Fourteen ex-players claim that Canada Soccer and the Vancouver Whitecaps failed to protect youth team members from abuse and inappropriate behavior by a former coach
New details have emerged of a “toxic and confusing” environment inside top Canadian women’s soccer teams as a player and a former team manager have come forward to describe “sexual targeting” and inappropriate text messages with one player left “shattered” after a private meeting with a coach.
The latest claims come after the Guardian’s report last week where a former player described a the actions of a top coach – in charge of a national youth team and the Vancouver Whitecaps women’s team – as “the sickest thing”.
Canada Soccer and the Vancouver Whitecaps have yet to contact the players or team manager about their claims – that date from 2008 – while FIFPro, the global representative body for footballers, has weighed into the issue and called for the allegations to be investigated “in full”.
Canada Soccer have declined multiple requests from the Guardian for an official to comment on the allegations. In a club statement, the Whitecaps said: “With respect to the matters raised regarding the Whitecaps Women’s team in 2008: Complaints regarding behaviour within the program were brought forward to senior club management at that time. The club immediately engaged an independent ombudsperson, a leading expert in workplace safety and respected lawyer who specializes in this field, to do a thorough and impartial investigation into the complaints.
“As part of her investigation, the Ombudsperson had access to players and staff to conduct confidential interviews and gather information on an anonymous basis. Upon conclusion of the investigation, while the ombudsperson had no recommendations for further action, the club and coach parted ways.”
Equally important, and still unanswered, is how a coach investigated for alleged inappropriate behavior was able to take up a new position with a Vancouver club coaching young women immediately after he parted ways with Canada Soccer and the Whitecaps in 2008.
“I watched what was a very professional environment created by the previous coach change into something extremely toxic and confusing,” said Eden Hingwing, who played under coach Bob Birarda for both the Canada women’s Under-20 international team and the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2008.
“One of the girls showed me a text message from him and I was like, ‘What the heck?’ He would constantly want to meet with girls one-on-one. The previous coach never asked about your love life or made sexual remarks or a sexual joke. Those boundaries became very confusing.”
Birarda has been identified as the coach in the spotlight by former players, a team manager, and the Vancouver club from which he is is currently suspended pending an internal investigation. Birarda did not respond to multiple requests from the Guardian for an interview. He has not been charged with any crimes by police.
“Leading up to the U-20 World Cup in 2008 I really started dreading playing for him and I hated how I felt on that team,” recalled Hingwing. “After that I never wanted to talk about being a national team player. It was really sad because it was everything I ever dreamed of. The shame of being part of it made me feel almost like an accomplice, knowing what I knew and what I saw and him still being able to coach today.”
Diane Voice was the highly respected team manager for the Whitecaps women’s team from 2001 until 2012 and is well-known as a coach and administrator in British Columbia. Voice said that she reported Birarda to the Whitecaps management on at least three occasions after she saw “very worrisome warning signs”.
“You do pick up the little nuances that are happening and I did bring that to the attention of the club,” Voice said. “We had assistant coaches who were concerned. There was something wrong here.”
Voice said she supported the former players’ recent accounts as reported by the Guardian and in two blogs posted online: “Without question, none of these girls were given to exaggeration or lies.”
“One young lady came up to me before practice one day and was just shattered,” Voice said. “I phoned the office and said we have a major problem right now. She was in tears, she was shaking, she was crying, she could barely talk. The minute I touched her shoulder she broke down in tears, bawling. Slowly the story came out. She felt coerced. She felt bullied. She felt picked on. She felt that he was taking things out on her. Nobody ever called me back to come down to the office and detail more.”
Some players in the Whitecaps women’s program who were from outside the Vancouver area were provided accommodation in an apartment complex by the club. Birarda, even though he lived in the area, was also given an apartment in the building with the players.
“When he told me I could reach him at the apartment I said, ‘What apartment – I thought you lived in a house’,” said Voice. “I called the office immediately and said you can’t give him an apartment where the girls are. There are so many warning signs. So many signals that are wrong. You can’t do that. [The club said] said ‘Europeans do it. Other teams do it.’”
The Whitecaps, whose men’s section plays in Major League Soccer, holds a storied position in Canadian sports. Longtime club president Bob Lenarduzzi is held in high regard for his record as a player and coach and for his later role as an administrator.
The club’s owners include basketball legend Steve Nash and Jeff Mallett, a former president of internet company Yahoo! who also owns stakes in the San Francisco Giants and Derby County Football Club in England. Co-owner Steve Luczo is a part owner of the Boston Celtics NBA team. The Whitecaps did not respond to a request to speak with club president Bob Lenarduzzi about the allegations.
Diane Voice said that, although she spent time with the players almost every day during her tenure with the women’s team, she was not told of any inappropriate sexual behavior, “until recently”.
“I did hear there were inappropriate sexual texts between [a player] and the coach. The person who had the texts in hand didn’t want to get involved at that time and wouldn’t give them to me. It was another player’s mum. To my knowledge, it didn’t go forward. It may have. But I didn’t hear that it did.”
Voice, like the players, had one question when she learned earlier this year that Birarda was coaching young women at Coastal FC, a prominent soccer club in British Columbia: “How was he still coaching?”
Coastal FC suspended Birarda, who had been employed by the club for several years, when allegations against him went public. Executive director Chris Murphy said Birarda had been suspended pending an internal investigation. He confirmed no one from Canada Soccer or the Vancouver Whitecaps had informed the club of the nature of Birarda’s departure from their organizations at the time of his original employment.
“That is my understanding although I was not part of the hiring process at that time,” Murphy said. “[The hiring process] certainly included background checks, criminal records checks, and reference checks. We’re feeling a little caught out on this as well. They are serious allegations and this is the first we are hearing of them.”
FIFPro, the Amsterdam-based umbrella organization for players’ unions around the world, said football authorities had a duty of care to the game’s most vulnerable participants: young players.
“We expect allegations of abuse to be investigated in full and individuals facing serious allegations to be suspended,” FIFPro spokesperson Andrew Orsatti said. “Authorities must also do everything they can to protect the players who have had the courage to bring their suffering into the public domain.”
Hingwing, who helped organize a statement signed by 13 former players that outlined the allegations, said she had left soccer behind after her experience with the Canada national team and the Whitecaps. After reconnecting with ex-teammates years later she realized she was not the only former player who questioned the events of 2008.
“I knew girls that were sexually targeted and even though it had been ten years since I had spoken to a lot of them I needed to see if they would be willing to put their names on a statement,” she said.
“I thought that with [Canada women’s soccer icon] Andrea Neil’s statement [of support], and [former player] Ciara McCormack’s statement [describing similar incidents] I thought the organizations would call me to say they are doing an investigation and who should they contact. I could then provide them with this list of names. But I haven’t heard from them at all.”
A statement from Canada Soccer sent to the Guardian said, in part: “In 2008, Canada Soccer immediately responded to the concerns raised by participating in a thorough review with an independent Ombudsperson in association with the Vancouver Whitecaps. Upon conclusion of the investigation, the coach ceased to have any involvement with the National Team Program and the Ombudsperson had no recommendations for further action.”
Said Eden Hingwing: “None of us were ever interviewed as part of this investigation into [Birarda’s] behavior. The actions they took with the limited information they did have in 2008 weren’t good enough because he is still able to coach.”
Diane Voice said she had notified the president of a club looking to hire Birarda after he left Canada Soccer and Vancouver Whitecaps of her concerns but was ignored.
“When I heard that he had been suspended by Coastal FC I thought ‘Oh, my God, that’s the same club. He has been there all along’,” she said. I would have thought that Canada Soccer and the Whitecaps would inform his new employer of the nature of his dismissal. I was sure he wouldn’t be on the pitch again. It should have been an outcome that he could not coach girls again. It should have been a given. I honestly don’t know why they didn’t.”