August 17, 2019
Right now, we have the power to change football culture. We have to hold people accountable. We need to do that, and it’s FIFA’s responsibility.
Reporting by Hanna O'Neill
At the end of 2018, women’s football in Afghanistan was plunged into scandal. Just eight years after the seed had been planted for women’s football to grow in the country, international footballing body FIFA revealed it was investigating allegations involving ‘at least five’ players from the women’s national team who had come forward with allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated by high ranking officials at the Afghnaistan Football Federation (AFF).
Following the investigation, FIFA concluded that the President of the AFF, Keramuudin Karim, was guilty of “having abused his position and sexually abused various female players, in violation of the Fifa code of ethics.” In June of this year, Karim was handed a lifetime ban, and fined 1 million Swiss Francs - the equivalent of £794,849.
Fifa may have brushed off its hands, but that wasn’t the end of it. Adamant that the problem ran deeper, AFDP Global, an organisation that aims to transform communities through football, took matters into its own hands. Armed with allegations from members of other national teams - Colombia and Gabon among them - they have launched #FearlessFootball to end abuse, harassment and exploitation in women’s football worldwide.
“The time of allowing coaches, administrators and crew members to abuse their authority in their treatment of girls and women is gone,” announced Prince Ali bin Hussein of Jordan, at the campaign’s launch in July.
Alongside a petition to raise awareness on the issue, the organisation has put forward principles that it wants governing bodies around the world to adopt. They involve implementing clear safeguarding codes, putting whistleblowing and reporting mechanisms in place, enforcing lifetime bans and penalties where safeguards have been violated, and providing individuals with support. The aim is to create an environment where players can report abuse, free from intimidation or fear of repercussions.
Throwing her weight wholeheartedly behind the campaign is the Afghanistan National Women’s Team manager, Kelly Lindsey. The biggest challenge, she says, is getting FIFA to engage on the issue.
“We can’t solve this on our own - [we’re saying to them] just come to the table and meet with us. It falls to you - you can’t run away from this.”
A failing system
A former defender for the US national women’s soccer team, Lindsey is now involved in running coaching camps for the girls outside of Afghanistan. It was during one of these, in Jordan, that she says they first became aware that there was something sinister going on with the AFF.
“This was in February or March of 2018,” says Lindsey over the phone from Sweden. “The girls started talking about their experience at the Jordan camp. We could tell it ran deeper than that, so we started asking around and talking to players. A lot of people started to step up and tell their stories. We reported to the AFF, but realised they were implicated. In order to take a complaint to FIFA, the president would have to support it - but in this case, he was the perpetrator of the abuse.”
The conundrum was a small insight into a profoundly ineffective system.
“We asked for help and were never given an official process,” says Lindsey. “Once we did manage to report anything, there was no accountability - who’s protecting the players? Who’s dealing with the investigation? What’s the process for the testimony? Nothing was clear.”
It was a frustrating process, and a daunting one. “You can probably tell from my voice how hopeless we felt,” says Lindsey. “If this happened to my girls in Afghanistan, it must be happening elsewhere. We have to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Right now, we have the power to change football culture. We have to hold people accountable.”
Asked what allowed the abuse to continue for the Afghanistan team, Kelly talks about a ‘broken culture’ at the football federation in the country.
“The stories we had from our girls were along the lines of, they would go to work at the federation in order to have a career and make money, and the men there are basically bidding on them - deciding who gets to sleep with them first, who second, who third.
“At the same time, the President of the federation has people going out and recruiting under 16s because he likes them young. They wanted to be on the national team - it’s a total abuse of power.”
“Many of these players were under 16, and were abused over 2, 4, 6 years. As soon as they try and leave, they’re threatened, texted. For the rest of their existence, they’re hunted."
“People say why don’t you just stop playing football. But this is their job.”
And of course, it’s more than just a job. Being able to play football, to fly the flag for their nation, is what really drives many of these players.
For one girl, who didn’t want to be named, playing football was a chance to make her father - in her words, ‘the dictator’ of the family - proud of her.
“It was amazing seeing my father with a smile on his face,” she says, “and that’s because I played soccer with my brothers in the yard of our house. I scored and I heard my father’s shout because he was happy, and so glad that a girl was playing much better than her biggest brothers. Seeing his face was the key to all the gates that were closed to me.”
More than just a game
For these girls, it’s not just within families that football can build bridges - it helps heal national wounds too.
“In a game, we play as a team,” says the player. “The war in Afghanistan was ethnic. I wanted to be a good player in the future and show everyone that when we play well as a team, it’s because we’re thinking of our country - about bringing pride to our nation.”
For players vulnerable to abuse, what is at stake is much bigger than the sport itself. Anyone kicking a ball around in a country that has seen conflict know the unifying power of football.
“Football is everywhere,” says the young player. “There’s no need to speak the language - a good pass or a nice goal is enough to make new friends.
“And all the bad things that happened during your lifetime, you forget them in the course of a game of football.”
AFDP Global has brought some of the best brains to the table to find a lasting solution to abuse in women’s football. Will FIFA join them there, and tackle the problem once and for all?
Written by Hannah O'Neill