Football is no stranger to scandal, but the scale of the sex abuse allegations now circling the beautiful game is something new. Over 350 incidences of sexual abuse have been reported in football’s sprawling academy system. Crewe Alexandra was the focal point of the initial allegations, but the net has widened rapidly – taking in the likes of Chelsea, Newcastle and now QPR. It’s no exaggeration to compare this scandal to Operation Yewtree. But it’s important, too, that the Football Association, which is conducting the probe into what has happened, learns its lessons from Yewtree.
So far, the football world is making the right noises about facing up to what has happened. Wayne Rooney has repeated the calls by the NSPCC and FA urging players to ‘speak out’. And aside from a certain former darts player, most commentators seem to share in the importance of alleged victims speaking up. But there remains the danger that the FA will make this a probe into football clubs, rather than about the prospect that there could have been a systematic failure by the FA itself to root out the abuse. Operation Yewtree was arguably stymied for years by the BBC’s failure to self-scrutinise; there’s a danger that the FA could follow in the Beeb’s footsteps, and try and pass the buck. The FA’s statement on the terms of reference on the investigation into sexual abuse makes it clear that both ‘the FA and clubs’ are included in the inquiry’s remit. It’s vital that the probe sticks to this brief and doesn’t confine itself to either clubs, or the historic leadership of the FA, but considers the FA’s role right up to the present day.
All of this self-reflection will be painful for the FA, which has, for some years now, been able to paint itself as a ‘holier than thou’ figure in the dubious and murky world of modern football. Compared to the likes of Sepp Blatter and Fifa, it’s not hard to be something of a moral arbiter. Piggybacking on the superb work of British journalists exposing FIFA corruption and human rights abuses in the game, the FA has revelled in its anti-FIFA, anti-UEFA stance. But it’s vital that this period of deflection ends now. The consequences of not doing so are too serious to think about.
In the months to come, the FA will come under scrutiny for how long it has taken these allegations to emerge. Individual clubs may shoulder the majority of the blame. But it’s possible to argue that there has been a structural failing in the FA’s advocacy for young players. Many of these rumours are hardly new. Take the allegations this week by Harry Redknapp, the former Tottenham and West Ham manager, who said rumours about Bob Higgins, a Southampton coach in the 1980s accused of sexual abuse but still working in the game, had been ‘rife’ while he was at the club. Just as with Jimmy Savile, where rumours were not acted upon, and many children suffered as a result, the FA is implicated, if not in an actual cover-up, then in a systematic failure to address the most serious issue in British footballing history.
The FA is already under pressure from the Euro 2016 debacle, followed by the self-inflicted humiliation of dismissing Sam Allardyce. These incidents have made this year something of a calamity for the FA. But if this investigation isn’t conducted properly, things could get a lot worse for the FA.