Credit: Jack Hunter via Unsplash

Sexual abuse in football: An ongoing global scandal

By Gabriel Wheway

Content warning: sexual assault and rape.

Across several countries and all levels of the sport, continuous allegations of sexual harassment are being uncovered.

Only 45 miles from Celtic Park, a judge in Edinburgh gave the go-ahead for a multi-million-pound lawsuit against Celtic Football Club over deplorable sexual abuse allegations. Lord Arthurson gave permission for 22 former players from the Celtic Boys Club to launch a “class action” style claim for damages against Celtic, after Ian Mackay QC claimed that the boys club and Celtic Football Club were “intimately connected”. In a watershed moment, Celtic FC’s representatives denied any accusations, even after several senior figures at the boy’s club had been jailed for sexual abuse. Last year saw a harrowing 191-page report published, detailing 33 personal accounts of alleged sexual abuse from people aged as young as six at the time of the offence. Rangers, Hibernian, Celtic and the Scottish FA are among multiple organisations named. The abuse cited ranged from grooming to emotional manipulation, and in some horrific cases, enforced sexual acts and rape. This underlines a culture of abusive power in academy football, fraught with deceit and a manipulation in “relationships of trust” whether it be defined by the signing of a professional contract or even bribery to get a starting place in an academy team. 

“Last year saw a harrowing 191-page report published, detailing 33 personal accounts of alleged sexual abuse from people aged as young as six at the time of the offence.”

Clubs appear to stand superior to these allegations, often due to the date of the incidents, yet these teams have an obligation to reject such tribalism and focus on the unforgiveable ramifications that have come about and ultimately ruined so many lives. It appears, much like many other crucial issues, FIFA and the game’s other authorities are ill-equipped to tackle or even address the ongoing abuse found at so many football organisations worldwide. A series of recent cases came to light after former Crewe player Andy Woodward, a sexual abuse survivor, spoke about the years of abuse he suffered under Barry Bennell. Bennell was one of 13 youth coaches exposed after The Guardian investigated the widespread abuse in British football that occurred as early as the 1970s. Impressively, The Guardian have investigated cases from Argentina to Gabon, yet they focus chiefly on the inadequacies of the existing system, examining more than 40 cases of serious sexual abuse in senior or international football. As one would assume, it’s the Ghouls at FIFA who have failed to address, investigate, or even attempt to prevent these harrowing ongoing issues. 

The alleged victims are often young women or girls, some young men are as old as eighteen, yet the single common denominator that defines these allegations is that the accused are victims of the same power structure formed on corruption and shaky procedures much like FIFA, therefore making the actual reporting of abuse inscrutably difficult. Even when FIFA have been persuaded to listen to the traumatic accounts of the victims and their families they often respond with an apathetic gaze. A FIFA spokesperson stated that all “complaints” are “handled with the greatest of care and in the strictest of confidence”. Another empty message that simply strays away from the centre of the issue.

Those in positions of power are the only ones who really have the ability to affect change, yet they seem to maintain a listless attitude that ignore this faltering and decayed system. FIFA, being the global governing body, is ultimately responsible for addressing and therefore investigating any allegations of abuse; this generally occurs when national federations lack competence: a seemingly common theme. While some argue that FIFA have little experience in this field, their ignorance and unwillingness to employ those who are capable of interrogating these issues is startling. Their system does appear best suited to tackling gambling issues such as match fixing or even doping scandals, yet the further unwillingness to adapt to a new climate, fraught with sordid allegations, reinforces the continual incompetency of the relentlessly inept organisation. 

“Those in positions of power are the only ones who really have the ability to affect change, yet they seem to maintain a listless attitude that ignore this faltering and decayed system.”

Since the media has exposed countless allegations of abuse, FIFA has finally proposed a multi-sport entity that will help sporting bodies manage such difficult cases. Yet, the international NGO Human Rights Watch and Fifpro have raised concerns regarding FIFA’s plans. Will this mark a realistic or even meaningful improvement on the current system? In order to adapt and supersede the expectations set upon them, FIFA must employ a completely independent and irrefutably transparent system. The victims in question must receive appropriate legal support, counselling and assistance in order to help alleviate any existing accusations from perpetrators and ultimately ensure that younger victims will not have to relive the pain of countless harrowing experiences. FIFA operates largely as a business, the new approach needs a person-centred approach, trauma and abuse are not compatible with a business model and thus the assisting organisations need to be continually wary of the circular occurrence of cases not receiving the appropriate attention. 

Further, this new entity must be willing to communicate with current victims and survivors while also holding to account many aged cases that still hold significant value. FIFA appears candid about their want to overcome these issues going forward yet past action has indicated that the scheme will be continue to be built on shaky foundations. The international sports industry is currently valued at £470bn and FIFA’s annual revenue in 2018 stood at £3.5bn. The funds are available and ready. Now it’s time for FIFA to truly address this issue they have been sidestepping for years. They owe it to the thousands of children who were abused worldwide. These devastating numbers are certainly overwhelming and the harrowing events that have and continue to occur must not be treated as an anomaly to the sport. Yes, the problem is finally being addressed, yet we must wait to see if the scheme appropriately materialises. 


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