What to do when your star soccer player is accused of rape

The number of footballers involved in cases of sexual violence has sparked debate on how clubs, fans and the media should proceed

Atletico Mineiro
Cuca, in 2021, when he was coach of Atletico Mineiro, before a Copa do Brasil match.Buda Mendes (Getty Images)

“Oh Mason she said no! Oh Mason she said no!” chanted Southampton fans at Old Trafford, Manchester United’s home stadium, a year ago. The 19-year-old local rising star, Mason Greenwood, was suspended and sidelined after his girlfriend, Harriet Robson, shared images of bruises and a bloody lip with her 882,000 followers on Instagram, not to mention the following audio:

-No, I don’t want to have sex!

-I don’t give a fuck what you want!


-Shut up! Stop talking to me. Stop!

-Put your dick away.

-I’m going to fuck you, you twat.

-I don’t want to have sex with you.

-I don’t care if you want to have sex with me. Do you hear me?

-Why are you doing this to me?

-Because I asked you politely and you wouldn’t do it. What do you want me to do?

-Go and fuck someone else.

-But I want to have sex. Push me again and watch what happens to you.

Greenwood was thrown off the Manchester United team. The England coach threw him off the national team. Nike, his sponsor, withdrew its support. The case went to court. A year later, it folded. The prosecution explained that the withdrawal of witnesses and the lack of evidence prevented the investigation from going further and the player was cleared of the charges. Not guilty, but not innocent either. Manchester United do not know what to do next. Similarly, neither does Celta Vigo with its player Santi Mina. Nor Pumas of Mexico with Dani Alves. Nor Boca Juniors with several players from their team. Nor Manchester City with Benjamin Mendy. Nor Real Betis with Rubén Castro. Nor Juventus when a woman accused Cristiano Ronaldo of having raped her in a hotel in Las Vegas and it later emerged that the player had paid her $300,000 to withdraw the complaint. An endless list of scandals related to male chauvinism that open multiple debates. How should clubs act? Why are there so many cases among soccer players? Should they be out of the game for life or reinstated? And finally, what should be done to prevent this type of crime from happening?

“The first thing clubs should do is fight machismo,” says Clara Serra, professor at the Center for Theoretical Research, Gender and Sexuality at Barcelona University. “They should get involved in this fundamental issue that can’t be solved by condemning a specific person. They should get involved in it as a social problem and collaborate in combating machismo, inequality and the isolated situations these women find themselves in. And if there is machismo in soccer, which there clearly is, the first thing they have to do is to involve the institution, the team and the players in public campaigns that involve the club’s culture fighting against machismo.”

Feminism is an alien concept in the value campaigns of the professional soccer industry. But there are clubs that, due to their progressive popular tradition, do incorporate it, which is the case of Corinthians in Brazil. Corinthians is a team that associates itself with democratic values thanks to committed footballers such as Socrates who, in the midst of the military dictatorship in the 1980s, took advantage of his privileged position to demand elections. In the 1980s, cases of sexual violence in soccer were as common as they are now. Three players from the Brazilian club Grêmio de Porto Alegre were accused in 1987 of raping a 13-year-old fan in a hotel in Switzerland. They were held in custody for a month, but then returned to Brazil as heroes. The press said that the victim had left the hotel “happy,” despite the fact that she subsequently tried to commit suicide on account of the trauma. The three footballers eventually paid a fine and moved on, with one ending up having a successful coaching career. Alexi Stival, Cuca, coached several Brazilian teams and Corinthians hired him a few months ago. Pressure from fans and especially from the club’s women’s team forced the board to rectify the situation and sack him a few days later. Protests from Manchester United’s women’s team are one of the main reasons preventing the club from reinstating Greenwood.

Corinthinas response regarding Cuca, or Pumas regarding Alves — in fact the response of most clubs in these circumstances — is to end the player’s contract to avoid any damage to the club’s reputation. However, experts believe that such a response is not entirely effective if not accompanied by more far-reaching strategies. “It is important to bring a feminist perspective that departs from sensationalism and punitive action,” says the writer and former vice-president of the Equality Commission in Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s socialist government prior to the July 23 elections, Mar García Puig. “On the one hand there has to be a presumption of innocence and we must avoid a public lynching. On the other hand, it is a very sensitive issue and these are figures that set an example. We must allow justice to take its course and at the same time show our objection to sexual violence. We must ask ourselves what models of masculinity soccer represents and, of course, we must also avoid exonerating our idol of responsibility and blaming and silencing women.”

According to Serra, “You can expel a specific individual and continue with a macho culture and sexual abuse in a soccer club. This problem should not be tackled from a punitive point of view, but by getting to the roots of our society, in sport and especially in soccer.”

The difficulties experienced by the victims as they go through the long, hard judicial process also do not help to create a roadmap. The three most controversial cases of footballers involved in sexual violence in the U.K. have been closed in recent weeks. In some instances, this has been due to the withdrawal of witness accounts as in the case of Greenwood; in others it has been due to the lack of conclusive evidence and also due to charges being dropped. The British justice system has been forced to drop charges against the Welsh legend Ryan Giggs, for example, because the complainant would not testify further. Manchester City player Benjamin Mendy, who has been reported by up to 13 women for rape and assault, has also been declared “not guilty” due to lack of evidence. Real Madrid star Vinícius Jr came out in strong support of Mendy despite the prosecution describing in detail in court how the Frenchman would not accept “no” when he wanted to have sex.

“Rubén Castro alé, Rubén Castro alé, it wasn’t your fault, she was a whore, you did good.” This was how some Betis fans made their position clear in 2015 when their striker was accused of crimes of abuse and threats by his ex-girlfriend. The club loaned Castro to Guizhou Zhicheng in China and the justice system ended up acquitting him on inconsistent evidence. The sports press describes players’ experiences of being caught up in a long judicial process then not charged as “hell.” There has to be a public denunciation of the allegations against them or the waiver of financial compensation by the victim for them to be believed in an environment of apparent impunity for people with legions of fans behind them. Clubs do not take a chance on their players’ social rehabilitation and sponsors do not return either. “As far as I’m concerned, getting rid of the player does not excuse the club if they do not make respect for women one of their hallmarks. Expelling players who are acquitted in court is lame if it is not accompanied by a fight against machismo,” says Serra.

If the clubs choose to wash their hands of the player, there can be a backlash from fans. “To all those who advocate keeping the player in prison without trial, here’s an example,” writes @cantabron38 in one of the more than 200 comments on a sports newspaper story about the latest development in the Alves case. “You enter an elevator alone. A woman enters, presses the emergency button, tears her clothes and starts screaming for you not to touch her. You freeze, the door opens and the neighbors see her screaming. It doesn’t matter what you say, you would go to jail. You’re defenseless.”

“This is a debate that we can no longer ignore as a society,” says Madrid politician Manuela Bergerot, who wrote a unique text in 2020 mourning the death of Diego Maradona despite criticism from fellow feminists. “It is about male discontent that manifests itself very strongly in young men who feel that there is nothing to challenge them, and that there is nothing to challenge LGBTQI+ people or women. This is a problem because in the end the only ones who address that discontent are those on the extreme right from very reactionary and harmful positions. We on the left should be able to understand that discontent to avoid society becoming polarized, and also to continue advancing feminism, which sets us free. It is clear that when an idol is accused of sexual violence, it churns things up. I believe that one cannot deny the art or the cultural product of the person in question. I’m not going to stop liking Woody Allen’s movies and Maradona’s goals will continue to be part of my emotional upbringing.”

The illustrious former teammate of Diego Maradona, Jorge Valdano, pitches in with: “Players have to assume that when they sign a contract they are committed to the values of the club that hires them and that a mistake of this type is incompatible. But let’s imagine that they were musicians rather than soccer players. I don’t think that taking away the musician’s guitar is the best way to contribute to the reintegration of a young man who has destroyed his own life.”

In other words, awareness, collective education, justice and reinsertion as a right in the face of populist punitive action is preferable to an instruction manual whose only course of action is the expulsion of the offender to protect the reputation of a business soiled by machismo.

“If we send a message that a sex offender is not eligible for reinsertion, we are sending a very pessimistic message to women,” says García Puig. “In a process in which there is real reparation for the victim, with recognition of the pain caused, but with public figures demonstrating to society that rehabilitation is possible, reintegration is not only desirable but offers hope.”

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