Spain vs. the RFEF: Why women's demands for improved working conditions were seen as a coup

Spain's women's national team is in crisis after 15 players communicated to the to Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) this week that they do not wish to be selected until serious changes are made to the current setup.

The players did not name the coach, Jorge Vilda, and they continue to deny that they have explicitly called for him to be removed from his post, but the RFEF viewed the action from the players as a coup attempt. Vilda has subsequently been resoundingly backed by the Federation. The Federation said it will not be blackmailed and threatened the rebelling players with bans from the national team for up to five years.

The situation soured on Thursday when 15 players -- including six from Barcelona, but not Ballon d'Or winner Alexia Putellas -- sent an identical email to the RFEF explaining why they did not currently feel in a position to represent their country. They said playing for Spain in the current environment was affecting both their health and emotional state and that they did not intend to return until a solution was found.

"We will not allow the players to question the continuity of the coach and his staff because making those decisions does not fall within their powers," the RFEF shot back, before calling for the players to apologise for their actions if they want to play for Spain again.

Sources have explained to ESPN that Spain's players were upset that the RFEF had made an issue public -- that they thought was being dealt with privately -- by releasing that statement late Thursday. On Friday, the players released a statement of their own, which Putellas did post on her social media channels this time, but it served to only further reveal the breach between the country's most talented generation of players ever and the Federation.

- Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, more (U.S.)

With less than a year to go until the World Cup in Australia -- where Spain should be considered one of the favourites for the tournament -- it is now hard to see a speedy resolution as both parties stand their ground.

Who is Vilda?

Vilda, 41, has been the coach of Spain's women's team since 2015. He replaced Ignacio Quereda, who had been in charge since 1988. Quereda was sacked after the players turned against him following the 2015 World Cup, when Spain finished bottom of their group. He was later accused of verbal abuse by several players.

Vilda's father, Angel, worked as a fitness coach for Johan Cruyff at Barcelona and later got a job with the RFEF coaching the women's youth teams. Vilda, who had played for Barcelona, Rayo Vallecano and Real Madrid's academies but never made it as a player, eventually joined his father as an assistant in 2009.

He later went on to coach the U17 and U19 girls on his own before landing the top job in 2015. Under Vilda, Spain made the last 16 of the World Cup in 2019, losing to the United States, and reached the quarterfinals of the European Championship in both 2017 and 2022, losing to eventual winners England at the most recent edition of the competition this past summer.

What are their issues with Vilda?

The Spanish players have not gone into great detail in their public comments regarding what changes they want, but the negative atmosphere around the camp has been brewing for months and threatened to reach a head in August at the first meet-up following Euro 2022. Captains Irene Paredes, Jenni Hermoso and Patri Guijarro sought talks with first the RFEF president Luis Rubiales and later Vilda to relay their concerns about the conditions surrounding the national team. They were unsatisfied with the response.

However, the issue was brushed under the table, very fleetingly, at a news conference on Sept. 1. It was there that Vilda spoke about how "deeply hurt" he felt at what he perceived to be a movement against him. He added that he did not want players who were not 100% committed to the cause.

"We are a super-ambitious team and we believe there are internal aspects that must change," Guijarro said. "It's about being brave. Sometimes you have to say things that aren't nice so that there are changes."

Any hopes of moving on quietly from that revolt disappeared on Thursday. The 15 players who sent identical emails to the RFEF did not know the Federation would subsequently make it public, and on Friday the women released a public statement of their own, explaining their original email had been in response to a request from the RFEF to make their position on selection clear.

The players say they regret the situation has reached "this extreme" but continue to deny asking for Vilda's dismissal. They called the RFEF's statement 24 hours earlier "partial and interested" and reiterated their "unquestionable commitment" to the Spanish national team.

The crux of the issue is complicated and deep-rooted. On a base level, sources explained to ESPN that the players feel the relationship with Vilda has completely broken down. There are no allegations of inappropriate behaviour, but sources said the way he has dealt with both sporting and non-sporting issues has forced the players to act as it has had consequences on their "health and emotional state," as they referenced in the email to the RFEF. There are also complaints over preparation and tactics, especially around big matches.

Other sources said the issues extend beyond just Vilda, who some players view as unqualified for the role he now holds given how the women's game has progressed in the past seven years. That is on the RFEF, who several players feel don't have the game's best interests at heart.

"Could anyone think that, eight months from a World Cup, a group of TOP LEVEL players, which is what we consider ourselves, would make this decision, as has been suggested publicly, on a whim or to blackmail [the RFEF]?" the statement from the players read on Friday.

Dating to Quereda's reign, there is a backstory of mistrust between the players and the RFEF. The players said they feel their ambition is being held back as a result.

Who's refusing to play and why are some still taking the call-up?

More than 20 players are called up for each Spain camp but only 15 sent the email on Thursday: six from Barcelona (Guijarro, Mapi León, Aitana Bonmatí, Mariona Caldentey, Sandra Paños and Claudia Pina), two from Atletico Madrid (Ainhoa Vicente and Lola Gallardo), two from Manchester City (Leila Ouahabi and Laia Aleixandri), two from Manchester United (Lucia Garcia and Ona Batlle) two from Real Sociedad (Amaiur Sarriegi and Nerea Eizagirre) and one from Club America (Andrea Pereira).

Putellas was the most notable absentee, but sources have told ESPN she did not send the email because she is currently sidelined with an injury that will keep her out another eight to 10 months and is not selectable. Captain Paredes, sources added, is "exhausted" from being seen as the leader of the supposed movement to oust Vilda and preferred to take a backseat.

The lack of Real Madrid players was also noteworthy. Eight were in the most recent squad for wins over Ukraine and Hungary earlier this month. None sent an email on Thursday. One source told ESPN they suspected that was due to pressure from their club not to, creating a further dilemma for the players implicated and revealing another layer to the saga.

The RFEF response

The RFEF have been consistent in their response to the players' concerns. The RFEF did not listen to them in August and they did not listen to Thursday's email.

RFEF called the situation "unprecedented in the history of football" and asked the players to "admit their error and apologise" before claiming they will pick youth players if they have to.

"Not answering the call from the national team is classified as a grave infraction and can lead to suspensions of between two and five years," the RFEF statement read. "In contrast to the behaviour of the players, [we] want to make it clear that we will not take matters to that extreme nor will we put pressure on players. We will simply not call up those players who do not wish to wear the Spain shirt.

"The RFEF will only call upon players who are committed, even if that means playing with youth players. The national team needs players who are committed to the project and the defence of our colours and who are proud to wear Spain's shirt. The players who have presented their resignation will only return in the future if they admit their error and apologise."

What's next for the team?

The next international break is just two weeks away. Spain play Sweden in Cordoba on Oct. 7 and are then due to host the United States in Pamplona on Oct. 11.

It seems unthinkable that the 15 players, plus Paredes and potentially others, will make themselves available unless the RFEF do some serious backtracking. It also seems increasingly unlikely that Vilda would now call them up.

Beyond that, it puts Spain's other players -- and potentially youth team players -- in a tricky position if and when they are summoned to represent their country. They have a duty to their teammates, but there are also other elements at play that they might fear could have repercussions on their career at club level.

And all this in a World Cup season. With the core of a Barca side that, along with Lyon, have dominated European football for the past three years, Spain should be heading to Australia next summer as one of the favourites. At the moment, it's hard to see how they even make it there at all.