FIFA, football’s world governing body, is investigating allegations that male officials from the Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) sexually and physically abused players on the women’s national team.
The allegations led to Danish sporstwear brand Hummel cancelling its sponsorship deals with the AFF and demanding the resignation of the federation’s president, Keramuddin Karim.
In a statement issued to CNN, the company said it “was presented with strong allegations of severe mental, physical, sexual and equal rights abuse of the female players by male AFF officials.”
Hummel demanded the resignation of Karim, saying in its statement it had “clear documentation of breach of contract as well as the fact that AFF leadership has been aware of the allegations since February this year without taking actions or informing sponsors.”
The AFF said it “vigorously rejects” the allegations and said it had a “zero tolerance approach” to abuse. It said the allegations were being driven by “former employees.”
CNN has been unable to reach Karim for comment.
Khalida Popal, a former Afghan player and currently the program organizer for the women’s national team, told CNN the abuse took place during a seven-day training camp in Jordan at the end of January this year.
Popal, who was forced to flee Afghanistan and now lives in Denmark, was present at the Jordan training camp. She says that at least five women were abused in their rooms by two male officials, who had been sent by the AFF to accompany the players.
The players are not yet willing to speak to the media publicly, fearing for their safety and that of their families, she said.
Popal said the two men particularly targeted members of the team who had come from Afghanistan, rather than those who lived abroad.
The officials would invite the players to their rooms, and when they declined, the officials went to the women’s accommodation, she said.
When Popal confronted the officials about why they were in the players’ rooms so late, the men said they were just “playing games,” she said.
Some of the women, Popal said, came to her in tears, while another had a bruise on her neck.
The abuse continued at training, Popal said. She said she heard one of the men say to the other, “what a great ass,” as he looked at one of the players.
“I, as the leader of the program, tried many times to address these issues,” Popal told CNN. “My argument with the football association was to not involve men, we don’t want men to be involved in our program.
“Families were trusting us with their daughters.”
Shamila Kohestani, who was the first captain of the Afghan women’s national team in 2006 and the recipient of ESPN’s Arthur Ashe courage award, told CNN she experienced similar abuse.
“While I was on the team in Afghanistan I faced multiple instances of sexual harassment, and was constantly in fear of my safety and the safety of my family,” she said.
FIFA said it was taking the allegations seriously. A FIFA source told CNN that the organization had been working to ensure the safety of the players concerned, and had called in help from the United Nations.
“The safety of those involved was the most important aspect in all of this,” a FIFA source told CNN. “Our main concern at the moment is to make sure that the girls still in Afghanistan are not in danger so we are working with the United Nations, as there is only so much within the football structure that we can do. They are supporting us in what can be done outside of football, such as protecting the immediate security of the girls. We are working in parallel with them to have the best possible outcome for the girls involved.”
In a statement, FIFA said an investigation was under way. “FIFA has a zero tolerance policy on human rights violations and condemns all forms of gender-based violence. The serious subjects mentioned are being looked into by FIFA.”
“As some aspects of these allegations involve sensitive topics linked to the protection of those involved, we have sought support from relevant parties who willingly offered their support to FIFA.”
Hummel’s CEO Allan Vad Nielsen said the company had concluded the allegations were serious enough to cut its ties. “The documentation presented to us is not only an indication of gross misconduct and abuse of power by the AFF officials, it is in direct contrast to our values,” he said.
In its statement, the AFF said it was “aware of the difficult environment for women’s sport in Afghanistan,” and did its best to support female athletes. “The AFF is disappointed that these very serious allegations seem to come from former employees, without ever having directly contacted the AFF and/or provided any specific information to help the AFF to investigate these allegations. As such, the AFF can only reiterate that these allegations are completely groundless.”
“Should the AFF receive specific factual information and/evidence, it will not hesitate to initiate further investigations immediately and to take all appropriate steps to prevent such actions and prosecute those responsible for them.”
Compounding the picture is a “draconian” new contract issued by the AFF, revealed by the Afghan players on social media last week, that they had been asked to sign which would strip the female players of a number of rights.
The contract bans them from talking to the press, denies them from being paid for performing national team duties, stops them from earning money through sponsorships and denies them mediation in disciplinary hearings.
Popal and Haley Carter, the assistant coach of the Afghan women’s team, say the contract was an attempt to silence the players.
“If it came out, it could really hurt the (Afghan football) program,” Popal told CNN. “They wanted to come out with this contract to silence our players in so many ways.”
Carter, a former American professional footballer, called the contract “draconian in nature.”
“It was an outrageous contract,” Carter told CNN. “When I read it my mouth just dropped to the floor, I’m entirely uncomfortable asking somebody to sign that.”
Shabnam Mobarez, the women’s team captain, who was dropped after refusing to sign the contract, told CNN: “This contract is just controlling me and trying to put me in a box, so I can’t move as a player and as a human.”
Popal said she was promised by Karim that the two officials would be punished. But when they returned to Afghanistan from Jordan, she found out they had both received promotions. “This is the way you get our justice? By giving a promotion to the abuser?”
Kohestani, the former captain, said she hoped some good would come of the revelations. “I have seen what a wonderful impact sports can have on a woman’s life – providing independence, confidence and freedom – but I am sad to say I have also seen the darker side, I hope that by shedding light on these abuses of power the next generation will only experience the joys of sports.”