Sinead Farrelly wasn't sure she'd ever come back to soccer.
Farrelly, whose story was at the center of an abuse scandal that rocked women's soccer in the United States, hadn't played for more than six years before re-embracing the sport this spring.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do it unless I was able to get that off my chest and get that story out, because the healing and liberation from that had to occur before I could ever play again,” she said.
Now headed to the Women's World Cup with Ireland, Farrelly's presence at the tournament is a testament to her own resilience and healing. But it also underscores the larger realities of sexual, verbal and emotional abuse in women's soccer and what is being done about it on the global stage.
Allegations of abuse, often sexual, have affected national teams around the world in recent years, including reported cases in Haiti, Venezuela, Zambia, Argentina, Colombia and Afghanistan, where the women's team was disbanded because of Taliban rule.
“The degree of abuse in football, I think, is widely underestimated. And the systems currently are not able to either protect, properly investigate and support ultimately the victims and survivors," FIFPRO General Secretary Jonas Baer-Hoffmann said.
FIFPRO, the global players' union, acknowledges that while important steps have been implemented to protect players, “cases are often only brought to light once they have already reached a tragically high human cost.”
Soccer's global governing body is paying attention. FIFA rolled out a safeguarding program at the under-20 Women’s World Cup in Costa Rica last summer, aimed at keeping participants and fans safe from abuse, exploitation and harassment. Games were staffed by a safeguarding official and all participants were briefed about abuse and how to report it.
FIFA will do much the same at the Women's World Cup that starts next week. Among the programs for players, teams and other stakeholders are pre-tournament educational presentations. Every participating nation must designate a player welfare official, required to complete a safeguarding course. FIFA is also unveiling a training and shadow program to develop competition safeguarding officers.
There will also be confidential ways around the clock to report abuse with what FIFA says is a "victim-centered approach."
During the tournament, FIFA will also implement an initiative designed to protect players from abuse on social media, developed along with FIFPRO. First used at the men's World Cup in Qatar, the service uses artificial intelligence to identify problematic posts, which are then reported. Players and teams also have access to moderation software to hide posts that are abusive, discriminatory, or threatening.
It's clear that such programs are necessary — and that more work needs to be done to protect players.
FIFA banned the president of Haiti's federation, Yves Jean-Bart, after an investigation found him guilty of “having abused his position and sexually harassed and abused various female players, including minors.”
But the 2020 ban was overturned earlier this year by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Jean-Bart maintains his innocence and has said he will reclaim his position. FIFA's appeal of the CAS decision was rejected earlier this month.
Human Rights Watch criticized the CAS decision, saying witnesses were asked to testify without protection of their identities. The organization also called out FIFA for not ensuring that harm reduction practices were in place for survivors and witnesses.
In late 2021, two dozen players from Venezuela accused former coach of sexual harassment and abuse. Kenneth Zseremeta led the women’s national teams at various levels in Venezuela for nine years until he was fired in 2017. An ethics commission found the allegations credible last year and banned Zseremeta from the game for life.
More recently, The Guardian newspaper reported that Zambia's coach, Bruce Mwape, faced allegations of sexual misconduct which were referred to FIFA last year for investigation. Zambia is making its World Cup debut this summer.
Zambia federation president Andrew Kamanga confirmed in a message to The Associated Press that allegations of sexual misconduct were referred to FIFA and Zambian police last year and said it was “an old story.” Kamanga didn’t name any of the people facing allegations of wrongdoing. FIFA doesn't comment on investigations.
Farrelly and teammate Mana Shim detailed allegations of misconduct and sexual coercion by former National Women's Soccer League coach Paul Riley in a story published by The Athletic in 2021. Riley, who denied the allegations, has since been banned from coaching in the league.
Riley wasn't the only coach accused of inappropriate behavior: Five of the league's 10 coaches were either dismissed or resigned in 2021. The scandals spurred a pair of investigations by U.S. Soccer and the NWSL, which both found that emotional abuse and misconduct were systemic throughout the league.
One of the coaches named in the NWSL's report was Vera Pauw, former coach of the Houston Dash, who is now Ireland's coach and will lead Farrelly and her teammates during the World Cup.
Pauw has vehemently denied the allegations in the report, which included weight shaming but no physical abuse or sexual impropriety.
“If there’s one thing that I don’t do, it is body shaming. There is no scale in my dressing room, there’s no fat percentages taken,” she said before a pair of exhibition matches in the United States.
Farrelly, who has dual citizenship, last played in the NWSL in 2015 before signing for Gotham FC in March. An accident forced her retirement from soccer in 2016. But the emotional weight of the abuse — which Farrelly said stretched back to 2011 — needed time to heal, too.
Now she's got a second chance.
“I just don’t want to go on there and fail and make mistakes — that’s just how my brain works. And so I’m really trying to take people’s support and not twist it into pressure. Just be really grateful that it's a cool experience," she said. "I play my best when I’m having fun and so I just need to bring it back to that every time.”