Sports FOOTBALL Fifa ethics committee investigating sexual misconduct claims

Fifa ethics committee investigating sexual misconduct claims

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Fifa has confirmed the investigative chamber of its ethics committee has launched an investigation into the actions of disgraced former Canada youth national team coach Bob Birarda and allegations of sexual harassment against former Vancouver Whitecaps women’s team coach Hubert Busby Jr.

Fifa is publicly downplaying the investigation, saying the investigatory chamber is “gathering information”. However, the Guardian can confirm Martin Ngoga, a Rwandan politician and lawyer who is chair of the chamber, has labeled the inquiries as “investigation proceedings”.

A Fifa spokesperson told the Guardian that the investigation is only concerned with the actions of the two coaches but according to multiple sources familiar with the proceedings, the scope of the investigation also includes how Canada Soccer and the Vancouver Whitecaps responded to reports from multiple players about the behavior of the two coaches over a number of years.

The investigation was launched in March following a Fifa meeting in Paris that discussed claims of sex abuse by coaches and administrators around the world.

The investigation comes as a former Canada Soccer board member says the organization did not take the Birarda incident seriously when players reported inappropriate behavior in 2008 – or at any subsequent time the issue was raised.

Birarda, the head coach of Canada’s U20 women’s team in 2008, pled guilty in February to one count of sexual exploitation and three counts of sexual assault related to his time as a coach in Vancouver and while coaching national youth teams and the Whitecaps women’s team. Busby was suspended from his role as head coach of the Jamaica women’s national team last year after a report by the Guardian alleged he sexually harassed a player when he was in charge of the Vancouver Whitecaps women’s team in 2010 and 2011.

“The only people in the system with moral courage are the athletes,” said Leanne Nicolle, a former Canada Soccer board member who was also previously executive director of the Canadian Olympic Foundation. “Repercussions need to be higher for people not willing to have moral courage. It’s not just perpetrators [who are the issue]. It is the enablers.”

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The Guardian can also reveal that following reports about Birarda’s behavior from players in 2008, Canada Soccer executives failed to follow the organization’s robust rules and regulations regarding sexual harassment or sexual assault allegations.

Documents seen by the Guardian outline a strict process covering all participants in the sport across Canada, including executives, coaches, players and volunteers. The organization broadly defined sexual harassment as including “sexually degrading words used to describe a person; criminal conduct such as stalking or physical and sexual assault or abuse; promises or threats contingent of the performance of sexual favors; display of sexually explicit material or pictures; unwanted physical touch; unwanted sexual flirtation, advances, or propositions.”

When allegations were made against Birarda, Canada Soccer’s rules demanded the appointment of two individuals, “a male and female”, to investigate the complaint. Written reports of the investigation should have been provided to the executive committee, as well as complainants and Birarda.

However, no written copy of any investigation exists and Canada Soccer, nor any former employee or board member, can confirm the existence of a written report into Birarda’s actions.

Reviews of allegations against Birarda were made by Anne Chopra, a Vancouver attorney, in 2008. But, according to a source familiar with the process, no written copy exists and instead Chopra presented a verbal review to a group of Canada Soccer and Whitecaps executives that included the organization’s general secretary, Peter Montopoli. Attempts by the Guardian to contact Chopra were unsuccessful.

However at the time of the Birarda incident, Canada Soccer did have in place a Harassment and Prevention Committee, according to a handout given to attendees of a meeting of the organization in 2008. A listed member of the Harassment and Prevention Committee confirmed to the Guardian the group did exist at the time. They did not want to speak on the record because they could not locate any documents relating to an investigation into Birarda.

“I don’t think anyone on our committee would have made a decision or necessarily known about Birarda’s departure [because we weren’t asked],” they said. “Coaches were fired all the time and went on to other things.”

Canada Soccer’s rules and regulations also state that after receiving a written report, a case review panel of three “independent people” comprising at least one man and woman should deliver their findings, provide them to the executive committee and recommend any disciplinary action.

The Canada Soccer executive committee then needed to confirm the disciplinary recommendations and place a copy of the report in the personnel file of the individual. But neither Birarda nor Busby received disciplinary action after reports were made about their behavior. They were released from their roles for undisclosed reasons and both continued to coach girls and women elsewhere in Canada and the United States.

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A document obtained by the Guardian listing the status of coaches in Canada shows Birarda retained his B level license issued by Canada Soccer until at least 2017, even though the organization and high level executives knew about his inappropriate and predatory behavior from at least 2008.

In an emailed statement, Canada Soccer claimed Birarda’s B License expired in 2011 yet the Canada Soccer Coach Licensing Program Status Check, updated in March 2017 that includes 2016 graduates of the program, lists Birada as a 2006 B License recipient. A license is considered an imperative for any professional coach to hold especially when working with elite level teams in youth or adult soccer. The Canada Soccer Status Check, described as “updated quarterly”, states its purpose is “to verify the certification of all coaches” and to locate “licensed coaches who may be interested in working with your organization”.

Canada Soccer said a license “does not permit an individual to coach but indicates that the individual has completed Canada Soccer’s Advanced Coach Education Program workshop at their respective levels.” Canada Soccer did not respond to a request for clarification about the expiration of Birarda’s license – an unusual claim according to multiple Canadian coaches contacted by the Guardian – and his listing on the 2017 document.

The organization also did not respond to multiple questions submitted by email about the processes it followed in 2008 or how the organization responded to reports from players about Birarda in 2008, citing an ongoing internal investigation of events in 2008 by a third-party law firm.

Former Canada Soccer executive committee members, who currently have senior administrative roles in world sport, declined to discuss how the organization dealt with Birarda and the process that allowed him to continue to coach in the community.

Asked to comment on the current Fifa investigation and how Canada Soccer responded at the time, Montopoli said when reached by phone: “I don’t know anything about that and I’m not in a position to speak about that right now, thank you “. Montopoli, currently chief operating officer of Fifa World Cup 2026 Canada, then terminated the call. He did not respond to further requests for comment.

Victor Montagliani, now president of Concacaf and a vice-president at Fifa, was chair of the National Teams committee at Canada Soccer when players reported inappropriate behavior by Birarda in 2008. He has declined to comment beyond a statement last year citing an internal Canada Soccer investigation managed by a third party legal firm as a reason for not discussing previous events and processes.

Last year, the statement issued by Concacaf said that: “The Board was in late summer 2008 informed by the CSA General Secretariat of the allegations regarding the inappropriate text messages. The Board, including Mr Montagliani, took these allegations seriously and unanimously approved the appointment of an independent Ombudswoman to investigate the matter. Following that independent investigation, the Board was provided with a summary of the Ombudswoman’s findings, which included confirmation that inappropriate language was included in text messages. All Board members subsequently approved a recommendation to terminate the coach’s employment. Mr Montagliani believes that he and his fellow Board members at the time followed the appropriate steps to support the CSA with this very serious matter.”

The public, meanwhile, were told Birarda’s 2008 exit from his role with Canada Soccer and Vancouver Whitecaps after the Anne Chopra review was by “mutual agreement”. A Canada Soccer media release at the time announcing Birarda had been replaced as head coach of the 2008 U-20 national team said: “The association wishes Mr Birarda all the best in his future endeavors.”

Likewise, Busby did not have his contract renewed by Vancouver Whitecaps after the club received complaints about his behavior. The coach previously told the Guardian he parted ways with the club because they wanted to “go in another direction.”

Montagliani claims his role on the Canada Soccer board was non-executive although he is listed on its executive committee and as an officer of the organization for 2008. Former Canada Soccer vice-president Rob Newman did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“The board members in sport, and I don’t just mean in soccer, they are not there to do hard things,” Nicolle told the Guardian. “They are there to make sure they get a ticket to the next World Cup or the next Olympic Games. They are there to check boxes.”

In 2015, during her time leading the Canadian Olympic Foundation, Nicolle accused Canadian Olympic Committee president Marcel Aubut of harassment over a period of years. Aubut subsequently resigned from his role.

Nicolle told the Guardian she had attempted to revisit complaints against Birarda during her time on the Canada Soccer board in 2019, after players questioned why he was still coaching in the community 10 years after reports were made against him.

“I brought it to the attention of the board … that I had been contacted by women who shared their story about Bob Birarda with me and, at best, the board’s response was apathetic,” Nicolle said.

Nicolle said she met with Montopoli and then-president Steven Reed and a Canada Soccer lawyer in May 2019, in Quebec City. It was at this time police in Vancouver had begun investigating historic allegations against Birarda that would eventually lead to his guilty pleas.

“I asked for the Anne Chopra review and that was when I learned that it was not in writing, that it had been delivered verbally, and there was no recollection [of an investigation] other than the fact that [the board] was not responsible and that Birarda at the time of the report was essentially not responsible for any actions pertaining to sexual assault ot sexual harassment.”

Nicolle maintains that Canada Soccer and its leadership did not take allegations against Birarda seriously.

“Show me the report and the action that was taken,” she said. “Birarda continued to coach in this country and Canada Soccer is the duty bearer of the sport in this country. What does serious mean? Someone put their hand up and explain to these women how they took it seriously. What were the actions taken? Birarda continued to coach.”

Canada Soccer last year hired McLaren Global Sports Solutions to review how the organization handled allegations in 2008 against Birarda. The review is due this month.

After a report by the Guardian last October, Major League Soccer employed Toronto law firm Rubin Thomlinson to review how the Vancouver Whitecaps handled allegations of misconduct brought by members of the Whitecaps’ women’s team in 2008 and 2011 against Birarda and Busby. No date has been announced for findings.

Birada will be sentenced later this year.

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