The president of the Spanish Football Federation spoke to SPORT ahead of the World Cup final
Luis Rubiales (Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, 1977) has been accompanying the Spanish national team in New Zealand and now in Australia since the day of their World Cup debut against Costa Rica. He arrived a couple of days late because of flight delays and before leaving he went to visit a good friend with health problems.
"I arrived here and I connected quickly, it's created a really nice bond with the players," he says.
The president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation talked to SPORT and Prensa Ibérica at the hotel in Sydney where the La Roja are preparing for the World Cup final in two days, the most important match in their history in a year in which they have suffered their biggest crisis off the ptch.
Spain are in the final, what does it mean for the president of the RFEF?
A lot of emotion, a lot of joy. And also nerves and uncertainty, although I have a lot of confidence in this team.
Did you expect to be in the final?
I have always had confidence in (the players) and I have always told them so. I think Jorge (Vilda, coach) and his staff have done a magnificent job, that the players have great quality and great self-confidence. And I think that in these last few games we've seen an increase in competitiveness in the fight, in the struggle, which is something that perhaps didn't characterise this team before.
They did a sensational job, also, on a tactical level against Sweden, a team that is tremendously dangerous from set pieces and they were practically neutralised. I think all the right things are happening for us to reach the final in the best possible psychological and physical condition.
You were at the World Cup in 2019, what changes have there been on a sporting level?
There are issues that depend not only on the changes you make but also on bringing together very good players from two or three generations, and here they are.
But apart from this, we have made a great effort to listen to Jorge's staff, because of everything they asked of us, and also to the players. I think we have been adapting, we have been pioneers, as in the family reconciliation agreement (that gave players money to bring families to the World Cup with them).
Players talk about how close you are. What's your role in the camp?
Saving the (age) distances, I still feel like a footballer and it goes in that direction. Joking with them, also talking about the match, the families, how they are doing. I ask them above all what we can improve, and there have been proposals that we have taken into account. I also feel very close to them, a very nice bond has been created. I quickly connected.
You say the RFEF have made a big effort. What does that consist of?
When I arrived five years ago, less than €3 million were dedicated to women's football. Now we are at €27m. The technical staff were not professional, there were contracts for days (not full-time). We have gone from two to four physiotherapists, we have a doctor and a nutritionist here. The hotels and training camps were not the same. We have implemented the family reconciliation plan, which is one of the things the players value most. We have set up a savings plan for them, we have created an observatory for equality...
We also had a problem at the training camp because the pitch in Palmerston didn't hold up and we decided to talk to FIFA and it was an investment, an added cost, that we had to take on, because otherwise that muddy pitch increased the risk of injury. I remember the last meeting we had when I asked them what else we could do and they told me there was nothing more we could.
Now, I think that's a very small percentage. That helps, yes, but the high percentage is their quality and their professionalism, and they are very close to being World champions on their own merits.
Beyond the national team, have you spoken about the competitions organised by the RFEF?
It has improved a lot, before there were only a few teams and now there are many more. I think you only have to look at the stadiums, how seriously we took everything that happened after that misunderstanding with the medal ceremony (in the Copa de la Reina final). We put on a tremendous show, with first-class artists. And they really appreciate all this and they give it back in spades.
How do you explain reaching the final after everything that has happened?
Because we are probably the ones who have talked the least about what could happen. There are the players who are always one hundred percent committed to this shirt and also those who, after reflection, decided to talk to us and we have listened to them. I think we have managed it well, we have tried to respect and understand, to listen to criticism in order to improve. And the result of this is that in this training camp we have gone from strength to strength every day.
Here we have all the top quality players who have wanted to be involved with the national team, either always one hundred percent, or some who, after reflection, wanted to talk to us, have been listened to and are one hundred percent committed. I think we have managed it well, we have tried to respect and understand, to listen to criticism in order to improve.
I think we have managed it well, we have tried to respect and understand, to listen to criticism in order to improve.
Presidente de la RFEF
We have 23 top-level players, who have a magnificent relationship with each other, who respect the coaching staff, who respect their role and the role of the coaching staff, the president and the players. Perhaps what certain sectors wanted to sell was not the reality. Now we have the best Spanish national team in history and we are close to being able to win a World Cup. And I am convinced that we can do it.
In a conflict, each side does things well and not so well. Has there been self-criticism? Will you keep listen to the players that ask for improvements?
Of course, but the players are the first to know that before I became president there was no women's department, they received €40 per diem, they had no bonuses, they had no image rights. Now they have all this and the best conciliation agreement in the world from the federation, because the second best is the English one. They put in €11,000 and we have put in €15,000. And we have bet again, more family members are coming for the final.
They know that there is room for improvement, they push us to the maximum, they let us know, but they also know where we come from and right now there is no national team in the world that offers a better staff. It is fair to recognise that there have been important changes because we believe in women's football and we are committed to it.
Before the Euros you renewed Vilda's deal. Do you think the timing could have gone down poorly?
No, because we made a strategic plan where all areas were discussed, including what we wanted for women's football. We saw that we could be capable of being World and European champions at all levels, including at senior level, but we set ourselves deadlines. So it was essential that Vilda took on the challenge of being able to win these championships at youth level, which is why he took on the role of sporting director as well as being national team coach. We set ourselves the challenge of being able to reach the semi-finals or final of a World Cup with the senior team between 2024 and 2026. We are in 2023, we have arrived earlier than we had planned, and that is a sign that things are going even better than we expected.
So Vilda has the RFEF's backing for the coming years?
He has one year left on his contract, but he doesn't want to talk about it. He now has the most beautiful challenge of his life. There are 23 players with the most beautiful challenge. Those girls who had practically no rights when they started playing because it seemed to be a man's sport, are now breaking this concrete ceiling and we have to thank them. They are role models, a mirror in which to look at themselves, so we are going to give them everything they ask for.
From there, people don't need to know our strategic plan, but when they ask about it, I explain it. Those were the deadlines and for that we trusted in a person in the medium or long term, who was Vilda. He has been building the entire staff, and it is clear that he must have got it right, if we have won four of the last six European Championships and three of the last four World Cups (at youth level). And in the other, we came second. I think he has done a great job in the lower categories and now he has reached a (senior) final. We have to recognise his work, Jorge has a lot to do with the success of the youth teams and the senior side now. Let's see if we become champions. That will be great.
Vilda has one year left on his contract, but he doesn't want to talk about it. He now has the biggest challenge of his life.
Presidente de la RFEF
Alexia is just back from a serious injury. Beyond sporting issues, what does she bring to the group?
A lot. I think there are a lot of players and maybe some of them would surprise you with what they bring, because maybe they are more anonymous on the outside. But in Alexia's case, it's not just what she brings to the group, it's that when an opponent sees her on the pitch they say 'oh my God, that's Alexia', and we know that. She's an incredible player, she has an incredible quality and gift, and what I've liked most about her is that she's come here to add to the team. It's frustrating at times to know that she's come here with just a few minutes (in the tank) and just recovered from injury. She's doing well. She helps in everything, she is sincere with her words and it is a source of pride for us and tremendous luck that she is Spanish, like the other 22 (players). There are players who are having a fantastic World Cup.
Like Aitana Bonmatí. Can she win the Ballon d'Or?
I just don't want to get involved in these issues [laughs]. Aitana is an exceptional player, Tere, Ona, Jenni, Cata.... Misa was also very good in the games she played. Look at Olga's goal... Pff, what a great goal to get us into the final. You look player by player and we have a great team. The centre-backs are fantastic, Mariona is also phenomenal, Alba, whether she's up front or on the right wing, Eva Navarro when she comes on...
And then there are girls who are 19 or 20 years old, like María, or what can I say about Salma. She's smashing it. We go to the airports and everyone wants to see her. The secret of this team is that they all know they can play. All of them have played except Enith, who is a tremendous goalkeeper and is behaving in an exemplary way, and I am very proud as the head of Spanish football that they are wearing the Spanish national team shirt.
As an ex-player, have you spoken to them about the build-up to a game like this?
I've never played in a World Cup final [laughs]. I've really enjoyed it and I've felt a special emotion these days. It's been hard for me to sleep. It's never happened to me before, I talked about it this morning with Esther. We are very excited and, I repeat, grateful. I'm sure that it must have happened to you as a big football fan, that when we got into the final, when Olga scored the goal... I couldn't contain myself in the box. My voice is terrible because I can't stop cheering. All I can say about them is an understatement.
A president's promise if they win the World Cup?
Everything that has been asked of us to get this far and has been coherent has been done. After that, all the economic and other issues have been resolved, above all we have focused on the issue of family reconciliation, food, rest and training camps. And the greatest prize for them is to arrive in Spain with a star on their chest and lifting a cup that they deserve more than anyone else.
If it happens, you will celebrate well?
Let's see, hopefully we can. We have to keep our feet on the ground and be humble. But, of course, the whole of Spain is with them.
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