By Tariq Panja
May 22, 2020
A year after the ouster of the head of soccer in Afghanistan over accusations that he sexually abused female players, global soccer is facing another serious case that is raising questions over its commitment to protecting vulnerable athletes.
Female soccer players, including some who played in Haiti’s national soccer program, and their family members have accused senior officials of the sport, including the national federation’s longtime president, of coercing the players into having sex.
Law enforcement authorities in Haiti are investigating the case. The federation’s president, Yves Jean-Bart, has denied the accusations, which first surfaced in an article in The Guardian in April.
The accusations are a particular blow to FIFA, global soccer’s governing body, not only because it had promised measures to safeguard athletes after the case in Afghanistan, but also because the abuse is alleged to have occurred at a training facility at Croix-des-Bouquets, near Port-au-Prince, that FIFA has singled out as an example of its commitment to impoverished regions. Within a year of becoming FIFA president, Gianni Infantino took a trip to Haiti in 2017, carrying a $500,000 check to repair the facility, which was damaged by a hurricane earlier that year. Infantino joined a group of boys and girls for an impromptu scrimmage.
FIFA’s ethics committee has now opened an investigation into the claims, while the players say they have been threatened and told to drop their accusations. Jean-Bart, known as Dadou, is a formidable figure in Caribbean soccer, and has led the Haitian soccer federation for two decades.
The women and their families say female soccer players based at Haiti’s soccer center had for years been pressured into having sexual relations with Jean-Bart and other top officials, and were warned that if they did not comply, they could be thrown out of the national soccer program.
Jean-Bart said by telephone that the accusations were fabrications made to undermine him by opponents of his rule as soccer president.
“This is Haiti, that’s what happens here,” he said when asked why anyone would want to make such claims against him. Jean-Bart confirmed that FIFA had set up what he described as a commission to investigate the claims.
“It’s all false,” he said.
Ernso Laurence, a former national soccer team captain whom Jean-Bart defeated to secure his sixth term as Haiti’s soccer president, said he had been wrongly accused of making claims against his former opponent. Laurence added that he had received death threats after Jean-Bart connected him to the complaints. “I was his only opponent so people think it is me when he talks about opponents,” Laurence said by phone. “In Haiti, threats like this are serious, and I think my family and I are in danger.”
The women who made the claims have decided to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisals, said Patrice Florvilus, a lawyer and a part of a nongovernmental organization that promotes human rights in Haiti.
“They are scared,” said Florvilus, who has spoken to at least one of the accusers and to the Haitian authorities. “We have written to ask FIFA to create all the conditions necessary that the victims could give their testimonies in safety.”
A former player on the women’s team, who said she was propositioned when she was 16 and touched in a suggestive manner, said she received threats by phone, and knew of others who were threatened after the publication of the first reports connecting the accusations to Jean-Bart. She spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared for her own safety and that of her family in Haiti.
FIFA’s handling of the case has been uneven, and at times worrying for those involved.
Shortly after the accusations were first received, a senior FIFA official with no experience in handling cases of sexual abuse or ethics complaints inadvertently mentioned the possibility of an impending case to the Haitian soccer federation during a routine catch-up call, not knowing that it was inappropriate to discuss it. At the time, the specifics of the accusations were not clear.
“This is about duty of care,” said Minky Worden, the director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, who has been working to independently verify the facts in the case. “How can a player who is a witness or is a survivor have confidence in FIFA when the first phone call that went out on this is to the federation staff who work for the alleged abuser?
“How it happened or what the intent was is not the issue. What kind of message does it send to survivors who are whistle-blowers? It could definitely leave players with the impression the first instinct is to protect the federation and not the victims of abuse.”
FIFA said it was reviewing its protocols “to ensure that it is best equipped to respond to cases of sexual abuse and any form of violence in football.”
Last year, after the case in Afghanistan, FIFA rolled out a framework for protecting children in the 211 countries it represents, providing what it described as a tool kit to prevent harm.
“As the world governing body of football, FIFA has a duty and responsibility to ensure that those who play football can do so in a safe, positive and enjoyable environment,” FIFA’s secretary general, Fatma Samoura, said at the start of the program, which was named FIFA Guardians. It also hired its first human rights manager and child protection officer.
Yet FIFA did not make the guidelines compulsory, even though they have been praised by outside experts, and left it largely up to local soccer officials to resolve cases.
FIFA, which sits on a cash reserve of more than $2 billion, does not have a unit dedicated to handling complaints of abuse. That has led to officials — sometimes without appropriate training — becoming involved in complex and at times harrowing episodes of abuse.
For instance, FIFA’s head of women’s soccer had no formal training in handling sexual abuse cases when she assumed the role of point person during the Afghan scandal, in which players on the national team recounted how the soccer president at the time, Keramuddin Keram, who was also a militia leader, had raped and sexually abused them. Keram was eventually barred from the sport for life by FIFA in June 2019. He is appealing the decision.
Mary Harvey, a former World Cup winner on the United States national team who now heads the Centre for Sport and Human Rights, which is based in Geneva, said FIFA’s ethics mechanisms were not designed to deal with accusations of abuse.
“The opportunity that sport has is to look at itself whenever something awful happens, like Larry Nassar in gymnastics, like what happened in Afghanistan and like what allegedly happened here and ask, ‘What are we learning?’” said Harvey, who spent five years as FIFA’s director of development until 2008. “When you are learning something really valuable, it’s never when it’s comfortable, and usually it’s when it’s really painful.”