Fifa backs executives after failure to tell players about sexually abusive coach

Victor Montagliani and Peter Montopoli were at Canada Soccer when the organization failed to tell players the real reason why now-convicted sex offender Bob Birada left in 2008

Fifa has backed senior officials within its organization after a failure to tell players and the public the real reason why now-convicted sex offender and former national team coach Bob Birada left Canada Soccer in 2008.

The officials – Victor Montagliani, the president of Concacaf and a Fifa vice-president, and Peter Montopoli, the chief operating officer for Canada for the 2026 World Cup – were senior Canada Soccer officials with central roles in Birarda’s exit from his job as Canada’s U-20 women’s national team coach after he was found to have acted inappropriately with his own players.

Fifa’s support for its officials comes as women’s soccer legend and Canada Sports Hall of Famer Andrea Neil says “real leadership” from administrators cannot exist without accountability.

“[Montopoli and Montagliani] may not be in Canada Soccer’s jurisdiction [at present] but Canada Soccer could still take a stance on what happened,” Neil said. “They could still acknowledge that the leaders of the past chose to protect their self-interest and reputation and that of Bob Birarda, over the safety and well-being of their players. Not just the players that he was directly influencing at the time but the ones Birarda went on to coach afterwards.”

In early 2022, Birarda pleaded guilty in a Vancouver court to three counts of sexual assault and one count of sexual touching that occurred during his coaching career. On Wednesday he was sentenced to 16 months in jail and eight months under conditions including house arrest. In 2008, complaints were made by members of the Canadian women’s U-20 team and Vancouver Whitecaps women’s team about Birarda’s behavior. Birarda held head coach roles with the teams.

Following an internal investigation into the allegations – which, according to one former Canada Soccer executive, concluded that Birarda had sent unwelcome texts with sexual overtones to some of his players – the organization announced the coach’s departure in 2008. Canada Soccer said his exit was by a “mutual parting of ways” and, in a public statement, wished him well for the future. Despite the allegations against him Birarda continued to coach girls and young women in the community for over a decade after his departure from Canada Soccer.

The roles of Montagliani as an executive committee member with responsibility for national teams and Montopoli as Canada Soccer General Secretary in Birarda’s exit were laid out in the McLaren Report, a 125-page investigation by legal firm McLaren Global Sports Solutions published in July 2022. The report confirmed earlier reporting by the Guardian that found Canada Soccer did not follow its own policies about harassment and abuse when Birarda’s behavior became known.

The report revealed there was “no acknowledgment of Birarda’s harassment … and no mention of any decision to terminate Birarda” in scripted notes given to Montagliani for a meeting with players that Birada was leaving the national program prior to the Canadian team taking part in the 2008 U-20 World Cup. McLaren said Birarda’s departure “was characterized [by Canada Soccer] as ‘a mutual decision to part ways’ in scripted comments and generic statements issued to the general public.”

According to McLaren investigators, Montopoli failed as recently as 2021 – just weeks before leaving Canada Soccer to take up a top role with the 2026 World Cup – to accurately describe to Fifa’s Ethics Committee how Canada Soccer handled Birarda’s exit. Documents seen by investigators showed that Montopoli wrote to the Ethics Committee saying that “following proper guidance from legal counsel, [we] informed the news media and the public of the termination of Mr Birarda.”

McLaren, however, reported Montopoli “mischaracterized Birarda’s departure from [Canada Soccer] which was communicated as a ‘mutual parting of ways’ – not a termination – according to the joint media statement at the time [of Birarda’s departure]. Players were frustrated and confused as to how Birarda’s departure was communicated as indicated.”

The McLaren report added: “Canada Soccer misled players and obfuscated the true reason for his departure… Moreover, [Canada Soccer’s] failure to terminate Birarda and impose disciplinary sanctions afforded him the opportunity to continue coaching, putting other players at potential risk.”

The McLaren report said that Canada Soccer’s strategy for inaccurately announcing the reasons for Birarda’s departure to players and the public was led, according to one unnamed executive, by legal advice “to protect the organization”.

According to the report, while being fully aware of Birarda’s behavior, Montagliani addressed players to announce Birarda was to be replaced as coach shortly before the 2008 U-20 women’s World Cup. The report says Montagliani was provided with scripted remarks announcing the coach’s departure to the players that included the statement: “Many of you are aware of some of the challenges that Mr Birarda has been dealing with, including his health and limited time for his own personal obligations. Accordingly, and effective immediately, Mr Birarda will no longer be the Head Coach of Women’s U-20 National Team. It is a mutual decision to part ways…”

In a statement to the Vancouver Sun in October 2008, Canada Soccer said that “[Birarda’s] departure was a mutual decision which the association and Mr Birarda agreed was in the best interest of both parties.” As the McLaren report notes: “This statement did not acknowledge any of the harassment allegations as the reason for Birarda’s dismissal.” This meant the public remained unaware of the allegations against Birarda.

Concacaf, of which Montagliani is currently president, provided a written statement to the Guardian. Concacaf said Montagliani, a former Canada Soccer executive and vice-president for national teams “does not recall ever receiving any speaking notes” and that the McLaren report “does not state that he said them.” The Concacaf statement added that “[Montagliani] was asked by the President of [Canada Soccer] to attend that meeting on behalf of the federation and the executive committee, of which he was one of eight members, because the players were based at a training camp in his home city, Vancouver.”

Asked to clarify why Montagliani did not disclose the correct reasons for Birarda’s departure and why that departure was framed as “mutual agreement”, the spokesperson said, “the subsequent handling of Mr Birarda’s departure, including the communications, was led by Canada Soccer’s legal counsel.”

Fifa did not respond to questions about processes in place for Montopoli misrepresenting an event to its Ethics Committee. Nor did Fifa answer questions requesting whether the organization had performed due diligence in hiring Montopoli for his role with the 2026 World Cup.

In an email to the Guardian, a Fifa spokesman defended Montagliani and Montopoli’s appearance in the McLaren Report: “It is our understanding from the report that, as one member of an eight strong executive committee, upon being made aware of allegations of inappropriate text messages between coach (Mr Birarda) and players, Mr Montagliani and the other committee members voted to suspend the coach, appoint an independent lawyer to investigate the allegations and, following a summary of the findings, to terminate the coach’s employment. The report also confirmed that Canada Soccer acted in good faith and that there was no evidence of a cover up.”

The Guardian could not reach Montopoli for comment.

Fifa’s support for Montagliani and Montopoli comes as its chief women’s football officer Sarai Bareman told the Guardian that the organization has “a zero-tolerance policy around this type of stuff”. It also coincides with the release of the Yates report, which found widespread abuse in the US National Women’s Soccer League. Both Canada Soccer and the United States Soccer Federation are members of the Concacaf federation of which Montagliani is president.

Canada Soccer officials Peter Montopoli, left, and Victor Montagliani, right, stand with Patrice Bernier before a 2014 friendly between Canada and Jamaica at Toronto’s BMO Field.
Canada Soccer officials Peter Montopoli, left, and Victor Montagliani, right, stand with Patrice Bernier before a 2014 friendly between Canada and Jamaica at Toronto’s BMO Field. Photograph: Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Commissioned by Canada Soccer in 2021 and released in July, the McLaren Report recommended Canada Soccer be “willing to understand and grasp the severity of the trauma that the 2008 U-20 WNT players experienced at the hands of Birarda” and that “Canada Soccer needs to commit to reconciling the past if it wants to move forward positively”.

However reconciliation seems unlikely with no accountability at the top, says women’s soccer pioneer Andrea Neil.

“This latest round of investigations is just more of the same because you’re not getting to the core of what this is about,” says Neil, who played 132 times for the Canadian national team from 1991 to 2007. “It doesn’t matter how robust your procedures, or your administrative guide is on paper. It was robust back then [in 2008] and they chose not to follow it.

“It ultimately comes down to how a person thinks, feels, and chooses to behave in a leadership role. A big part of this is understanding that each person is responsible, and therefore, accountable for their actions and how these actions impact other people. Real leadership is having the courage to stand up and say, ‘I erred, I dropped the ball, I understand now how I needed to choose differently and in what way, and I am really, really, sorry.’

“Responsibility, ownership, trust, support, empathy: these are all basic core elements of what ethical leadership is all about. If you’re asking what you must do in any situation, you’re not leading. You’re just managing a situation.”

Neil said Canada Soccer should apologize for how it handled allegations of abuse by Birarda but any apology had to be “genuinely, and appropriately, from the heart” not part of a public relations exercise.

“Regardless of how that might or might not expose them from a legal standpoint,” she said. “You can see the responses coming from them and how they are straight out of a guidebook on crisis management intended to repair their institutional reputation. They don’t seem to realize that without care, support, and empathy, what they are really doing is weakening their position and destroying their credibility. They failed to support and protect the people they had a duty to care for back then and they seem unwilling to accept accountability for it now.”

The consultancy organization recently hired by Canada Soccer to revamp its approach to athlete protection also called for accountability but said its own priority was to “look to the future”. Ilan Yampolsky, co-founder of ITP Sport, said accountability for any former Canada Soccer executives was dependent on whose jurisdiction they now fall under.

“If Canada Soccer has the jurisdiction to act upon the confirmed information from an investigator then they should do so,” Yampolsky said. “If there were still individuals in their organization that this report clearly indicated gross negligence and misconduct then, yes, they have to take action.”

Yamplosky said an important step forward in overhauling how organizations handle abuse is recognizing that many sports governing bodies are incapable of fixing systemic issues and need a total overhaul.

“I think there are many people that made bad decisions - or not the right decisions - because they didn’t have the knowledge,” Yamplosky said. “Obviously, if there were some individuals where you can find gross misconduct they should be fired but firing Ron and replacing Rob with Bob is not going to change anything. Should the director of the board be fired? We need to make sure there is a change in the system. Our job is to look into the future and see how it can improve.”

“If you have done something in the past and it is proven then, yes, you have to go. But we have to concentrate our resources on breaking the chain and educating new coaches, athletes, parents, about what is the right thing to do and how to act on it when it happens.”

Yamplosky co-leads ITP Sport with former Olympic skier Alison Forsyth – an abuse survivor who alleges she was sexually abused by Alpine Canada coach Bertrand Charest in the 1990s (in 2017, Charest was convicted of abusing nine of the girls he instructed). ITP Sport has been used by many Canadian sports organizations seeking to review management of abuse in sport. Forysth said that failure to educate athletes and coaches on what is acceptable behavior perpetuates cycles of abuse.

“It is important that we recognize a cultural legacy in sports where players who were abused do not recognize they were abused and they reperpetrate the abuse that they suffered when they become coaches,” Forsyth said. “We have to respect that education does work. There can be no personal favorites, there are no personal bonds, there is no driving 16-year old athletes around any more. Everyone needs to shift to a new behavior in sport.”

Canada Soccer declined a request from the Guardian for an interview with its general secretary, Earl Cochrane, who was appointed to succeed Montopoli in the role in July.

Neil said the door remains open for organizations like Fifa and Canada Soccer to demonstrate strong leadership and accountability but is pessimistic of meaningful change.

“Ultimately, I didn’t see any accountability back then, and I’m not seeing any now,” she said. “What I’ve observed is an organization trying to find the fastest way to make a problem go away. This is definitely an institutional pattern of behavior that I witnessed a lot during my career.

“Before they write new policies, they need to look at why their old policies were so easily ignored or why they chose to remain silent and allow a coach, who was accused of abusing his players, to move on to a new coaching environment. That sort of honest looking in the mirror isn’t easy but they owe an explanation to themselves, the Canadian soccer community, and most of all the people who were harmed throughout all of this.”


Matthew Hall

The GuardianTramp

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