This Women’s World Cup has delivered like never before with major broadcast deals, bumper attendances, and quality matches that seemed to justify the hype with recurrent high-stakes drama, but following a prolonged consultation period, FIFA is still falling short where it matters most: protecting players from an endemic pest haunting the sport – sexual abuse and other forms of physical and emotional abuse.
And that pandemic was also present at the tournament in Australia and New Zealand: Zambia coach Bruce Mwape had allegedly rubbed his hands over the chest of one of his players, following longstanding accusations of sexual harassment in the women’s soccer of the southern African country. The Football Association of Zambia, FAZ, it is understood, will not dismiss Mwape, but redirect him to a men’s team. Luis Rubiales, president of the Spanish FA, RFEF, kissed World Cup winner Jennifer Hermoso on the mouth during the trophy presentation after the final.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. In roughly ten percent of the 211 FIFA member associations, sexual abuse and related accusations are rampant, all the way up from coaches and even presidents of federations.
The details are often grisly. More than a dozen former high-level players criticized Canada Soccer for failing to protect youth team members from abuse by coaches. Scandals in Haiti and Afghanistan have been the most profile.
At the age of 15, Haiti’s Baraya, pseudonym, was repeatedly groped on her breasts and inner tight by Yves Jean Bart. The soccer official kissed her. Baraya and other Haitian women’s players were never far away from getting sexually harassed. FIFA issued a lifetime ban to the president of Haiti’s football federation. This summer, Haiti participated for the first time in the global tournament.
In the end, Baraya testified to FIFA, but she has never truly trusted soccer institutions – and with reason.
FIFA has been making all the rights noises – in 2021, they promised to set up a global safe sport entity, they launched a child safeguarding programme and toolkit and in June FIFA deputy secretary general Alasdair Bell and FIFA senior advisor to the president’s office Joyce Cook sold the idea of a safe sport body again to the Council of Europe – but the reality on the ground is a simple one – after the final whistle at England – Spain, the biggest women’s game of the last four years, women’s players will not be a step closer to protection by FIFA against sexual abuse.
Sources have repeatedly confirmed that the process of establishing the body has not moved forward in the last few months, but the motive for the delay remains unclear: did FIFA get cold feet? Was the consultation process an anomaly? Did they fear too much scrutiny? The inertia had led to frustration among stakeholders and rights groups. On the eve of the tournament, the Sport & Rights Alliance wrote to FIFA boss Gianni demanding action from the world governing body.
Joanna Maranhão is the network coordinator of Sport & Rights Alliance. A four-time Olympian in swimming for Brazil, she faced sexual abuse during her career. “It breaks you from the inside out, it is hard to trust people to deal with the many layers of trauma,” says Maranhão. “We are forever hurt, there’s no way to overcome these experiences.” At the beginning of the consultation process with FIFA, Joanna relays through second-hand accounts that “some interactions were very harmful to survivors.”
The safe sport entity was to be a multi-sport body, but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have defined its own strategy. However, FIFA has kept pointing the finger at the IOC, something Maranhão considers “an excuse”. “Having a multi-sport entity would make FIFA share the burden of potential cases and damage their reputation less,” she says.
“FIFA itself has acknowledged repeatedly that its internal systems are not fit for purpose,” adds Kat Craig, a human rights lawyer, and global safe sport expert.
It’s not a question of money either. Around $60 million from the DOJ fund has been allocated as a starting point for the entity. The IOC has set aside around $10 million for its own projects. In the United States, U.S. Center for SafeSport, tasked with addressing the problem of sexual abuse of minors and athletes in Olympic sports in the United States in the wake of USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal, operates on an annual budget of around $20 million.
“Why should there be another four years to wait?” asks Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch, an organization involved in the consultation process.
“The Women’s World Cup has highlighted how many sexual abusers there are in charge of women’s soccer, abusing players and extorting them for sex to even play on the women’s national team. That’s the greatest shame.”
On the eve of the Women’s World Cup final, FIFA’s chief of women’s soccer Sarai Bareman said that “as soon as it’s ready, I’m sure that that entity will be launched.”
FIFA then keeps dragging its feet, risking the physical integrity of so many women’s players around the world. “There is nothing better than the Haiti case to proof the urgency of the issue,” concludes Maranhão.
Joyce Cook did not respond to a request for comment.
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