you for your fight on and off the pitch," read one placard as hundreds of supporters greeted the team bus at the stadium.

Hundreds more had seen the players depart the team hotel. The cheers and applause when Spain and Switzerland's players posed in front of the "Our fight is the global fight' banner was almost as loud as when Paredes and Putellas lifted the World Cup trophy pre-match.

Hermoso was one notable absentee from the celebrations, though the country's all-time leading scorer was present in other ways. Many fans wore shirts with her name and No. 10 on the back and others displayed the message "Contigo Jenni" ("We are with you, Jenni") on T-shirts and signs.

Then the whistle blew and Spain reminded everyone why they won the World Cup, even if Bonmatí would later say there is plenty to improve. The Barça midfielder, the favourite to win the Ballon d'Or this year, scored twice, the second an expertly taken finish after good work from Putellas, who finally looks to be returning to her best after an ACL injury. Lucía García had opened the scoring, and there were also goals from Inma Gabarro and a brilliant strike from Maite Oroz.

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At full-time, as the fans belted out one last rendition of "Campeonas del mundo," the DJ played the old classics "Mi gran noche" and "Viva España" as Spain's players performed a lap of honour.

"I think we have fought on and off the pitch," Bonmatí added. "We have been able to overcome the situation, which was not easy. I remember the first day of the camp, it was ... buah. Everything seemed hopeless, we couldn't even train or play and, despite that, we have won two games. And how!

"We have a lot of talent on and off the pitch, we are professionals, we know what we want and we decided to stay due to the commitments which were made in the meetings, which we now want to ensure are followed through on. And we have worked hard as professionals to win these two games, because what we want is to be at the Olympics next summer."