TW // Sexual violence/ rape / domestic violence / racism

The transactional relationship between fans and footballers is a strange one. We give them adoration, support and help shape their careers. In return, we get joy from both watching them play and the success that they bring to the clubs we support, or countries. As a Chelsea fan, I can’t begin to tell you how much more enjoyable my formative teenage years were because of someone like Didier Drogba. The trophies he brought to Chelsea meant that I was a happier fan and following football was more entertaining, as it was for all Chelsea fans when he was at the club. The nature of this relationship means that we can often see footballers through a narrowed lens, one that only wants to view them by how they deliver on the pitch. The issue is when this leads to us excusing their actions off it.

In recent weeks we have seen some shocking news leaked about two different premier league footballers. On the 30th of January videos, photos and voice recordings were released, all of which seem to suggest that Mason Greenwood had potentially abused and raped his former partner. Greenwood is currently contracted to Man United but has since been suspended following the recent allegations. West Ham player Kurt Zouma has also recently come under fire after his brother posted a video to his Snapchat showing Zouma abusing their family cat. While the actions of both men have been widely condemned by the footballing public you would be amiss to think that fans are consistent in holding all players to account for their past actions.

Football is a sport that both tolerates and protects disgusting people. We more often than not know the abhorrent things certain players have done but we choose to put it on the periphery. To stay ignorant in the stead of footballing idolization, allowing players to wash their hands clear of past offences in lieu of footballing brilliance. What makes matters worse is that footballers don’t just distance themselves from their crimes but by and large don’t even face a justifiable punishment for them. Just as all elites can within society, they have the ability to use their power, fame and wealth to alleviate any just retribution they might face for their past actions. This reality should put the ownness even more so on the footballing public to make sure that players don’t get to easily detach themselves from their crimes. 

Kingsley Coman and Jerome Boateng have both been convicted of domestic abuse. Ask most fans about either and they’ll probably point to their successful careers at Bayern, or the winning champions league goal Coman scored in 2020. Luis Suarez was found guilty by the FA of publicly racially abusing Patrice Evra in 2011. Never remembered as a racist, rather as troubled, difficult, someone with a “tricky” personality. Karim Benzema has been found guilty of attempting to extort former teammate Mathew Valbuena. Again, not defined by his past offences rather his goalscoring record. 

While there are many players in the game who have been convicted of crimes or have serious allegations against them, perhaps the highest-profile of all is Cristiano Ronaldo. In 2009 Ronaldo was accused of raping Kathryn Mayorga, she reported the incident to the police the night it happened but decided to not go through with the charge in a criminal court as she did not feel ready to do so at the time. I would urge anyone who considers themselves a fan of Ronaldo to read the article in Der Spiegel covering the incident in detail. Ronaldo paid Mayorga a sum of 375,000 dollars to not pursue the allegations. Der Spiegel also managed to obtain a leaked document that contains questions and answers between Ronaldo and his lawyer regarding the night he spent with Mayorga. In the document, Ronaldo is referred to as X, who is quoted as saying “I entered her from behind. It was rude. We didn’t change position. 5/7 minutes. She said that she didn’t want to, but she made herself available.” And further: “But she kept saying ‘No.’ ‘Don’t do it.’ ‘I’m not like the others.’ I apologized afterwards.”

Ronaldo has sued Der Spiegel in the past when they broke news alleging to the fact that he had engaged in tax evasion, he had, he lost. Ronaldo did not decide to sue following the publication bringing to light the rape allegations against him. As recently as December of last year it was reported that Ronaldo was trying to block an attempt made by The New York Times to make further details of the case accessible to the public.

Despite the severity of the accusations, they don’t seem to have had a big impact on Ronaldo’s career. CR7 is as popular as ever. Upwards of 350,000 Man United shirts sold in his first 12 hours at the club,400 million followers on Instagram, a trademark celebration that has begun to creep its way into other sports and areas of public life. Does the utter idolization over someone with these kinds of accusations against them not paint a grim picture on football fandom? That we can have such a fascination and obsession with people that have done (or been accused of doing) such awful things. Through our undying support for abusers, racists, rapists and the like we not only downplay the severity of what they’ve done but also further silence victims and make it harder for them to come forward with their stories. There is no clearer instance of this interconnection than in the tributes that followed the recent passing of Argentinian icon Diego Maradona. 

Maradona was a terrible human being. This is something that unsurprisingly is not talked about enough in footballing circles. Of all of Maradona’s crimes, of which there are many, the most worrying is related to how he treated women. There is footage that can be found online of him beating his former partner Rocio Olivia, according to the Guardian there was also an incident on a plane where he verbally abused her before grabbing her by the neck. You have to question if incidents like this were captured what else could have happened behind closed doors. In 2017 he was accused of sexually harassing Russian journalist Ekaterina Nadolskaya who claims that Maradona physically removed her dress and upon resisting she was kicked out of his apartment. There have been further accusations following his death. In October of last year, Mavys Alvarez accused Maradona of grooming her, trafficking her to Argentina where he kept her locked in a hotel for up to 3 months and raping her when she was just 16 years of age. There is video footage of the two together lying on a hotel bed. This is an ongoing investigation in Argentina.

Despite all of his past actions Maradona’s death, on the 25th of November 2020, was met with sadness mourning and mass tributes from the wider footballing world. Former England international Gary Lineker described Maradona as a lovely guy. Arsenal, Man City, Napoli were just some of the clubs who decided to hold a minute-long silence in remembrance. Streets were renamed, statues erected. The Pope referred to him as “Soccer’s Poet”. 1 million fans showed up at the presidential palace to show their respects. Similar sentiments were shared on his 1-year anniversary, despite the new allegations from Mavys Alvarez. I said earlier that there was no clearer instance of the footballing world protecting abusers and silencing victims than through these tributes. The reason is that Maradona’s death actually coincided with international end violence against women’s day. Despite everything the football community knew about this man and his actions towards women, tributes still poured in on a day that was about ending crimes that he himself was guilty of committing.

I’m not trying to tell football fans how to watch or enjoy the sport. I’m not asking for players to be “cancelled”. However, in the instances where there is tangible or clear evidence that suggests a player you vehemently support is not a good person, take that into account the next time you cheer for them or wear a jersey with their name on the back. Ask yourself would you treat that player any differently if they were someone in your life. Would you want to be friends with a domestic abuser? Or live on the same street as someone being investigated for sex trafficking minors? There’s nothing wrong with recognising or appreciating someone’s ability with a football but don’t let that become a reason in of itself to excuse or ignore the terrible things they may have done.

Ben Duggan – Sports Writer