'Trust me, it's happening all over the world. Everywhere I have coached'

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© Laszlo Geczo INPHO Republic of Ireland WNT manager Vera Pauw at yesterday’s squad announcement.

“IT’S A VERY difficult time for all. This is happening too much in women’s sport, not only in women’s football but everywhere,” Vera Pauw said when it was first put to her at yesterday’s press conference.

© Laszlo Geczo Republic of Ireland WNT manager Vera Pauw at yesterday’s squad announcement.

“I hope that I can be on the barricades to support the movement. Everybody that knows me and has followed me knows that everywhere I go, the safety and well-being of the players comes first – to the extreme. I’ve taken up fights and anything to protect that, to be on the barricades to do something about it.

“I hope that this will be the start of a huge difference in women’s sport.”

***

Fresh allegations of misconduct, abuse, and sexual coercion have shaken the National Women’s Soccer League [NWSL] — the top level of professional women’s football in the United States — in recent weeks, and have sent shockwaves around the world.

It all came to the fore after an in-depth investigation by The Athletic, with Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly speaking out against their former manager, Paul Riley.

North Carolina Courage fired Riley in the immediate aftermath of the “very serious allegations of misconduct,” with the abuse understood to be reported previously, pointing to systematic failures in US women’s football in general.

There’s Irish links to this story; Denise O’Sullivan and Diane Caldwell are both on the books at North Carolina, and played for Riley.

Other Girls in Green internationals have also played Stateside, with Pauw managing in the NWSL in the past. She served as Houston Dash head coach from November 2017 to September 2018, informing the club that she would not seek a contract renewal in order to return to the Netherlands and be closer to family. Her next management job was the Ireland one, appointed in September 2019 after a brief advisor role to Thailand.

Asked about her experience of women’s soccer in the US later in the press conference, Pauw said: “I don’t want to minimise it to there. It is all over the world and it’s happening on a daily basis. That’s the only thing I want to say about it because there are people who want to change things.

“I play my part in all that, I always played my part and I never came out with that to protect people but it is something that is going on for too long. I am happy I am not the only one any more. There are a lot of people of course standing on the barricades.

“I have always chosen to do it behind the scenes but, trust me, it’s happening all over the world. Everywhere where I have coached.”

“It is so brave that these two players came forward so maybe more will come forward,” the Dutch coach added. “But, again, I want to highlight that this is a problem in women’s sport in general. All over the world. Not only there, not only far away situations, it has been close.

“In Ireland I have never experienced anything like that, yet. And I hope it keeps like that. In any other country I have been, I’ve experienced it.”

In Pauw’s 58 years, she has played in her native Netherlands and in Italy, while also managing the Scottish, Dutch, Russian and South African women’s national teams.

Refusing to delve into specific experiences, the vastly experienced coach was selective in what questions she answered with regards the latest scandal, referencing the Fifa investigation currently underway. “I don’t think it will help if I say things now. But you can count on that; if people need me, I will be there.”

But she was open and candid as she offered her assessment and opinion. “It has to do with our time,” Pauw said at one point. “Look at the problems in Hollywood… it is in all areas, that women are now stepping up and saying, ‘We don’t take it any more.”

“Here in Ireland I feel safe,” she noted at another. “We are safe. There is a safe environment. You feel that also in the squad.”

Asked if she was surprised she had not found it in Ireland, she said: “I realise that now, that it is coming out. I am thinking ‘How am I feeling within this area,’ and I feel that maybe I’m wrong but I usually have a lot of empathy in that area, it doesn’t mean I am always right in that feeling. But I’ve got a feeling that here, the players feel safe.”

While conscious to stress that she cannot speak for others, she agreed that there were many reasons why women’s players hadn’t spoken out before: sport and the media being male-dominated, and innate fear of the consequences, among others.

“I think it is a combination of that in sport, things develop. The fine line is not there any more. It is not something like a girl on her bike and then having to experience somebody doing something to her. It is usually something that is growing within a team and players are not aware of it and it is coming out after.”

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© Laszlo Geczo Pauw speaking yesterday.

Organisations must protect players, she said, with internal reporting ignored and dismissed — as seen in the Riley scandal, and by Pauw before first hand.

“Is it not only this occasion but in every single moment when things like this come out, it is the women themselves who need to pick up the bravery and step out. People say, ‘Oh this is coming out of the blue,’ but it was said there 10 years ago, said here six years ago and five years ago.

“And only when they have the guts to go into the media that is only when people take them seriously. It is almost like any conflict – like when people have conflict with the government, and feel that things are not going well with the tax office or whatever, I am not talking about Ireland, I am talking about the Netherlands – it only attracts attention when people find the media.

“It’s as if through the media, people can only change things. So in that sense it is very brave but things will change now.”

Pauw said she had spoken to O’Sullivan and Caldwell: “They are in a better space now. To be honest, the board of NWSL is doing everything to support them. That was my concern if they get the support they need because I am far away. But they do get the support they need, the whole team.”

With shows of solidarity in women’s football matches across the globe over the past few weeks, Pauw says she would “support any action” from her Ireland players as they open their 2023 World Cup qualifying campaign next week.

Looking towards the future; and taking steps towards mitigation and abolition of misconduct, and the overarching need for systematic change in women’s sport and further afield, Pauw concluded:

“I think the whole #MeToo movement as a whole will help us. I want to highlight it, it is not only sport, it is not only USA, I think we come out of an era in which abuse of women was put under the carpet with incidents and with, like as if, ‘Oh I was only joking,’ ‘Oh I felt that she wanted it’. I think we are getting out of that era and there will be, like a move to the complete other side, and eventually we will get to a better space with each other because we also have to be careful that we do have an open relationship in which people are working together and people are pulling each other out of their comfort zones to become better and perform.

“What I can say of here, of course we will talk about it this week at the start. But the aim is to get players blossoming, the aim is to get players performing and to shine. That players shine and that they have a future in which they can be proud of what they are doing.

“That’s what I am here for, that is my approach, that there is openness to express their feelings, there is openness for whatever their needs are. But within the given, that our players should be proud of who they are and be helped and supported in shining into the future. Does that make sense? That is my way of working always.”

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