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On the abuse in women’s football

Like dealing with the Hydra, cutting of one head...

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In recent weeks alone we have seen reports of abuse from players in the US, Venezuela, Australia, Sierra Leone and Spain, among others. This will likely trigger further concerns and conversations around the world. In any event, there can be no doubt that football has a widespread problem.” FIFPRO report on abuse in football, 02 November 2021.

Seven days ago, Josimar published an article entitled “40 Years of silence”. You have probably already read it, although might be shocked when you realise how little time has passed and how much has happened over the last week. It is an article that details numerous cases of assault in football in France, naming numerous perpetrators and highlighting systematic cover-ups by those in positions of power at the FFF.

The news, although shocking was not surprising. When compiling the citations for this article, I fired up Chrome and began to search for links to articles, there were few specific ones in mind, just a rolodex spinning in my mind of countries where abuse has been alleged in recent years, “Colombia women’s football abuse” was searched, then “Haiti women’s football abuse” and so on, each time the country changed. The 20+ open tabs on my laptop paint a grim picture, not least as I will be the first to tell you my memory isn’t worth much.

We have reached a saturation point in women’s football where we’re just waiting for the next scandal to break, for the next group of women to find the strength within themselves to name their abusers.

There is nowhere and no level of the game that is entirely safe from abusers and those who protect them.

After the 2019 World Cup when women’s football enjoyed a boom with more eyes on it than ever, more of these cases began to emerge but it wasn’t until Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim went public with their accusations against Paul Riley that it felt like there was a deeper shift happening. The point of burying the story and protecting the perpetrator had past, no matter how much those in the know, both at the US Soccer Federation and Portland Thorns, had tried.

As former French international Melissa Plaza said to Josimar, “It’s a widespread issue because it’s happening at club level as well. but no one is talking freely. If you do, you can say goodbye to your career and all the sacrifices you’ve made over all these years.”

From Riley to Richie Burke to Rory Dames, NWSL appeared infested. Women’s football was infested and rotten to the core.

A Twitter user in my mentioned talked of his young daughter and his growing fear for her safety in the game. There were no words I could offer the man, no guarantees I could give that she would make it through without finding herself under the protection of an abusive coach. I couldn’t promise that she wouldn’t be sexually propositioned or mentally derided by someone who was just supposed to help develop her skills on the pitch. I couldn’t even tell this man that even if his daughter suffered at the hands of an abuser that she would be able to report them to and see them brought to justice rather than having a higher up bury the case.

I would have loved to be able to tell the man that although players and former players are still coming forward about abuse, that there is no one left still coaching who has been named. That football has weeded out all its toxicity and abuse, be it physical or mental, that it is a thing of the past and the sport can move on. To be able to say that when coaches are named who have committed acts of abuse and fostered toxic atmospheres that the players will be backed rather than the coach, but we know that’s simply not true. Or even that we could just get some honesty from those whose first concern should be the protection of the players

How am I supposed to know he was fired for his behaviour at Clairefontaine?” asks Malik Vivant when speaking to Josimar, “The FFF didn’t tell anyone. So how can the clubs know?

What platitudes can you offer someone when the very institutions that you’re reporting to, protect themselves and the abusers first? Burning up paper trails and hiding behind NDAs.

It felt so much like a turning point for the sport, when the reports began to mount, women’s football was offered a chance to admit it had a problem and do everything it could to clear out the rot. To accept that dirt would be thrown up, finally rip the roots from the soil and plant fresh bulbs that could grow under the correct nurture.

Yet there is the fear that the rot does indeed go so deep and touch too much of the game for it to ever fully be able to recover from the impact of the truth.

As Molly Hensley-Clancy offered in one of her many articles for the Washington Post about abuse within the NWSL, “For years, they did not speak about what they endured, at least not publicly. They were afraid of losing their spots on the field, losing their jobs, maybe losing the entire league.”

With areas of the game that have been touched by the scandal of abuses burying their heads in the sand, maybe not as deep as the reports of inappropriate and toxic behaviours they had hidden over the years, there was a question of the areas of silence, of those who were worried of not just bringing down the league but the entire sport.

Bravery is not the word I like to use when talking of individuals who’ve spoken on abuse endured, as it suggests those who never find their voices are cowardly or not as strong when their abusers have worked insidiously to break that resolve.

As Haley Leanna, a player who suffered at the hands of Rory Dames, said to the Washington Post, “Growing up, when you’re exposed to someone like him, a man degrading you constantly, you look at yourself and you don’t see your own worth.”

In Romper el Silencio (Break the Silence), a documentary detailing the abuse the Spanish national team players endured under former coach, Ignacio Quereda there is the underline importance of the power of the collective. Not in terms of finally ousting the coach, but of being there for each other during their struggles when away with Spain, of how the players tried to ease the suffering of one another. Yet, for those who suffered at the hands of coaches like Dames, the culture of fear he cultivated was so strong, the players felt they could not even trust each other.

For those who find enough within themselves to speak out, they do so to protect others, to spare others the pain they were forced to endure.

As Vero Boquete said in Romper el Silencio, on Spain’s group stage exit at the 2015 World Cup, “At that moment when the game is over, you feel anger, frustration and you think it will be the last time you really feel that, because we are not going for ourselves, we are going for other people and you have to do something to change it.

What you get from reading the news reports, from the bullying and coercion in North America to the violent sexual assaults committed by the former Afghanistan Football Federation president to the decades of grooming and assault in France is how much misery has been inflicted on those who just wanted to play football. Of the players who were taught they had to do anything to represent their country or try to make it in upper echelons of collegiate or league football.

Each new report of abuse fills you with the prevailing sense of grief for the innocence lost, for the impact having played under one sadistic individual could have on a person or team after team of players who just wanted to kick a ball about on some grass. Last week it was grief for French players, today it’s for Zambian footballers, despite the weight you feel in your chest part of you will give up, desensitised but it all. Abuse followed by abuse, followed by abuse.

I could keep talking, citing abuse cases from all around the word or I could say I think we’ll get there one day and everything will be sunny in women’s football land. Or that these cases coming to light are necessary, that the sport is like a snake shedding an old skin, or like someone sweating out a fever, needing to suffer through the convulsions as the toxins are flushed out but I fear there will always be clouds in the sky and rot lurking beneath the topsoil.