Sexual abuse in football: Presidential predators and pedophile child molesters

Khalida Popal exposed sexual abuse in the Afghanistan Football Federation. FIFA banned the perpetrator and adopted new safeguarding programmes but it is not enough, human rights lawyers argue. Photo: Valeriano Di Domenico - FIFA/Getty Images.

An outside investigation of sexual abuse of female football players in Afghanistan forced FIFA to adopt measures to protect children. But human rights experts argue that the self-professed football family is still failing to protect its weakest members as cases of abuse are exposed in all corners of the world.

Thanks to its many talented players, football is often referred to as The Beautiful Game. But three major cases of sexual abuse of children and young adult players have disclosed that the popular sport has an ugly side that makes corruption and matchfixing look like minor challenges to its international governing body FIFA.

In July 2020, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) dismissed the appeal of Keramuudin Karim, a former president of the Afghanistan Football Federation, against his 2019 FIFA life time ban from football for sexual abuse of several young female players at Afghanistan’s national team.

In November 2020, FIFA sanctioned Yves Jean-Bart, the president of the Haitian Football Association and former FIFA standing committee member, with a lifetime ban from football for being involved in acts of systematic sexual abuse against talented female Haitian football players.

In March 2021, the Sheldon report found the English Football Association culpable of institutional failure for its delay in introducing safeguards after 1995 when a coach in British football and some high-profile abusers in other sports had already been prosecuted and convicted. The Sheldon report is a review of sexual abuse in English football commissioned by the FA which turned up at least 692 abuse survivors and 240 suspects in the period from 1970 to 2005.

But how could two long-time national football presidents for years avoid being exposed as serial sexual predators who abused some of the most talented young female players in their countries?  And how could several high-profiled coaches in the motherland of football hide for decades that they were pedophile child molesters?

A tool for change
In 2018, Khalida Popal, a former captain of the women’s national team in Afghanistan, searched for an answer to the first question and asked British newspaper The Guardian to publish her findings. A year later, Keramuudin Karim fell from the national football throne that he had held since 2004.

To understand how Popal was able to make FIFA ban a powerful football president in her home country, it is relevant to know her background. She grew up under Afghanistan’s Taliban regime. When the regime lost power in 2001, she decided to make positive changes for women in the country by playing football:

“Under the Taliban regime, women had no rights to go to school, to the doctor, or to work. They were confined to their homes. So we started to play football which was quite new in our culture because sport was not seen as something for women,” she explains to Play the Game.

“Many of my school mates were scared to play football because women in Afghanistan were still facing harassment. But we stood up together and used football as a tool for social change. We wanted to prove that if we were built for the kitchen, we were also built for football.”

By 2007, Popal and her football friends had managed to form the first national football team for women in Afghanistan, and she was elected captain.

“It was the best feeling ever. To represent your country, being the captain of the team, and to wear the national jersey. But it was not enough for me. I wanted to be different and make an impact for all women in my country,” she explains.

“So I fought my way into the national football federation being the first woman to work there. I wanted to be part of the decision-making process and became a board member and head of its women’s football committee and finance. It was fantastic to make football history.”

But soon Popal learned that even in football there is a thin line between heaven and hell. She and her friends played football in a dangerous country that was still a war zone and where many people had the mentality of the old Taliban regime. They did not like to be challenged by a young woman.

“Life became difficult. I received death threats and was banned from travelling and talking to the media. They took my respect. I could not do anything. I had no other choice than to leave my country.”

A private kingdom
In 2012, Popal arrived in Denmark as a refugee. She began to work for the Danish football club FC Nordsjælland while also still supporting the women’s national team in Afghanistan from abroad in a role as program director. At an international training camp in 2018, Popal first heard the rumors about some of the players being sexually abused.

“There was a whisper in the training camp. I began to investigate the rumors because I did not understand why some of the most talented players of the national team did not play anymore.”

During her investigation, which she did together with the American head coach Kelly Lindsey and team players Shabnam Mobarez and Mina Ahmadi, Popal discovered that several of the players had been sexually abused and raped by the president of the football federation and some of the team coaches and leaders when they were only 15-16 years old.

“The president used his power to build a private kingdom inside the football federation. He is a former warlord and the creator of a culture of abuse. He was protected by armed bodyguards. Inside his office he had a private bedroom. He was forcing the players into the room where he was sexually abusing and beating them,” she explains.

“The players were not free. No one would hear them scream for help. And to silence the players after the abuse, the abusers blamed them for being lesbians. To many people in Afghanistan homosexuality as a crime. That is why the players were afraid and could not say anything. Not even to their moms and dads.”

When Popal and Lindsey decided to build the case and present it to FIFA, they discovered that the world governing body already one year earlier had received an e-mail from members of Afghanistan’s football federation who warned about the abuse.

“This is what hurt me the most, that FIFA knew about the abuse in 2017 but left this culture to continue for two more years. FIFA did not take the case seriously until I spoke with the media and it became public. I had no other options. FIFA had no reporting system in place. They did not know how to handle the case.”

Child slaves
In 2019, Popal’s investigation forced FIFA to adopt child protection and safeguarding systems. But a year later, new media reports in The Guardian disclosed that the FIFA measures did not protect dozens of children and young adult female players in Haiti from being abused by Yves Jean-Bart, the president of Haiti’s national football federation since 2000 and a powerful member of various FIFA committees between 2002 and 2017.

Like Karim, Jean-Bart denies the allegations. But based on media reports, interviews with victims and witnesses, and reports from Human Rights Watch, the global football player’s union FIFPro and the IT consulting company Signify Group, FIFA banned the Haitian football president for life in November 2020.

In January 2021, FIFA released details of its investigation which showed that the allegations against Jean-Bart and other members of the national football federation was circulating in social media way before the first media reports were published in April 2020.

The investigation identified 34 possible victims of sexual abuse and 10 potential perpetrators, including 14 names of potential victims of Mr. Jean-Bart, and concluded that “many of the girls from very poor backgrounds became known as his ‘restaveks’, a Haitian term for child slave.”

According to FIFA, Jean-Bart used “authoritarian and economic power” to take “habitual mistresses” among players at a FIFA-funded national training center at Croix-des-Bouquets in Haiti known as The Ranch where the football president would give gifts of underwear to teenage girls, including minors, to build abusive relationships.

“Mr. Jean-Bart used his senior position as president of the Haitian football federation in order to coerce or convince the (minor) female players to engage in sexual activity with him, by promising to help or threatening to damage their football careers.”

The FIFA report also said that the abuse resulted in pregnancy for some of victims who were offered abortion, and that Jean-Bart created a system of abuse within the entire federation by placing loyal personnel in key supervisory and operational positions at The Ranch and the federation, that would ensure his complete control over Haitian football.

Death threats
According to Minky Worden, Director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch, both the Afghan case and the Haitian case shows that FIFA should take the protection of children and young adult football players far more seriously.

“FIFA has put into place a human rights policy, human rights staff, child protection staff, a 'Guardians' system. It looks fantastic. And yet, it is all guidelines. None of this is mandatory,” Worden says.

“More than 300 Haitian women were living at The Ranch subject to sexual abuse and exploitation from the staff and the president at all times. It was really a child exploitation ring masked as a football federation.”

To Worden, FIFA’s zero tolerance policies do not provide any protection in countries like Haiti and Afghanistan where many players and witnesses are afraid to speak up because they have received death threats from the abusers.

“There is no fit for purpose system. In these societies, there is terrible stigma and shame attached to being a victim of sexual abuse. Right now, the systems in place completely favour the abusers,” she says.

“Victims and survivors have no power. And if they come forward, they will lose their career, they will be shamed, and they may be killed along with their family members. So given that power differential, why on earth would a teenager come forward?”

Worden urges FIFA to adopt background checks for all members of its national federations, anonymous reporting systems and free trauma support and therapy for victims and survivors.

“It is shocking that there are no background checks for someone in charge of so many children. Football is a multi-trillion-dollar business and a golden ticket for a lot of women and children out of poverty. It is not right, that they need to fight off sexual predators to achieve their dreams,” she says.

“Sport has to both pay for the crimes of the past and make amends to those who believed that sport would be their golden ticket and instead turned into a nightmare. We are dealing with criminal elements and sexual abusers running sport federations. It simply cannot go on another day.”

To Worden, FIFA should look for solutions in places like schools.

“It happened very often in schools for a long time that teachers abused students. In the US, teachers now must pass a criminal background check. That would have revealed Yves Jean-Bart.”

The star makers
Another relevant institution for football to learn from is the Roman Catholic Church where hundreds of priests have been accused of child sexual abuse and forced to leave the church.

“The church is an appropriate analogy, because to some people football is God. And unlike publicly regulated schools, there is no one above the church than God and there is no one above football than FIFA,” Kat Craig, a British human rights lawyer, argues.

She is the founder and CEO of Athlead UK and has been involved in all the three cases of sexual abuse in Afghanistan, Haiti, and the UK.

“The people who hold the keys to future dreams of a young person has an astonishing amount of power. That is almost unique in football. You see it in other sports too, but it is far more prevalent in football,” she says.

“A football coach can have an amazing life changing role on young people, but that closeness and that power can also be terribly misused. In the UK case, the abusers were considered the star makers of the sport.”

To Craig, the church analogy becomes even more appropriate given the fact that both football and the church are two institutions that are run by autonomous organisations with no or limited public oversights and interference.

“If you overlay the material facts that drive many talented football players with the poor governance that exists in sport and sport’s allergic reaction to external interference, you have the perfect storm for widespread sexual abuse.”    

But in the same way public outrage has forced the catholic church to exclude several pedophile priests from churches around the world, external pressure has forced FIFA to kick some of football’s sexual abusers out of the sport since the three major cases were exposed to the public in 2016 (UK), 2018 (Afghanistan) and 2020 (Haiti).

Since 2019, FIFA has also adopted new safeguarding programmes and child protection toolkits for its member associations around the world to prevent harm to any individual member of the global football family.

And in its latest report, the FIFA Human Rights Advisory Board, which was created in 2017, recommended that  FIFA should establish a fully independent and appropriately resourced network of regional expert ombudspersons to receive and assess confidential reports of harassment or abuse by anyone linked to FIFA.

So, what more can football do?

A closed shop
“It is fundamentally important that we acknowledge that FIFA is going in the right direction while also being crystal clear that there are much, much more that needs to be done because the standard from which FIFA has risen was very, very low and in the UK case the FA clearly missed an opportunity to learn lessons from past mistakes and to offer some comfort to the men who were abused,” Craig says.

She also criticises the English FA’s Sheldon report for being too little and too late:

“The Sheldon report only presented findings that all of us knew already and recommendations for better training and awareness which was something the victims and survivors already said in their second television interview. We did not need to wait more than four years for that. Furthermore, the Sheldon report was not independent from the FA, so what is the point? Many of the victims and survivors considered the report a waste of time.”

Just like the church is the gatekeeper to your eternal soul and priests are the ones who tell you if you go to heaven or hell, Craig sees football as the gatekeeper to your sport dreams, and coaches and leaders as the ones who tell you if you fail or succeed.

“There are a lot of lovely catholic priests and lots of lovely football coaches, but that position of power brings a risk. Until we realise and acknowledge that, football will always fail children and vulnerable adults,” she says and points out that FIFA’s new setup to her primarily aims to protect the integrity of football rather than to protect the individual.

“When there are allegations of horrific rape of children in football and nobody knows about it because it happens below the surface and it doesn´t happen to the most powerful players which is the men at the most elite level, but they happen behind the scenes to young girls and boys, it does not hit the sport’s pockets. As a result, sexual abuse has not been prioritised as a governance or integrity issue,” she argues.

A global problem
To Craig, football is limited by its governance structure and its financial interests and she finds it bizarre that modern societies have an industry that has so much power without any checks and balances.

“There is better accountability of the UK Secret Service. If the Secret Service does something wrong, I can get it in front of an independent judge. I cannot do that with sports. The Court of Arbitration for Sport is not an independent court. The players have no rights. It is bizarre.”

Earlier this year, Kat Craig led FIFPro-hosted workshops for more than 40 player unions around the world about how to assist players reporting sexual abuse in football. She can´t speak about the workshops because they were confidential in terms of the content. But she has no doubt that sexual abuse in football is a global problem.

“Since 2016, which was the start of the Me Too movement, there has been allegations of abuse in sport in countries like Canada, Haiti, Colombia, Chile, the UK, the Netherlands, Gabon, and Afghanistan. But I believe that there is a significant child sexual abuse problem in football in every single country of the world,” Craig says.

“Football’s popularity, combined with the promise of money and the ability to convert your talent into something that could change the lives of your family, means that you have a very large number of players competing for a very small number of spots, and that creates incredible power among the gatekeepers.”

But so far, Craig hasn´t noticed a golden standard in any country for how to handle sexual abuse in football. And she can´t point to any sports institution that has respccaonded to abuse allegations in a way that made her think: That´s great.

“There is no example of investigation and reporting systems that really shows appropriate care and respect to the victims and survivors. The price is that without victims and survivors having faith and trust in the system, they will not report information to you. And considering that most abuse happens behind closed doors, sport governing bodies are almost entirely reliant on victims and survivors to speak up.”

Hope of change
Craig claims to have spoken with hundreds of girls who have been physically and mentally abused for years in a way that will possibly prevent them from having healthy emotions and sexual relations for the rest of their lives.

“That is the most horrific human rights violation happening here. You have an industry that choses to present itself as a public good and we all buy into this idea of a football family. But when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable in this family, suddenly it is a closed shop. It is an astonishing concept”.

To her, football is an industry that has so much money that if it really wanted to, it has the power to fix the problem with the input of victims and survivors, human rights experts and expert in transparency and accountability.

“It is not an impossibly difficult task. The question is whether football really wants to fix it and whether that desire will transfer into adequate resources and determination. It is about political will,” Craig believes.    

“Today, football does not prioritise the interests of victims, survivors, players, and whistleblowers over its financial interests. What we need to do going forward is to better understand that those two interests are aligned. Football needs to move away from its protectionist and schizophrenic identity.”

As an example, Craig notes that there is an increased pressure from football fans and other stakeholders in sport to evolve into an industry that is more ethical in line with the evolution of commercial entities who have strengthened their focus on environmentally friendly products and human rights issues.

“If we can change the identity of football, then I believe there is a lot of hope in terms of how we progress.”


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