Fifa has been criticised over its handling of complaints of sexual harassment and physical assault in girls’ football after it emerged it had not publicly announced a worldwide ban given to a coach.
Uchralsaikhan Buuveibaatar, a former coach of Mongolia’s under-15 girls’ team, received the sanction from Fifa in August after an investigation by the Mongolian Football Federation found he had sexually harassed and physically assaulted youth team players during the East Asian Football Festival in South Korea in 2019. Buuveibaatar has denied committing “sexual crimes”.
The international players’ union Fifpro has raised concerns, telling the Guardian: “It is not enough to privately ban individuals. In an industry where professionals frequently move clubs and countries, this simply allows perpetrators to take up roles elsewhere. To keep players safe we need a system whereby persons of concern are immediately suspended and a notice of this is publicly available.
“If, after investigation, individuals are banned this must be internationally expanded and recorded. Players, clubs, leagues and federations should be able to access these records to protect themselves and those for whom they are responsible.”
A Fifa spokesperson explained that decisions taken by its ethics committee were “communicated at their discretion”.
Buuveibaatar was first suspended from all football-related activities in August 2019 by the Mongolian Football Federation’s disciplinary body, which reported the matter three months later to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
The AFC told the Guardian that Buuveibaatar’s “sanction was extended worldwide by Fifa in August 2021” but football’s world governing body initially responded to the Guardian’s questions about the case by making no mention of its ban.
It said that “in line with due process” it had referred the case to the AFC after carrying out a preliminary investigation. Later it confirmed the suspension had been extended worldwide after “an investigation and subsequent decision by the AFC disciplinary and ethics committee. Regarding cases of serious misconduct in football, given the serious nature of these cases which are often criminal in nature, please note that all sanctions are communicated in the first instance by the respective investigating body.”
The allegations against Buuveibaatar came to light in August 2019 when the MFF’s vice-president Azjargal Khashbat received a letter from Kawamoto Naoko, the head coach of the under-15 girls’ team, which alleged that Buuveibaatar had sexually harassed and physically assaulted players in South Korea and abused team members during a trip to Japan earlier that year.
Buuveibaatar was sacked a week later by the MFF’s then general secretary, Ulziikhuu Shijir, but it is understood he continued to work for the MFF until the end of November. He posted a picture of himself on Facebook with Fifa’s president, Gianni Infantino, who visited Mongolia to mark the MFF’s 60th anniversary on 16 October. The caption said: “The biggest boss of the sector came and I was able to talk to him for five minutes!”
A Fifa spokesperson said: “[Infantino] travels and meets people from all around the world on a regular basis. Having pictures taken with other individuals doesn’t mean endorsing those individuals.”
Since December 2019 the Mongolian television channel Live has aired a series of explosive documentaries which have detailed further allegations against Buuveibaatar and other former employees at the MFF, which it claims has become “a hotbed of sexual harassment and abuse”.
The MFF confirmed to the Guardian that Buuveibaatar’s case had not been referred to its ethics committee until after the first documentary but said that was because the allegations raised in Naoko’s letter had been dealt with by the sacking.
“As soon as Shijir received some more complaints against B Uchralsaikhan, he transferred this case to the ethics committee,” a spokesperson said. “After the issue was resolved by the ethics committee, Kh Azjargal organised the meeting with the parents of the under-15 and 17-year-old teams, apologised to them, promised they would take care of the girls and women in the future more and the parties reached a common understanding.”
One alleged victim who did not want to be named has claimed that Azjargal warned players not to speak out about the abuse – a claim she has denied.
“She told us the federation had launched an internal investigation into the allegations of sexual harassment,” the alleged victim said. “She warned us that we shouldn’t talk about the details of our experiences to anyone outside the federation.”
“The employee who had committed the misconduct was immediately held accountable and dismissed,” said Azjargal. “I will take a firm stand against any violence that violates women’s rights and protect female players’ rights and interests.”