With the Women’s World Cup only months away, soccer in Canada has been jolted by allegations of abuse, manipulation and inappropriate behavior by an elite coach toward players involved with a junior national team and one of the country’s most prominent professional clubs.
The allegations, made by at least 14 former high-level players, also implicate Canada Soccer, the sport’s national governing body, and the Vancouver Whitecaps of Major League Soccer in failing to protect players from the abusive behavior of coaches. One former Whitecaps player described the events that took place in 2008 to the Guardian as “the most disgusting thing that a coach can ever do”.
Although the alleged events took place 11 years ago, the claims were publicly put forth in a blog post by Canadian-born former Irish international Ciara McCormack in February. McCormack, who played collegiately at Yale University before an extensive professional career in Canada, Denmark, Norway, the United States and Australia, had three stints over four seasons with Vancouver Whitecaps Women, the women’s section of the homonymous MLS club which played in the USL W-League until folding in 2012.
McCormack, now 39, detailed in her post what she later described to the Guardian as “systemic abuse” within the Whitecaps system that spilled over to the Canada women’s youth teams. Her claims were subsequently backed by 13 former Under-20 Canada internationals who released an online statement corroborating and expanding on McCormack’s recollection of events from that time.
The former U-20 national team players have claimed the head coach:
- rubbed a player’s thigh while in a car
- called a player he had cut from a team starting line-up to his hotel room for a closed-door one-on-one meeting and asked the player: “What are you going to do about it?”
- sent sexually suggestive text messages to players and asked for one-on-one meetings in coffee shops and at his apartment
- told a player during a half-time talk how he thought her body looked in a wet white team jersey and added that he purposely decided the team would wear white shirts on a rainy day
The players, McCormack and sections of the media in Canada have identified the coach as Bob Birarda, who led Canada’s U-20 national team and the Vancouver Whitecaps women’s team in 2008. Birarda left both organizations in late 2008, just weeks before the national side he coached was due to take part in the U-20 Women’s World Cup in Chile.
The Guardian has confirmed the authenticity of the players’ statement. Birarda did not respond to a request for an interview from The Guardian. No criminal charges have been laid against him.
“I hated that what I saw as earning a starting position on that team was to develop a really close relationship with him off the field,” said Eden Hingwing, one of the players who co-signed the statement, who quit the team in September 2008, two months before the U-20 Women’s World Cup. “That is what I saw as what was required [for success]. I lost my passion for the game. I didn’t want to be part of it.”
Just as disturbing as the original allegations, according to the players, is that Birarda was permitted by Canada Soccer to coach elite girls’ teams until as recently as earlier this year, when McCormack’s post drew local attention to his ongoing employment.
Following an internal investigation by a lawyer in 2008, Birarda’s services to Canada Soccer and the Whitecaps were abruptly terminated only six weeks out from the U-20 Women’s World Cup, with each departure characterized as a “mutual decision” in separate press releases. However, players from the teams say few of them were interviewed at the time and the issue was not taken seriously by Canada Soccer or the Whitecaps, including club president and national soccer icon Bob Lenarduzzi.
The discovery that Birarda had continued to coach women’s junior soccer in the Vancouver area after his split from the national team and the Whitecaps was a shock to McCormack, who told the Guardian: “It blew my mind.”
“There was anger,” she said. “The audacity of him and the organizations [believing] he would just step out front and center at a high level of coaching locally.”
It was understood by some that key to the issue was a recommendation by the 2008 investigator that Birarda should never coach again. However, this appears to have been ignored by Canada Soccer and the Whitecaps, neither of which responded to questions from the Guardian about the alleged incidents and what current processes are in place to protect players.
“That makes you feel like nothing, like tiny specks with no power or control,” McCormack said. “People can just act in any way that they want to. We were told he wouldn’t coach again and then two months later he was coaching teenage girls again. It is mind-blowing.”
At the time of the incidents, Birarda coached both the U-20 national women’s team and the Vancouver Whitecaps women’s team. Both sides were based in Vancouver. Playing for the Whitecaps at the time was considered the natural pathway to representing Canada.
“We trained together, we were a mixed group and everybody knew each other,” said McCormack, who also documented several meetings and email exchanges with Lenarduzzi, the Vancouver Whitecaps’ president, over her concerns which she claims were not adequately addressed.
“This is the national team, it is the highest level, and you think you are safe,” McCormack said. “It can’t be like the Catholic Church where you get rid of them out of your organization and they carry on somewhere else. There has to be a system in place. There has to be some sort of way of tracking coach misconduct. There should be an outside organization and laws changed and duty of care.”
Andrea Neil, an icon of women’s soccer in Canada who represented her country 132 times and played in four World Cups, said in a statement that she was “puzzled” how Birarda was released from his contracts with Canada and the Whitecaps in 2008 under a pretense of mutual consent. She said that the investigator told her at the time that “she would be informing the organizations that the staff member at the center of the investigation should avoid future roles such as coaching.”
Yet still, Birarda was able to take up a high-level position coaching young women with a prominent Vancouver-area team.
“What happened in 2008 was not right,” Neil said. “People got emotionally hurt and all of us have a responsibility to do something about that.”
The 2008 series of incidents was not the last time a Vancouver Whitecaps coach has been accused of inappropriate behavior or the club has been accused of inadequately responding to abuse of players.
In 2011, a female player was told to fly to Los Angeles by a male Whitecaps coach and upon arrival was told the club had only reserved one hotel room that she would have to share with the coach. The player protested but was told there was no other option. It was later revealed to the player by other trialists that the game had been canceled days earlier and was never going to take place.
In 2017, a male youth team player was allegedly sexually assaulted by two teammates in a locker room. The player’s mother said she was discouraged by club officials from reporting the incident to police, doing so after the club suggested calling in a private investigator or a part-time employee who performed game security at Whitecaps matches.
“Everything is inadequate,” McCormack said. “I have little nieces and friends with little kids and if any of them have a dream to represent Canada, I hope they don’t go through what we went through. It is the sickest thing. We were kids with a dream. We had given up everything. We had coaches who abused that purity and passion against us to further their own agenda, whatever that was. That is the most disgusting thing that a coach can ever do.”
McCormack believes Birarda’s ongoing presence within the sport – he has been “suspended” pending an investigation by his current employer according to reports – is an indictment on how issues of abuse are ignored at the highest level.
“Canada Soccer is still implicated in this, absolutely,” McCormack said. “He was a coach employed by them and they are the ones in charge of coaching certifications. They say there’s an ‘investigation’ but an investigation could be me and you going out for a coffee to discuss it. There are no parameters. He could be back coaching tomorrow.”
Hingwing said the failure by Canada Soccer and the Whitecaps to properly address the issue put other young players at risk: “It seems like they are more interested in protecting themselves rather than taking accountability and protecting players. My fear is that Bob Birarda is just one case. Based on how they have dealt with this, how many other Bobs are out there?”
Added McCormack: “Enough people have come forward with stories that it is pretty clear in the way that he behaved. It is a pretty scary thought that someone like him would be free and still be on the field if we hadn’t spoken out.”