Players want Fifa vice-president suspended after Guardian investigation

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Former members of the Vancouver Whitecaps women’s team are demanding an investigation into Victor Montagliani’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations in Canada

Former Vancouver Whitecaps women’s team players fear a proposed investigation by Major League Soccer into the club’s response to allegations of sexual misconduct will be a whitewash and fail to adequately address multiple instances of wrongdoing.

The players, who represented Vancouver Whitecaps in the 2008 and 2011 seasons, are supported by Canada’s Professional Footballers Association (PFACan) in a call for key club executives to be fired.

It is understood the players this week will also demand Concacaf suspends its president, Victor Montagliani, until an independent investigation is completed into events surrounding Canada Soccer’s failure to deal with separate allegations against former Whitecaps coach Bob Birarda in 2008. Birarda was head coach of Canada’s under-20 women’s national team and the Whitecaps women’s team while Montagliani was director of national teams. Montagliani also serves as a Fifa vice-president.

At the time, an internal investigation into Birarda’s behavior resulted in Canada Soccer and Whitecaps stating the coach had left his roles by “mutual agreement”, yet he continued to coach girls’ youth soccer.

In 2019, Montagliani told the Guardian he had taken the allegations against Birarda seriously.

“Absolutely the allegations were treated seriously,” Montagliani said. “The federation was notified through our general secretariat. Our staff was dispatched to meet with this ombudsman. There were a couple of days of discussions and interviews and after that it was deemed that this coach was no longer with our program. He was not an employee of the federation. We would just pay him a per diem as he was coaching. He parted ways with our program and the Whitecaps followed suit in parting ways with him as well. I never saw the report but the information that was given to the board [was sufficient].”

Birarda was arrested in December 2020 and faces six counts of sexual exploitation, two counts of sexual assault and one count of child luring, involving allegations spanning 20 years from 1988 to 2008. He is out on bail and has yet to enter a plea.

“I welcome the interest of Major League Soccer in these issues but we don’t need MLS to be in charge of this investigation,” said Malloree Enoch. In a Guardian investigation published last week, Enoch alleged her former coach Hubert Busby Jr attempted to pressure her for sex during a recruitment process spanning 2010 and 2011. Busby denies the allegations.

After the Guardian reported the allegations last week, MLS said it intended to launch an investigation. “MLS will only look after its own interests,” Enoch said. “We need to see a thorough investigation.”

The former Whitecaps players are expected to release a statement in the next 48 hours supported by PFACan that will include a demand that any Whitecaps or Canada Soccer executive involved in the departures of Birarda and Busby, but who chose to misrepresent the reasons behind their exits, be fired.

“These executives have lost their ability to continue in a leadership position,” Paul Champ, legal counsel to PFACan, told the Guardian.

The players will also call for Concacaf and Fifa to suspend Montagliani from his roles until an independent investigation into the 2008 events is completed. That issue centers on Birarda being allowed to coach in the local community after allegations of sexual misconduct were known by Canada Soccer.

“We are happy we can carry this burden for the players,” Champ said of the union’s support. “There is already some reflection going on at Canada Soccer and we would like to continue to push them to consider these issues. All of these issues are connected and we need to know what the governing bodies are doing about it.”

The Whitecaps organization has been in crisis since the Guardian last week revealed the allegations by Enoch. Chief executive officer Axel Schuster called Enoch on Friday night to apologize for the club’s failure to act at the time of the alleged incidents.

After local journalists camped outside the club’s headquarters on Friday hoping to speak with officials about the allegations, Schuster released a statement claiming unnamed executives had been placed on leave.

Still, the club has yet to respond to questions from the Guardian sent to chief operating officer Rachel Lewis on 19 October. Lewis, along with current management executives Dan Lenarduzzi, Greg Anderson, and Bob Lenarduzzi are longtime executives at the club and were aware of the allegations against Birarda and Busby at the time they were made.

Dan Lenarduzzi, a Whitecaps club vice-president, emailed members of the women’s team in 2011 after Busby’s departure from the club instructing them to not comment publicly on his exit. The club did not mention the allegations when Busby left the Whitecaps, instead saying it was in “the club’s best interest to make a change in coaching staff for our women’s team program”.

Busby told the Guardian that allegations of misconduct were never discussed when his contract was being negotiated at the end of the 2011 season.

Busby, the head coach of the Jamaica women’s national team, is scheduled to meet with the Jamaican Football Federation on Tuesday to discuss the allegations around his time with the Whitecaps.

Issues with how Whitecaps executives have dealt with abuse claims have not been limited to the women’s teams. In 2017, the mother of a Vancouver Whitecaps male youth team player who was allegedly sexually assaulted by his teammates claimed the club discouraged the boy and his family from immediately reporting the incident to police.

The mother of the player – a minor at the time of the incident – told local media the MLS club provided her with two options to address the issue: hire either a private investigator or a moonlighting police officer who had previously provided the club with matchday security to look into the allegations.

“Our gut instinct was that they were trying to downplay it and protect themselves,” she said at the time. “We felt that they wanted to deal with it internally and not let it get out.”

The assault involved the player being pinned to the ground inside the team’s training-ground locker room before what was described as “a graphic sex assault”.

“These were his teammates,” the player’s mother said. “It’s mind-blowing to think that this even happened.”

Police eventually charged two players with sexual assault after the mother called the police. It is unclear whether the Whitecaps reported the incident to the police. “The safety and wellbeing of our players is our top priority and we have been cooperating fully with the [police] investigation,” the Whitecaps said at the time.

Major League Soccer did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

(By Matthew Hall, The Guardian, 01.11.2021)

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