MADRID (Reuters) -Soccer's world governing body FIFA suspended Spanish federation chief Luis Rubiales from all football-related activities for three months on Saturday as it investigates allegations he gave a player an unwanted kiss on the lips after Spain's women won the World Cup.
FIFA had opened disciplinary proceedings against Rubiales two days ago over the incident with player Jenni Hermoso last Sunday in Sydney that has caused an uproar among players and fans. Rubiales' suspension from national and international activities takes immediate effect, it said on Saturday.
Rubiales said he would use the probe to show his innocence.
The Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) issued a statement for him, saying Rubiales "will defend himself legally in the competent bodies, has full confidence in the FIFA bodies and reiterates that, in this way, he is being given the opportunity to begin his defence so that the truth prevails and his complete innocence is proven".
Jorge Vilda, the coach of the Spanish Women's soccer team, said on Saturday that he regretted the "inappropriate behaviour" of Rubiales.
Victor Francos, head of Spain's state-run National Sports Council, said the government supported FIFA's decision.
Rubiales, 46, has been defiant over the kiss - which has been condemned as unwanted by Hermoso, her team mates and the Spanish government - arguing it was consensual.
Earlier on Saturday the RFEF had said it would stick by Rubiales as he sought to stay on, but a federation spokesperson said after the FIFA announcement: "We respect all the pronouncements of FIFA."
Gary Lineker, a former England and Barcelona player, summed up much of the public reaction to the FIFA move, posting in Spanish on X, formerly known as Twitter: "Por fin! (At last)."
Rubiales played mainly in Spain's second division in a career spanning 12 years. When he was elected to lead the RFEF in 2018, he promised to modernise its structure, increase turnover and make the federation more transparent.
Feminist groups staged demonstrations in Madrid, Santander and Logrono on Saturday calling for his resignation.
At a federation meeting on Friday where he had been widely expected to step down, Rubiales instead refused to quit, seeking to defend his behaviour and calling the kiss "spontaneous, mutual, euphoric and consensual".
Hermoso said she did not consent to the kiss and felt "vulnerable and the victim of an aggression".
In a statement hours before FIFA's move on Saturday, the federation said it would show there had been lies told about what happened by Hermoso or people speaking for her and that it would "initiate the corresponding legal actions" to defend Rubiales' honour, without specifying what that would entail.
The Spanish government cannot fire Rubiales but has strongly denounced his actions and said on Friday it was seeking to get him suspended using a legal procedure before a sports tribunal.
"Impunity for macho actions is over. Rubiales cannot continue in office," acting Labour Minister Yolanda Diaz wrote on social media on Friday.
Gender issues have become a prominent topic in Spain in recent years. Tens of thousands of women have taken part in street marches protesting against sexual abuse and violence, and the Socialist-led coalition government has presided over legal reforms including around equal pay or abortion rights.
It was not clear how the FIFA action would affect a players' revolt against Rubiales that expanded to include coaching staff on Saturday.
In a joint statement sent via their FUTPRO union on Friday evening, all 23 of Spain's cup-winning squad including Hermoso, as well as dozens of other squad members, said they would not play internationals while Rubiales remained head of the federation.
In the same statement, Hermoso denied Rubiales' contention that the kiss was consensual, writing: "I want to clarify that, as was seen in the images, at no time did I consent to the kiss he gave me and, of course, in no case did I seek to lift the president."
On Saturday evening, Vilda said in a statement to the Spanish news agency EFE: "I am deeply sorry that the victory of Spanish women's football team has been harmed by the inappropriate behavior that our until now top manager, Luis Rubiales."
Earlier on Saturday, 11 members of the national women's team's coaching staff offered their resignations to the RFEF in a statement where they supported Hermoso and condemned Rubiales.
They complained of "the discomfort" of having been required to attend the federation assembly on Friday and said "several female members of the technical staff were forced to sit in the front row ... to create the impression that they shared the RFEF president's line".
The RFEF statement early on Saturday was accompanied by four photos of the event last Sunday that it said illustrated Rubiales' contention that Hermoso had lifted him in the air before the kiss.
Reuters could not immediately reach an official from FUTPRO for comment.
At the federation's emergency meeting on Friday, Rubiales repeatedly said he would not quit and complained that "false feminists" were "trying to kill me", drawing applause for the predominantly male audience.
Luis de La Fuente, the men's national team manager who could be seen applauding Rubiales on Friday, issued a statement on Saturday condemning "the actions of Luis Rubiales that did not respect the minimum protocol for such (World Cup) celebrations and are not constructive nor appropriate for someone representing all of Spanish soccer".
(Reporting by Graham KeeleyAdditional reporting by Rohith Nair and Andrei KhalipEditing by Alison Williams, Frances Kerry and Daniel Wallis)