FIFA fears recent abuse cases in women’s football are just ‘tip of the iceberg’

FIFA fears recent abuse cases in women’s football are just ‘tip of the iceberg’
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After allegations of abuse in women’s football surfaced in recent weeks in the US, Venezuela and Australia, the sport’s world governing body FIFA fears they could be the “tip of the iceberg.”

Joyce Cook, FIFA’s Chief Education and Social Responsibility Officer, told CNN Sport’s Amanda Davies that there will probably be similar stories out there, and encourages people to come forward.

“We are incredibly serious about eradicating abuse from sport, from football,” Cook said. “We’ve spoken to a lot of other international sports federations about this topic over the last year.

“And what’s clear is that part of ensuring that we have a safe sport means that we also have to provide remedy for those that have been abused, that are being abused and to make sure that any perpetrators not only not welcome but banned from sport.

“So I think we will see a lot more cases coming forward for sure. And so we should and we urge people to come forward and to feel safe to do so.”

Former New Zealand international Rebecca Smith, who worked at FIFA between 2013 and 2018, says she was “shocked” at the lack of structure around reporting abuse.

“There wasn’t a set way to manage allegations or information that was coming in on sexual abuse or sexual harassment,” Smith told CNN Sport.

“And then just the communications, both internally, externally to those who had submitted complaints or issues, just the lack of care and communication; it was really disappointing if I’m really honest, because I feel like there’s nothing more important than the health and safety of the main characters in sport.”

“So I think it’s a lot more prevalent, a lot more rife than what’s out there in the public. And I think that it needs to be a priority for governing bodies and those that are the ones that are responsible for the health and safety of players,” she added.

When offered a right of reply to Smith’s comments, FIFA said that its reporting system, BKMS, was launched in 2013.

However FIFA has another problem in the challenge it faces in dealing with the issue of abuse of women’s football — unpaid fines.

“We’ve got levied a $1 million,” said Cook. “I mean, we haven’t seen those fines being paid. And we have no way to enforce that because, you know, we have to sanction individuals.”

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‘Zero tolerance’

In a statement sent to CNN, FIFA said the recent reports of abuses in football show it is a “major problem that affects all of us and which cannot be tolerated anymore.”

“FIFA has shown that there is a zero tolerance policy for cases of sexual abuses in football: anyone found guilty of misconduct and abuse shall be brought to justice, sanctioned and removed from the game,” it said.

“At the same time, the entire global football community needs to do more to prevent such cases from happening and put in place appropriate measures to support the victims.”

Football’s world governing body pointed to the work it had done in recent years, notably its FIFA Guardians program and Toolkit for Member Associations in 2019 as well as the FIFA Guardians Safeguarding in Sport Diploma “to train and support Member Associations in implementing the right measures to ensure protection of children and vulnerable groups and to professionalize the role of safeguarding officer across football.”

Through a series of workshops and webinars aimed at youth, the Guardians Safeguarding in Sports Diploma hopes to train and support safeguarding officers in FIFA’s 211 member associations across the world.

FIFA’s statement comes after it was announced an investigation has been launched following accusations of sexual abuse by former Venezuelan national women’s football coach Kenneth Zseremeta, the country’s Attorney-General Tarek William Saab announced earlier in October.

Football star Deyna Castellanos and 23 other players published a letter accusing their former coach, Zseremeta, of psychological and sexual abuse, and harassment over sexual orientation.

CNN has not been able to reach Zseremeta for comment and it is not yet clear if he has obtained legal representation.

Zseremeta served as head coach of the Under-17 and Under-20 women national teams until 2017. He is among Venezuela’s most successful football coaches of all time, with teams winning the South American Under-17 Football Championship twice, in 2013 and 2016.

CNN has contacted Saab and the Venezuelan Football Federation following the announcement but is yet to receive a response.

Also in October, Football Australia announced the formation of an independent complaint management process to “enable current and former footballers and staff to bring forward concerns regarding alleged abuse, harassment or bullying in relation to Football Australia’s national teams and the A-Leagues.”

It comes after former Australia striker Lisa De Vanna revealed she had been the victim of sexual assault, harassment and bullying during her career.

The 36-year-old first made her allegations in reply to a post by Megan Rapinoe on Twitter, in which the US international commented on allegations of misconduct against former North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley.

De Vanna replied that she had witnessed women in the game abusing younger female players, and organizations protecting the abusers.

And in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, De Vanna outlined some of her personal experiences in football, as well as hoping for changes in the future.

“There needs to be consequences,” De Vanna said. “There needs to be accountability. I have seen cultural problems at all levels throughout the years — from men and women — and girls coming through need to be brave, and also the girls that have been through this also need to be brave and know they are not alone.”

When approached by CNN about De Vanna’s comments, Football Australia said it takes a “zero-tolerance approach” to such conduct, and that it has met with De Vanna.

It also said that since a review in 2019, Football Australia has implanted multiple measures to try and prevent such instances.

“Key initiatives so far have included the appointment of specialist resources in and around our women’s national teams including new senior and assistant coaches, high performance and technical directors, and a national wellbeing manager.

“In addition, we have introduced equal pay improvements, multi-channel feedback processes, and a revised member protection framework and whistle-blower policy.”

Smith, a former opposition player of De Vanna’s, said these allegations of abuse go “against the fundamental values of football.”

“Football, for someone like me, was a place where not only it was safe, but I could really have the freedom to express who I was and to learn and to have positive growth experiences,” the former New Zealand international said.

“I learned so much through football, which is why I’ve stayed in football to give back to it … The reason why I’m in football is because it has the potential and the power to change so much for good.

“It can change cultures, it can change stereotypes, it can progress topics for women in areas of the world where it could take another hundreds of years, whereas you get them playing football and you see how people start to look at them in a different way and they feel their confidence builds and they realize how much they can accomplish despite what they’ve been told for so many years. And you see it changing things instantaneously.

“But then to see the other side of it, the darker side of it is shocking and scary and horrific. And I don’t think there’s anything worse than going to an environment where you feel that it should be one of the safest, most fun, most open places that you can ever go to and find the exact opposite happening.”

An increasing number

US women’s football has been shocked by the allegations that have emerged after former National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) coach Riley was fired by the North Carolina Courage.

An investigative report by The Athletic cites players on the record alleging that for years, Riley used his influence and power to sexually harass players and in one incident, coerce a player into having sex with him.

Riley denied the accusations in the Athletic report. CNN has not been able to reach Riley for comment.

Former NWSL player Mana Shim accused Riley of being a “predator” who “sexually harassed” her, while another former player, Sinead Farrelly, said the damage Riley caused “seeps into every part” of their livelihoods.

When NWSL action did resume, players across multiple games stopped in the sixth minute — to highlight the six years it took for Shim, Farrelly and others to be heard — joined together in the center circle, linking arms in a show of solidarity.

Farrelly told CNN that watching those players show that display of unity left her in awe.

“To see them standing in unity and solidarity, I hope it’s clear that people know the players are the league. And they need to be protected.

“They are the most important part of this and to see the power of what they did last night, to stand in unity with us and also with each other, arm in arm, it was very powerful and I hope people felt that.”

In recent years, FIFA has banned leading football officials in Haiti and Afghanistan.

In November last year, the president of the Haitian Football Federation (FHF), Yves Jean-Bart, was banned from football for life by FIFA following an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment and abuse.

FIFA’s ethics committee claims that Jean-Bart had “abused his position and sexually harassed and abused various female players, including minors, in violation of the FIFA Code of Ethics.”

Jean-Bart’s spokesman Evan Nierman said his client would appeal the decision, saying in a statement: “FIFA’s decision is a travesty of justice and purely political move to avoid further controversy and bad press following a series of high-profile scandals.”

Also last year, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) upheld the lifetime ban handed out by FIFA to Keramuudin Karim, a former president of the Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF), after investigating allegations that male officials sexually and physically abused players on the women’s national team.

The allegations led to Danish sportswear brand Hummel canceling its sponsorship deals with the AFF and demanding the resignation of Karim.

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Khalida Popal, a former Afghan player, told CNN in 2018 the abuse took place during a seven-day training camp in Jordan at the end of January that year.

Popal, who was forced to flee Afghanistan and now lives in Denmark, was present at the Jordan training camp. She says that at least five women were abused in their rooms by two male officials, who had been sent by the AFF to accompany the players.

CAS dismissed Karim’s appeal, upholding his Karim ban and $1.07 million (1 million Swiss francs) fine.

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