Spain fires Jorge Vilda: Better late than never

Just 16 days after Jorge Vilda won the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, the controversial coach of Spain’s women’s national team was fired Tuesday by the country’s football federation. 

Better late than never.

Vilda shouldn’t have been at the helm of La Roja this summer in Australia and New Zealand, not after 15 of his players put their international careers on the line to protest what they said was an abusive, overly controlling management style.

A dozen of those players missed out on the Word Cup run after the federation and its then president, Luis Rubiales (more on him later), ignored the pleas of its athletes and not only sided with Vilda instead, but forced any player who wanted to return to apologize to Vilda. Only three did. 

It speaks to the all-planet talent that Spain is producing that they won the World Cup anyway. But it was also clear to anyone watching that La Roja won despite its bench boss, not because of him. If Vilda was any sort of unifying force within that locker room, it was only because the majority of his players seemed to openly despise him. 

The on-field celebrations that immediately followed the 1-0 triumph over England in the Aug. 20 final in Sydney were comical but also sad: players on one side of the pitch, coaches and staff on the other. 

But it’s what happened after the final that led to Vilda’s long overdue ouster. 

Winning the World Cup is the highest honor a player can achieve, but the same is also true for coaches. Vilda might have reasonably expected soccer’s ultimate accomplishment to bolster his resume. Instead, Spain’s success Down Under also highlighted the glaring disconnect between him and his players. Whenever Vilda’s face was shown on stadium Jumbotrons in the later stages of the World Cup, the image was met by resounding boos from Spanish supporters, opposing fans and neutral attendees alike. 

By the time the final rolled around, La Roja were rock stars back home — and there was no question which side the public was behind. Still, the prospect of Vilda departing right after winning soccer’s biggest prize nonetheless seemed extremely unlikely. 

Then Rubiales kissed star forward Jennifer Hermoso on the lips on the podium during the medal ceremony. Instantly, everything changed. 

Not only did the unwanted and grossly inappropriate act draw widespread condemnation in Spain and across the globe — FIFA president Gianni Infantino said last week that it “should never have happened” — it put Rubiales, Vilda and the rest of the men who occupy high-ranking positions within the federation under intense and long overdue scrutiny. That Rubiales painted himself as the victim in the aftermath — going as far as to suggest Hermoso was to blame for the kiss — only reinforced how out of touch he was within the organization’s culture of impunity. 

Vilda sealed his fate when he initially backed his boss, giving the disgraced president a standing ovation when Rubiales said during an emergency meeting that he wouldn’t resign.

Rubiales was subsequently suspended by FIFA for 90 days as the scandal grew into a full-blown Me too movement in Spain. Vilda, perhaps realizing that he had made a fatal miscalculation, scrambled to control the damage. He eventually acknowledged that Rubiales’ behavior was “inappropriate.” 

It was too little and too late to save him. Spain’s women’s refused to play again for the team’s “current managers” at the helm. (Their counterparts on men’s squad have backed them, denouncing what they called Rubiales’ “unacceptable behavior.”) Under immense pressure, interim president Pedro Rocha had little choice but to finally move on from Vilda, who no longer had Rubiales there to protect him.

One way to view the entire post World Cup saga is that it has overshadowed Spain’s first World Cup victory on the women’s side. Another way is this: only by winning the World Cup did Spain’s players gain the leverage and public support they needed to force real and meaningful change at the highest levels of Spanish soccer. Only then did enough people in positions of power care enough to actually do something to improve their working conditions. They sure didn’t last year, when La Roja first raised concerns about their coach’s unpopular methods. 

Success can do that. It took a World Cup win for the American women in 2015 before the U.S. Soccer federation agreed to stop scheduling games for the USWNT on artificial turf, for example. This is a far more serious matter, obviously. And if not for Rubiales’ shameful public display of blatant disrespect and misogyny, Vilda might still be leading La Roja‘s today. 

He’s not, though. Not now. Not anymore, and not a moment too soon. However and whenever it happened, accountability at long last has arrived for Jorge Vilda. And for the Spanish team, a well-earned fresh start. 

Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at FIFA World Cups on five continents. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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