The world’s game, a global scandal: the struggle to be heard in football’s sexual abuse crisis | Soccer


“Sometimes, I have regrets. There have been very tough moments when I felt abandoned. I still feel abandoned. I received threats, I was intimidated and my whole life was compromised.”

After everything she has been through, Roseline (not her real name) is just thankful to be alive. At the start of October 2020, the young Haitian referee says she was threatened by the man she accused of sexually abusing her. It was two days after she had given evidence against Rosnick Grant, a former international referee who was vice-president of the Haitian Football Federation and president of its referees’ commission, to members of Fifa’s “ad hoc panel” investigating claims of sexual abuse. “They assured me it was confidential but there was a leak somehow,” Roseline says. “I received death threats.”

Fifa has denied any leak, claiming Roseline was targeted as a result of her name being in local media. Roseline called a member of Fifa’s ad hoc panel for help but, by the time they responded 48 hours later, she had already been moved to a safe place. “It was only because of your help that I’m still alive,” she tells the Guardian.

A few weeks earlier, Fifa was sent a letter from another female referee, this time in Zimbabwe. Muzwudzani (not her real name) claimed to have been subjected to repeated sexual harassment by Obert Zhoya, a senior member of the technical staff of the Zimbabwe Football Association (Zifa) and secretary general of Zifa’s referees committee. Zhoya did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment. Muzwudzani also provided evidence of her allegations to world football’s governing body, to the Confederation of African Football (Caf) and to the Council of Southern Africa Football Associations. The case is now being investigated by police in Zimbabwe, having been referred to Caf by Fifa because it “did not have the competence to investigate and judge such conducts”. Muzwudzani hasn’t taken charge of a match since, while Zhoya remains in his position.

“I had hoped that one day I would make it on to the Fifa panel,” she says. “I could have played netball or soccer but I opted for officiating because I loved it. I looked at referees and I admired them. I used to think: ‘One day I wish to be there. One day I wish to wear a kit that has those four letters – Fifa – written on it.’ But someone has taken that away from me.”

Muzwudzani’s story, published in January, is the latest example in a series of investigations of allegations of sexual abuse or harassment by the Guardian across world football. It’s a seam of stories that began in the UK with the former Crewe player Andy Woodward, a survivor, speaking about years of abuse by the coach Barry Bennell. Bennell was among 13 former youth coaches to have been sent to prison after the Guardian helped expose widespread abuse in British football that took place during the 1970s and 80s.

But as well as high-profile cases in Afghanistan and in Haiti, where separate Guardian investigations led to the presidents of both FAs being banned for life by Fifa, other countries where the outcomes are unclear or not yet known have illustrated the inadequacies of the existing system. The Guardian has been alerted to allegations of more than 40 serious cases of sexual abuse or harassment in senior or international football in countries from all around the globe including Argentina, Australia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Gabon, Mongolia, Spain, the United States and Venezuela. Not all of them have been reported to Fifa.

Some of the alleged victims are girls or young women; others are boys or young men. They are from countries where the accused are often part of the same power structure, making it even harder for them to report their abuse. And persuading Fifa to listen may be the start of a tortuous process for them and their families, with survivors in Afghanistan and Haiti having claimed that their concerns were disregarded or treated carelessly and their lives were even placed in danger.

A Fifa spokesperson said all complaints are “handled with the greatest of care and in the strictest of confidence”. But a source who worked on both investigations says: “In almost every case they have made procedural errors. We are just going around in circles – nothing is actually changing.”

Illustration: Nathalie Lees/The Guardian

Afghanistan: ‘Every day I see the justice that was needed but didn’t come’

It has been nearly four years since Saima (not her real name) travelled to Jordan for a training camp with Afghanistan’s women’s team. The trip was organised by Khalida Popal, a former head of the women’s football department at the Afghan Football Federation (AFF), who had been forced to flee the country in 2016 and seek asylum in Denmark. It would end up being unforgettable for all the wrong reasons. According to Popal, two male officials that had been sent by the AFF to accompany the squad repeatedly bullied and harassed her and other players.

“It continued,” Popal told the Guardian in November 2018. “These guys were calling on the rooms of the players and sleeping with the girls. AFF staff members would say to girls that they could get them on the team list and would pay them £100 a month if they would say yes to everything. They were pushing and forcing the girls. Coercing them.”

A few weeks later, Saima and eight other players were suddenly dropped from the national team and accused of being lesbians. The AFF president, Keramuudin Karim, who had assured Popal that he would take “serious action” over the harassment claims in Jordan, was alleged to have beaten one of the players with a snooker cue after reports that she was considering telling her story to the media.

Popal began her own investigation and said she discovered that Karim, a former governor of Panjshir province and chief of staff in the defence ministry before he took over the presidency of the AFF in 2004, had been accused of multiple counts of sexual and physical abuse. She said he even had a room inside his office containing a bed. “The doors of his office [use] fingerprint recognition, so when players go in they can’t get out without the fingerprint of the president,” she claimed.

Popal and the team’s head coach from 2016 to 2020, Kelly Lindsey, a former US international, said they attempted to report their findings to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) but hit a brick wall. “They basically said: ‘We can’t speak to you about this because you’re not a member association, we need your president or your general secretary to speak with us,’” recalls Lindsey.

The former Afghanistan women’s football captain Khalida Popal pictured at Farum Park in Denmark in December 2020.
The former Afghanistan women’s football captain Khalida Popal pictured at Farum Park in Denmark in December 2020. Photograph: Tariq Mikkel Khan/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP/Getty Images

Fifa seemed to take more interest at first. Having recorded testimonies from several players, including interviewing Saima and her teammate Farzana (not her real name) over the previous six months, football’s governing body confirmed in November 2018 that it was examining allegations of widespread sexual abuse in Afghanistan, including several claims made against the AFF president. One alleged victim told the Guardian that Karim had put a gun to her head after he punched her in the face and sexually assaulted her, before threatening to shoot her and her family if she spoke to the media.

“When we came forward and told our stories, of course Karim found out it was us, even though a good job was done to keep our identities out of the press,” Farzana says. “Life became quite dangerous for us. Every day there were threats, we were continuously receiving phone calls from the federation, from Karim’s people, offering money and things, they were trying to buy us. That was scary and dangerous.”

Despite evidence provided by several alleged victims, however, the investigation dragged on. “In our eyes we were doing Fifa a favour, we were bringing these allegations to life so it could solve them, so it could be the good guy,” Lindsey says. “After seven or eight months of conversation after conversation without any official process or system really seeming to be in place, it felt like we were going nowhere. We gave Fifa enough time to take action but it didn’t.”

A Fifa spokesperson said that it had responded to allegations of sexual abuse in Afghanistan in early 2018. “Once these reports were received, Fifa immediately began to investigate these serious allegations in a way that would ensure, first and foremost, the safety and security of the victims and survivors,” he said.

Two days before Karim was banned for life from all football-related activity and fined 1 million Swiss francs in June 2019 after a Fifa investigation found him guilty of sexually abusing “various female players”, the Guardian revealed that Fifa had been made aware of sexual abuse allegations against Karim more than two years earlier. A formal complaint alleging abuse of players from the Afghanistan women’s team was sent in April 2017 by 34 of the provincial football presidents in Afghanistan to senior officials of Fifa, the AFC, including its official integrity-reporting email account; and the Afghan federation.

A Fifa spokesperson said: “Alleged representatives of the Afghan provincial associations sent emails to various staff in Fifa in 2017, which made various claims and allegations about candidates and the AFF elections that were due to be held at that time. The various claims and allegations made to Fifa at the time were difficult to verify for two reasons: 1. the attachments/enclosures mentioned in the emails were never provided and 2. Fifa staff could not travel to Afghanistan for a fact-finding mission due to the serious security constraints within the country.”

For Popal, however, that explanation does not suffice and the failure to investigate the claims in 2017 meant Karim was allowed “to continue abusing and destroying the lives of innocent footballers. The fact that, after reporting the abuses, Fifa took so long shows how much they care about footballers and their lives. Every time I look into the eyes of those young girls I see the justice that was needed but didn’t come.”

Popal and Lindsey aided both Saima and Farzana in leaving the country, helping to source visas for them to fly to India before they were moved to Switzerland. Saima and Farzana say it was only once they were on Fifa’s doorstep that it properly took over, paying for their hotels so they wouldn’t have to go into refugee camps until they were eventually housed by the government. “Fifa didn’t support us in the beginning, they didn’t take any responsibility the way they should have done,” Saima says. “Khalida and Kelly were doing their best to get us to a second country and save our lives. Fifa covered the costs of hotel accommodation and then we moved to the apartment, the government took over the responsibility.”

Fifa also helped Saima’s and Farzana’s families move to Pakistan as they were at risk in Afghanistan. Both women hoped they would also be able to join them in Switzerland and claim that they were given assurances they would reunited after six months – something that has been denied by Fifa. It is understood that they signed a contract which made no guarantees about their families being relocated given that it was reliant on the visa process, over which Fifa had no influence.

“Fifa has and continues to offer support and assistance to ensure the safety of survivors, as well as to witnesses who choose to come forward and give testimony in Fifa ethics harassment and abuse cases,” said the spokesperson.

“Such support includes, but is not limited to, working with local experts to provide psychological counselling, medical care and support, safe refuge, legal assistance, as well as providing for safe refuge support where possible to immediate family members that may also be at risk.”

Saima and Farzana are now unsure whether their families should remain in Pakistan or return to Afghanistan, where the Taliban took control last year. “Our families are suffering because of us, they are displaced and now the danger is greater than before as our enemies have got all the power they need from the changes in the country,” Farzana says.

Haiti:I lost my dreams, my hopes’

At the end of February 2020, Yves Jean-Bart received a phone call. It was only a few weeks since the former journalist known as “Dadou” had been elected as president of the Haitian Football Federation (FHF) for the sixth time, with Gianni Infantino congratulating him by sending a letter that had been hand-signed “Cher Yves” by the Fifa president. But on the other end of the line was a member of staff from the office of Véron Mosengo-Omba, who was then working as Fifa’s chief member associations officer. As well as discussing how Haiti would respond to the impending Covid pandemic, the Fifa official also wanted to “raise concerns” about alleged sexual abuse cases in the country’s national football centre, the Centre Technique National in Croix-des-Bouquets, after it had received an inquiry from the Guardian a few weeks earlier.

The victims felt that Dadou had been given a tip-off. “They betrayed the victims to Dadou,” says one source who has worked extensively on the case. “After that, they could never really trust Fifa.”

Fifa suspended Jean-Bart for six weeks after the Guardian’s first article in April. He was eventually banned for life by Fifa in December 2020 after being found guilty by Fifa’s ethics committee of having abused his position and sexually harassed and abused female players, including minors. The 74-year-old has consistently denied the claims and a June date has been set for his appeal hearing at the court of arbitration for sport.

By the time Jean-Bart was banned as part of the Guardian’s investigation, Roseline and several other young female referees had already detailed the abuse they allegedly suffered at the hands of Grant. “I spent several years as a referee and it was a constant fight,” said one who did not want to be named. “When I was 17 years old, Grant tried to take my virginity. In exchange, he promised me so many things … That’s how they do it. They helped some girls in a way that they can’t speak out.”

Roseline hoped that agreeing to give evidence to Fifa would not only ensure protection for her and her family but result in swift justice against her alleged abuser. She was mistaken. Grant was contacted at the end of August 2020 by Fifa’s ethics committee and asked to provide a written statement as part of their investigation, although he wasn’t provisionally suspended until January 2021. Five months later and still with no news, Roseline wrote to several senior Fifa officials including Mario Gallavotti, an Italian lawyer who was then its director of independent committees and responsible for Fifa’s independent ethics committee that investigates allegations of sexual abuse and other crimes by football officials.

“I hereby inform Fifa of my serious concerns following a series of suspicious events relating to these testimonies,” she wrote. “Two days after my conversation with the members of the ad hoc panel, I received a call from Rosnick Grant, the person I had just testified against. During his call, Mr Grant intimidated me by clearly letting me know that he was aware of my testimony, although confidential, that I had just given. Mr Grant also told me he was untouchable. What especially frightened me the most was to learn, several months later, that my testimony was lost and was not found until February 2021.”

An email from a senior member of the ethics committee on 10 February 2021 that has been seen by the Guardian confirms that it had now “found the declaration made on 6 October 2020” by Roseline and “where possible, we would also like to have an interview with her”.

A Fifa spokesperson said: “Any reports that are submitted confidentially or received, including personal testimony, are usually acted upon or revisited at various stages of an investigation.”

Roseline’s letter in May 2021 also raised serious concerns about an article that had been published that week on the internet with the headline, “Who are Dadou’s false witnesses?” which threatened to reveal her identity and where she was staying. “I have no connection in this locality which was chosen by mutual agreement for my protection,” she wrote. “And here we are in great danger now. Please do something. I am very afraid for my life and that of my family which are in your hands for the second time. Since last week, Rosnick Grant has kept calling me either to intimidate me or to ask me questions about my current situation. Thank you for your attention.”

To her surprise, Gallavotti responded by WhatsApp: “We received your email, but I don’t understand why. No one has ‘lost’ your testimony, we are hiding it to protect you; no one told anyone about your testimony which was kept confidential. Your name was already in the media before you testified and that’s why you were bullied by Mr Rosnick. If we want to improve football in Haiti and help young Haitians in sport, everyone must work in the same direction. If you need support, it is better to contact the competetant [sic] department directly and not to 15 people, most of whom are not aware of a confidential file.”

Yves Jean-Bart arrives at his May 2020 hearing at the Crois-Des-Bouquets prosecutor’s office after being accused of sexually abusing young footballers at the country’s national training centre.
Yves Jean-Bart arrives at his May 2020 hearing at the Crois-Des-Bouquets prosecutor’s office after being accused of sexually abusing young footballers at the country’s national training centre. Photograph: Jeanty Junior Augustin/Reuters

Asked whether this was a suitable response to an alleged victim of sexual abuse, a Fifa spokesperson said: “Mr Gallavotti has confirmed that it was recommended to the alleged victim that they should contact the relevant body investigating at the time in order to receive further support.”

After originally being suspended in January, Grant was finally banned for life on 23 July 2021 having been found guilty by Fifa’s ethics committee of committing acts of sexual harassment and abuse, as well as coercing young referees “to prevent the reporting of such sexual abuse”. The previous month, he had been accused of trying to arrange the killing of a radio journalist who had been attempting to uncover alleged corruption at the FHF. Grant has denied the claims.

Asked why the process of banning Grant took almost nine months after his original suspension, the Fifa spokesperson said: “For the investigative team in Haiti, the top priority has always been – and remains – the protection of victims, and they had for instance to intervene to provide support and protection to individuals that had been threatened. The proceeding was not slow, taking especially into account the travel restrictions due to Covid-19, several communication issues with the country, the hostility of the environment and above all the challenges in gathering evidence from victims and witnesses whilst ensuring their safety and care.”

An investigation into allegations that the former FHF technical director Wilner Etienne raped several female players under the age of 18 remains open more than 15 months after he was suspended. A Fifa source said it has “no evidence” despite the testimonies of several alleged victims and witnesses. Etienne, who has denied wrongdoing and says the claims are a “pure lie”, was pictured at a charity match in November where he handed out medals.

“We can confirm that all evidence and testimony received by the investigatory chamber of the independent Fifa ethics committee was handled with the greatest of care and in the strictest of confidence,” said the Fifa spokesperson.

But Roseline believes they have not gone far enough. “I hoped Fifa will clean our mess because we don’t have justice there,” she says. “The worst thing is that I love football so much. Sometimes I believe it’s better I turn away from it. I lost my dreams, my hopes.”

Illustration: Nathalie Lees/The Guardian

Will the victims be heard?

In the same month that Roseline and Muzwudzani had made contact with world football’s governing body to report their cases, Infantino appeared to be tackling the issue of sexual abuse head on. “It is a topic we have been hiding for too long and it is time to start opening it,” announced the Fifa president in September 2020.

A new partnership with the United Nations office on drugs and crime included a pledge by Infantino to establish “an independent, multisports, multi-agency international entity” to investigate abuse cases. “What I am proposing is to study together the creation of an independent agency, some sort of a mix between sports bodies, institutional, governmental, international organisations, who can help our children who want to play sport to be and to move in a safe environment,” he said.

A year-long consultation process described by a Fifa source as “one of the most robust there’s ever been in sport” resulted in the final report being sent to stakeholders at the end of November 2021. It refers to “the challenging learnings of complex, devastating and serious sexual abuses in Afghanistan and Haitian football”.

Gallavotti, who previously worked for Infantino during his time at Uefa, stepped down as director of independent committees in June 2021 to be replaced by Carlos Schneider. The safe sport entity’s final report praises his “legal wisdom and practical advice” in “defining an entity that may function for the benefit of all sports and help sports judicial bodies appropriately address harassment and abuse”.

“The idea is the formation of a foundation that will be endowed with independent governance,” said Gallavotti on the Italian podcast No Coach: storie di abusi nello sport (stories of abuse in sport). “You don’t have to put the dust under the carpet. We need to talk about it.”

The evidence of the past four years, however, is that in many cases Fifa has appeared reluctant to do so.

In Mongolia, the youth coach Uchralsaikhan Buuveibaatar was accused of physically and sexually abusing young players from the girls’ under-15 team in August 2019, although it is understood he continued to work for the Mongolian Football Federation until the end of November. The MFF’s disciplinary body, which reported the matter three months later to the Asian Football Confederation, said that Buuveibaatar, who has denied committing “sexual crimes”, was first suspended from all football-related activities in August 2019. The AFC told the Guardian that Buuveibaatar’s “sanction was extended worldwide by Fifa in August 2021”. Fifa did not publicly announce the ban at the time.

That case was not the first to raise concerns at the international players’ union, Fifpro. It is understood that there have been serious doubts over the effectiveness of Fifa’s investigation into widespread sexual abuse allegations in Gabon that were reported by the Guardian at the end of 2021. The ethics committee confirmed on 10 January that it had opened a case, nearly a month after the first story alleging the former coach of Gabon’s under-17s had been accused of raping, grooming and exploiting young players was published.

Patrick Assoumou Eyi, known as “Capello”, and two other youth coaches are facing up to 30 years in prison each if found guilty of charges including raping minors, sexual assault and endangering the life of another, with the Gabonese government having launched an investigation into widespread sexual abuse in the country as a result. Meanwhile, Serge Mombo, a leading football official who also served as Gabon’s kitman at the Africa Cup of Nations, was arrested last month after being accused of sexually abusing young players and demanding sex as a condition of them securing places in national teams. Both have denied the abuse claims, made by alleged victims and witnesses to the Guardian.

Fifpro has written to Fifa regarding its concerns that the investigation, which is being handled by the Gabonese Football Association (Fegafoot), has a conflict of interest. “At least two of those arrested were employed by Fegafoot and closely connected to powerful people in Gabonese football,” Fifpro told BBC Sport Africa. “Fegafoot is not fit for purpose to investigate such serious allegations.”

A Fifa spokesperson said: “Fifa can confirm that the matter is being handled in line with Fifa’s code of ethics. Furthermore, Fifa is in contact with Fegafoot as well as Fifpro, on the matter. Since the matter is ongoing, including criminal charges having been made in Gabon, please understand that no further comment can be made by Fifa at this stage.”

Serge Mombo was arrested last month after being accused of sexually abusing young players and demanding sex as a condition of them securing places in national teams. He denies the charges.
Serge Mombo was arrested last month after being accused of sexually abusing young players and demanding sex as a condition of them securing places in national teams. He denies the charges. Photograph: No credit

Meanwhile the Gabonese players’ union has said that entrusting the federation with the investigation “when Fegafoot is at the centre of this affair in view of the revelations and its complicit silence proves that Fifa has not cared about all the victims of this abuse for all these decades”.

Fegafoot’s spokesperson, Pablo Moussodji Ngoma, told the BBC that Fegafoot itself “is also a victim” and said that its ethics committee would conduct an independent investigation.

Lindsey tells the Guardian: “Every single case I’ve heard has been almost identical, but when you try and structure the system from the top down it doesn’t work.”

Concerns have also been raised about the restrictions in Fifa’s own guidelines that state cases cannot be prosecuted more than 10 years after they occurred – a regulation that is believed to now be under review. Neither Saima nor Farzana were part of the consultation process for the safe sport entity, which could be established in the next few months after the first meeting of its secretariat is understood to have been held last month.

A Fifa spokesperson said it had “followed best practice throughout in consulting with voices of experience to ensure their meaningful involvement and to minimise retraumatisation”.

But Saima insists that they should have been consulted. “They’ve not asked our opinions,” she says. “The way that they dealt with our case was not professional – and they didn’t listen to our voices.”

Additional reporting by Alex Cizmic



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