On Sept. 15, 2019, Real Madrid absorbed football club CD Tacón, giving Los Blancos their first ever women’s team. The full branding change occurred the following year, allowing the players to wear the all-white colors, bear the official crest, and be called “Real Madrid Femenino” in their second season as part of the institution.
The successful takeover was driven by Ana Rossell, who had long lobbied Real Madrid to create a women’s side. In 2014, Rossell decided to kick things into action herself, helping to found Club Deportivo Tacón.
Rossell became president and operated alongside Sporting Director Manuel Merinero and his deputy Carlos Murciano, with the goal of eventually becoming part of Real Madrid.
Positions changed for the 2020/21 season. Murciano left the club in June 2020 and Merinero swapped his role as Sporting Director for a position with the youth teams. Ana Rossell remains a senior executive and manages the day-to-day operations of Real Madrid Femenino.
Though the titles of some of these individuals have either been altered or no longer belong to them, these three got collective recognition for taking the women’s game forward in the 2020 Real Madrid Femenino documentary “Un Sueño Real,” which literally translates to “A Real Dream,” indicating a long-held ambition being realized not just for Rossell and co., but for many Madridistas and fans of women’s football across the world.
There is no doubting that this was a momentous occasion, but claims on how these figures have progressed the sport are complicated by a series of accusations that have been leveled against Rossell, Merinero, and Murciano by former players over the years, including in Tacón’s inaugural season as Real Madrid’s women’s team.
These footballers’ and ex-footballers’ complaints center around unfulfilled contractual obligations, broken promises, and more general mistreatment and abuse. Managing Madrid reached out to several of these players to hear their story, but only one chose to speak. The rest either ignored us or refused to talk, with one footballer noting that she wouldn’t go on record because she was reluctant to stir up controversy.
Managing Madrid also contacted Real Madrid for comment but received no response. We will update the story with the club’s remarks should they choose to make a statement after the publish date of this article.
The Story of Zara Mújica
In this culture of fear, the story of ex-Tacón goalkeeper Zara Mújica is unique in regard to the lengths she and her family have gone to speak out and obtain justice. Though her ordeal was covered to varying degrees by the Spanish media at the time, Zara gave Managing Madrid an exclusive interview to provide updates on her situation and clarify some details.
A Dream Signing
16-year-old Zara signed for Tacón’s youth team on Sept. 4, 2019, after striking gold in an April trial against a soccer team from Virginia. Manuel Merinero was impressed by her play and informed her that she would join Tacón and be offered a scholarship, with Merinero promising that the club was “going to pay [for] everything,” according to Zara.
Knowing that Real Madrid were prepping a purchase of Tacón in the summer, this was a dream move for Zara and her Madridista family. But her fairytale got off to a rocky start from the very beginning.
The First Red Flag
On the day of her putting pen to paper, Merinero and Carlos Murciano allegedly informed Zara that her parents would need to cough up 760 euros, which was meant to cover medical insurance, among other things.
Translating for her dad, Rámon Mújica, Zara noted: “Obviously that shocked [us], because on the 16th of April 2019, I went to a training session [referring to the trial] and they never mentioned anything.”
Despite the oddity of this request, Zara and her family brushed it off and complied, as did apparently a number of families. While previous retellings of Zara’s story have focused on her payment of the 760 euros, they have all glossed over the fact that it was not an isolated incident, according to Zara’s dad:
[Zara translating] They used to send my parents emails and like WhatsApp messages…and…a reminder of when the payment had to be made. And, obviously, the emails [as well as the messages] [were] sent to all the parents.
Managing Madrid requested to see these texts and messages, but they are currently being held as evidence by FIFA in a legal case against Real Madrid. However, this was not what prompted Zara’s father to take such drastic action, as this was just the beginning of the peculiarities.
The Problem Escalates
See, Zara never even got to play a single game outside of friendlies. Merinero and Murciano justified the decision by citing residency issues, primarily that Zara didn’t have the right documents to play in Spain after moving from Wales. This perplexed Zara’s dad, as he claims his daughter is a Spanish national. Nevertheless, Rámon put forward numerous solutions; namely, applying for the right papers and having Zara’s family move to Spain.
Zara translating for her dad: all the lawyers and…[my father]…read everything and went through every single thing. There’s nothing [Tacón] can back it up with because they have no reason for it.
For reasons neither Zara and her father can quite explain, Tacón refused to entertain these remedies and simply asserted that there was no way she could feature for the side in official matches. What is even more confusing is that Merinero obviously knew that Zara lived in Wales pre-signing, having spoken directly to the Mújica family well before the September transfer date, as previously stated by Zara and Rámon.
Following the interview with Managing Madrid, Rámon added that “Zara had an official certificate from Tacón authorizing membership in the club” via a WhatsApp message to one of the authors.
The Final Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back
The bizarreness peaked in December 2019, when Zara picked up an injury. Instead of treating her at club facilities, Merinero allegedly instructed the teenager to go to a public hospital and lie. Zara was told to say that she got injured at school instead of with the team, thereby allowing the club to dodge any payments that they’d have to make.
Zara translating for her dad: Basically, when you’re in a club, you’re not supposed to go to [a] public service hospital because your club has your own facilities if you get injured.
[Tacón] said that I had to say I got injured in school because there would be a fee for the club.
Per an interview that Ramón did with 20minutos on the same subject, “the only thing that Tacón offered…was an appointment at Sanitas La Moraleja, Real Madrid’s primary hospital, but the family had to pay for the consultation.”
Utterly bewildered by this latest saga — especially when considering the 760 euros meant to cover medical issues — this event proved to be the last straw on the camel’s back for Zara’s parents. They brought their daughter back home to Wales and launched a lawsuit against Tacón in FIFA’s Ethics Committee, citing articles 21 and 23.
Zara’s lawyers have continued to add evidence to their case since then, but the proceedings have been stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Zara says that the disastrous experience has had lasting impacts on her mental health:
At that point, when I went through that, it was really hard. Not only because I was on my own, but also because I went there with a dream. Like, I still get emotional because of it sometimes because I can’t help it. It’s just like stuck in my head. I do got to say that I have been attending psychological therapy. Because it’s just like in my head.
While her alleged experience with Tacón was beyond difficult, her passion for the game hasn’t died. Zara currently plays for Abergavenny Town FC in the Welsh first division and is studying sports coaching.
As Zara’s relations with the club got worse, her parents demanded to speak to Tacón’s president but were allegedly turned down by Merinero and Murciano.
When Managing Madrid asked Zara and Rámon whether they thought Rossell was aware of their situation, they were unequivocal: “the president would know.”
Whether that was the case or not, Rossell has allegedly had a much more direct hand in at least a few cases with other players.
In an interview with Línea de Gol in June 2020, ex-Tacón player Cristin Granados shed some light on the struggles she faced:
Translation: I don’t understand how [Real] Madrid bought that club…I left Spain by my own choice because of things that happened over there that I did not like, so I decided to come here.
We lived for around a month between hotels and borrowed houses. We slept for a week in the president’s [Ana Rossell’s] house. The director [Manuel Merinero] wanted Lixy [referring to former Tacón player Lixy Rodríguez] and me to sleep for a week on an armchair.
They sold us on many things they did not deliver, we had a contract to back it up. Where was all that? We started to have frictions. It got to a point where we also had conflicts with the coach. Even if you did everything perfectly, for him it wouldn’t be good enough because we had a bad relationship with the management.
The director started using bad language and offending us, so I told them that I would not stay there and that I wanted to terminate my contract.
They decided to leave me out of the team and to not pay me anything. They also told me that they would find me a psychologist because my problem was that I was not right in the head.
They asked clubs to pay for me and I told them that, given that they owed me three months of salary, they could keep that and I could leave for free. I was super depressed and cried all day. Lixy was my shoulder to cry on. If I could do it all again, I would not have gone there.
There is a lot here that can’t be elaborated on without either Cristin or Lixy speaking more themselves, but Managing Madrid was able to confirm through sources that CD Tacón was supposed to cover the housing of new signings in their initial days, which they did for Cristin and Lixy by cycling them through hotels, borrowed houses, and the living quarters of Rossell and Merinero.
Translation of further quotes in the article (not included in the video): Cristin explained that it was not the first time that a foreign player was told to sleep in armchairs. They had already done it with an Argentine and a Uruguayan.
One of the few other footballers who has criticized Tacón publicly is Ruth Bravo. She did so in a wide-ranging interview with AS in April 2020. Her comments were brief but pointed:
Translation: We lived unbelievable moments because of the fact that we were writing the history of Real Madrid Femenino, and they did all they had to do with me, but there were many issues with my teammates. We didn’t have the same attention or privileges. I felt bad for those girls.
I had some conversations to extend my contract but Rayo proved to be more interested. Tacón did many things wrong with some players and I’m sad about the fact that the ones who had a bad time covered it up.
When combined with the alleged experiences of Zara Mújica, Cristin Granados, and Lixy Rodríguez, along with a number of players who declined to be named, it appears that there has been a demonstrable pattern of player mistreatment and broken promises under the watch of Ana Rossell, Manuel Merinero, and Carlos Murciano.
It is these three figures that the Mújica family have focused all of their criticism against. Ramón Mújica explicitly requested the authors of this piece to note that his problem was not with Real Madrid as an institution nor Florentino Pérez, but specifically Rossell, Merinero, and Murciano.
Zara translating for her dad: We have done [this] against the people not the club. We are — like I said to you at the start — from Real Madrid. We support the team, [with the] issues obviously being: Manuel Merinero, Carlos [Murciano], and Ana Rossell. Those are the ones that we are against. Just clarifying that, because obviously there’s probably been rumors around that we are against Real Madrid or whatever but we’re not. It’s just them — the people.
And, just as this specific issue isn’t solely about the club, the overall problem of player neglect and mistreatment exists well outside of Madrid. Though Tacón has previously come under fire for not providing contracts that would guarantee players their right to social security, this is an issue that has been perpetuated by a number of teams:
The AFE also says that the payroll problem is happening with other clubs and that many players have not received contracts that would register them with Social Security.
— Om (@OmVAsports) December 9, 2020
As can be read in the embedded tweets, it took the players protesting for this issue with Rayo Vallecano to be noticed. Even so, this action was taken through a players’ association and criticism from individuals remains rare.
Having gone through a similar situation as the Rayo footballers, few understand the risks better than Zara and her family, making Rámon Mújica’s call to speak out particularly powerful:
Zara translating for her dad: He’s calling all parents and people [who have] been through this to come out and…tell their stories. He knows it’s not easy. It’s the only way that we can make football better. No one voice is going to stop all this, but loads of [them can]. For women’s football, [which] is only growing up now, it’s not fair for all this to happen. Since he’s got into all of this, he [has] found so many things that are horrible.
He did all this and none of the people in [Tacón] expected us to do it. [Not] Manuel Merinero nor Carlos nor Ana — none of them expected us to do [what] we’re doing now. They didn’t expect my parents to go this far, because no one else has done it before. So that’s why he’s calling people and [asking for them] not to be scared.
In spite of Zara’s story and Rámon’s request, players may still choose to say nothing out of the understandable fear of damaging their careers. Indeed, Rámon has tried and failed to encourage others to come out well before his interview with Managing Madrid.
As noted by former footballer Paige Williams in an interview with the BBC in May of 2020, there might be another motivation for not speaking out:
To be honest, there are some things in the women’s game that don’t get covered because we all want the women’s game to grow so much.
Paige didn’t elaborate and instead commented on her almost-completed transfer to CD Tacón and how the resulting events pushed her to give up on her career and become a firefighter:
Everyone there made me believe that I was going to join Real Madrid. One morning, I was walking past Marcelo, saying ‘good morning’ on my way to training, sharing the same facilities.
But it turned out one of their players couldn’t go out on loan, so that meant they couldn’t free up a space for me. Silly little things like that — it was like everything was pushing me away, because there were factors I couldn’t control, in the way of me getting those contracts.
While the end to her promised move seemed to ultimately come down to sheer misfortune — bar whatever Paige declined to say about what “doesn’t get covered” — it is evident that other players have apparently not been so lucky.
Whether these footballers have refused to speak out for the reasons Paige highlights is hard to say, but one must wonder whether the women’s game is really making progress if what Rossell, Merinero, and Murciano have allegedly done is not adequately addressed and simply brushed under the rug under the guise of “growing the game.”