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6 Oct, 2021 16:11

Male coach abused national team women on trips, alleges star as 24 Venezuela internationals sign letter vowing to ‘break silence’

Male coach abused national team women on trips, alleges star as 24 Venezuela internationals sign letter vowing to ‘break silence’

Venezuelan football has been rocked after 24 players from the women's national team, including Atletico star Deyna Castellanos, accused an ex-coach of committing sexual harassment and abuse during his tenure in an open letter.

Kenneth Zseremeta headed Venezuela's women's national team at various levels and age groups over a nine-year period until he was fired in 2017.

Among the 24 players to sign, publish and share the joint letter via social media is Atletico Madrid star Deyna Castellanos.

The forward also made a personal statement in which she said she had grown up "within the confines of a Venezuelan National Team that was led by a specific person who shared a lot of the abusive characteristics described within the article."

Castellanos said that reading about the scandal that has hit the NWSL in the US had brought back moments in which players had "assumed that this machista environment, built on exploitive control and degradation, was the price a woman athlete had to pay to be a professional player."

While she did not specifically name the man involved, Castellanos said that her positive experience when she joined Florida State University had made her realize how her time in her national set-up had been overshadowed.

Among a list of allegations, Castellanos claimed that the coach had bribed people for favors, asked players to visit his room so he could give them massages, questioned their sexual preferences, made them "feel bad" about their weight and engaged in manipulation relating to playing time on the pitch.

She also claimed that people with the power to change the situation made themselves accomplices by choosing not to act, and suggested that the alleged abuse had been justified by people saying that “this is soccer in this country” or “things have always been this way”.

The 24 players in the letter revealed that they'd "decided to break the silence to avoid the situations of abuse and harassment, physical, psychological and sexual" through their correspondence.

Last year, according to the document, one unnamed player revealed that she had been sexually abused by Zseremeta since the age of 14, with the coach repeatedly asking them about their sexual orientation and embarking on "physical and psychological abuse during training".

Other types of alleged "frequent harassment" came in the form of phone calls with invitations, inappropriate gifts and massages.

"Today we understand that these actions had the intent of manipulating us and making us feel guilty. Players of the LGBTI community were constantly questioned for their sexual orientation and the harassment of the heterosexual [players] was constant," said the letter.

"There were threats and manipulation about telling parents of the players about their sexual orientation if they did not obey or perform as expected."

Neither the Venezuelan Football Federation nor Zseremeta, who has returned to Panama while continuing to coach women's teams, have publicly commented or responded to the allegations.

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Zseremeta led Venezuela to fourth place at the 2014 under-17s World Cup, which was the first team that any Venezuelan team – male or female – had reached the final four of a FIFA international tournament.

Later in 2017, he was dismissed days after some of his U-20 stars complained about malnourishment at the height of the country's economic crisis and a third-place finish in a five-team competition where his side was one of the favorites despite Castellanos' absence.

The Venezuelan accusations come amid games in the American top flight being called off after a NWSL commissioner resigned after sexual harassment and misconduct accusations involving a longtime coach.

Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim, who Castellanos thanked for their bravery in her statement, say that now-ex North Carolina Courage boss Paul Riley harassed them and forced them into sexual coercion.

Both FIFA and US Soccer have opened investigations into how Riley, who has now been fired, could continue in coaching even after the concerns of the players were brought forward to the league.

Riley has completely denied all of the allegations against him.

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