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Spain opens case against soccer chief for World Cup kiss. Luis Rubiales breaks week-long silence

MADRID (AP) — Spain's government began a move to oust suspended soccer chief Luis Rubiales, who ended a week of silence on Friday by insisting he was the victim of a smear campaign.

Rubiales has come in for a storm of criticism and calls for his resignation for his behavior during and after Spain's recent Women’s World Cup triumph in Sydney. He kissed player Jenni Hermoso on the lips without consent and grabbed his crotch in a lewd victory gesture.

On Friday, a Spanish government legal panel handling sports issues opened a formal case against Rubiales — president of the Spanish Football Federation and a vice president of UEFA — over his conduct that was televised globally, making him a national embarrassment.

Spain is hoping to remove him independently of a FIFA process that has already suspended him provisionally. The government panel will decide if Rubiales abused his authority by kissing Hermoso or damaged the image and reputation of Spain at a sporting event, as the government claims. He could be banned from office for two years.

“When the eyes of the world were played on our players, his acts caused damage to our sport and our country that is difficult to repair,” said Miquel Iceta, Spain’s acting minister of culture and sport.

Following the decision by the panel, Rubiales made his first public statement since refusing to step down a week ago and claiming he was a victim of a “witch hunt” by “false feminists.”

“I committed some evident mistakes, for which I sincerely repent,” Rubiales said on Friday. He insisted the kiss with Hermoso was “mutual, consensual and occurred in a moment of euphoria” — a characterization that the player firmly denies.

He added he participated in FIFA’s investigation as well as the federation’s own internal probe.

“During all this time I have suffered an unprecedented lynching by news outlets and politicians that has completely marginalized me. Not just in Spain but internationally,” he said in his statement published on X, formerly known as Twitter.

The decision by the panel, however, to consider Rubiales' acts as allegedly “serious” as opposed to “very serious” dealt a setback to the government. If they had been deemed “very serious" charges, the government could have moved to declare him suspended from office until the panel rules on his case.

Iceta said that while the government cannot directly suspend Rubiales while awaiting the outcome of his case before the panel, as was its intention, it will ask the legal panel to consider suspending him provisionally anyway.

FIFA has already suspended Rubiales for 90 days while it carries out its disciplinary case, so the Spanish decision will have little immediate effect. The panel decision does put more pressure on Rubiales as his few original supporters try to distance themselves from him.

Spain men’s coach Luis de la Fuente, who applauded Rubiales' diatribe against feminism last week, apologized on Friday for having clapped, saying, “I made a human error. It was inexcusable.”

In a statement last Saturday, Hermoso said she considered herself the victim of abuse of power and accused the federation of trying to pressure her into supporting Rubiales.

The federation initially hit back by saying she was lying and it would take legal action against her. But following the FIFA suspension, the federation on Monday urged Rubiales to step down.

On Tuesday, the federation suspended Rubiales’ wages and ordered him to return the federation car, his laptop and mobile phone.

Rubiales has been left with virtually no supporters. His mother staged a brief hunger strike in a church in southern Spain, demanding justice for her son and calling on Hermoso to rectify her stance.

Meanwhile, support for Hermoso from Spanish and international officials, athletes and celebrities was overwhelming.

On Friday, the president of the Spanish Olympic Committee, Alejandro Blanco, said he urged Rubiales “to say sorry, explain what he did and then, without doubt, consider resigning.”

Small protests were held against Rubiales in Madrid, Barcelona and other cities on Friday night.

“We should convert and channel all the outrage we feel to fight him and generate a huge social pressure to force him to leave," 27-year-old Coral de la Torre said in Madrid.

On Thursday, Spain women's star Aitana Bonmatí was voted best player of the year and used her acceptance speech at the UEFA awards ceremony to voice support for Hermoso.

“As a society, we cannot allow the abuse of power in a working environment or disrespect,” Bonmatí said on stage in Monte Carlo. “To all women who are suffering the same thing as Jenni, we’re with you.”

Earlier in the week, the United Nations Human Rights office said in a social media message, “We join Spain’s Jenni Hermoso and all those working to end abuse and sexism in sport. Make this a turning point.”

There is no time limit for the legal panel to make a ruling in the case.

___

AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer