England’s national women’s soccer team reached new heights under coach Mark Sampson. After never making it past the quarterfinals in three previous appearances, the Lionesses finished third at the 2015 World Cup, and earlier this year they conceded just one goal on their way to the Euro 2017 semifinals before falling to the host Netherlands.
But Sampson’s tenure was marked by accusations of impropriety that first arose only months after he was hired in December 2013, and on Wednesday — less than 24 hours after his team began qualification for the 2019 World Cup with a 6-0 win over Russia — the English Football Association fired him, citing “clear evidence of inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour” in a statement announcing its decision.
Officially, the FA said it based its decision to fire Sampson on an investigation it conducted in 2014 and 2015 into his behavior as coach at Bristol Academy, the English women’s pro team he led before joining the national team. Without providing specifics, FA chief executive Martin Glenn, who joined the organization after the investigation had been conducted, said Wednesday that Sampson hadn’t broken any laws but had “overstepped the professional boundaries between player and coach.” The probe, sparked by allegations made by more than one of his Bristol players, took nearly a year to complete, and while Sampson was found fit to remain England’s coach, he was ordered to undergo training on “professional boundaries appropriate to a coaching role.”
Glenn said that he decided to fire Sampson after he was given the full report of the probe last week.
“There was a full investigation, a proper investigation, an assessment process and when the report concluded in March 2015 he was deemed not to be a safeguarding risk,” Glenn said, per the Guardian. “However, the full report of that investigation was only made known to me last week.
“On reading it I immediately shared it with [FA Chairman Greg Clarke] and we were both deeply concerned with the contents of the report. Let’s be really clear: no laws were broken; Greg and I are not able to challenge the professional views of our safeguarding experts. We thought the conduct issues raised in the report was the problem. Mark had overstepped the professional boundaries between player and coach. We know that coaches are in a potential position of power and that position mustn’t be abused. We have to be really clear and I think we are at the FA, about what we stand for in that respect.”
But Women in Football, an advocacy group in England, alleged in a statement Thursday that the FA knew about the Bristol Academy accusations against Sampson even before it hired him in 2013.
“WiF understands that questions over Sampson’s suitability for the role were flagged to the FA as early as 2013 during the recruitment process,” the statement reads.
The Bristol Academy allegations were far from the only knock against Sampson. Eni Aluko, a former England striker who is black, has accused him of racism, harassment and bullying. In one instance, which she relayed to the Guardian last month, she said Sampson made a crass comment about her Nigerian relatives before a game against Germany in November 2014.
“We were in the hotel. Everybody was excited. It was a big game. On the wall, there was a list of the family and friends who were coming to watch us and I just happened to be next to Mark. He asked me if I had anyone who would be there and I said I had family coming over from Nigeria. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Nigeria? Make sure they don’t bring Ebola with them.’
“I remember laughing but in a very nervous way. I went back to my room and I was really upset. It might have been easier to take if it was about me alone. Lots of things had been said about me over those two years but this was about my family. I called my mum and she was absolutely disgusted.”
The Guardian reported last month that the FA paid Aluko more than $100,000 in alleged hush money to “avoid disruption” ahead of Euro 2017. Aluko, who also is a qualified lawyer, has not played for England since April and served as a television commentator during the tournament.
Another player, Drew Spence, alleges that Sampson asked the mixed-race midfielder how many times she had been arrested during a team meeting in October 2015.
Sampson was cleared of wrongdoing in both instances by the FA, though the Professional Footballers’ Association, the players’ union in England, has called the internal review “a sham which was not designed to establish the truth but intended to protect Mark Sampson.” According to multiple reports, the FA did not talk to other England players who were present when Sampson allegedly made the racist statements.
Glenn and other FA executives will appear before a British parliamentary committee on culture, media and sports next month to answer questions about how Sampson could have held his job for so long despite the multiple allegations against him.
“Our concern is looking into the scope of investigation into the concerns raised about Mark Sampson recently by Aluko and in the past,” Damian Collins, the committee chairman, told the Guardian. “To say: ‘Actually was there information readily available to the FA that had they sought it out they would’ve terminated much earlier?’ Be it Martin Glenn or whoever, if it’s found that they ignored advice and warnings that were clear then I think their position does become untenable.”
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