The Shadow of an Abuse Scandal Looms Over a World Cup Soccer Team

AUSTIN, Texas — As Ireland prepares for its first Women’s World Cup, its coach and a newly included midfielder find themselves on opposite sides of an abuse scandal that has roiled soccer in the United States. But their separate conflicts have fused into a tentative and pragmatic alliance.

Vera Pauw, 60, Ireland’s national coach and a former coach of the Houston Dash of the National Women’s Soccer League, was accused late last year of body-shaming players and of being a “power freak” who sought to control their lives when she coached the Dash in 2018. At a news conference in Austin on Friday, Pauw labeled the accusations, contained in a blistering report organized by the league and its players’ union, “absolutely ridiculous and false.”

Sinead Farrelly, 33, a native of suburban Philadelphia who has dual citizenship with Ireland, was a brave and vital whistle-blower who helped lift the league’s veil of indifference toward coaching misconduct. Farrelly and other players made accusations of sexual, verbal and emotional abuse that led to four N.W.S.L. coaches’ being barred permanently from the league early this year.

Pauw was not accused of sexual impropriety, did not coach Farrelly in the league and was not among those barred for life. To return to the N.W.S.L., however, she has been told that she must accept responsibility for her actions. That restriction does not apply to international soccer.

For the next few months at least, Pauw, who is Dutch, and Farrelly, who ended her seven-year absence from soccer last month in returning to the N.W.S.L. and made her debut for Ireland on Saturday, are expected to collaborate as Ireland approaches the World Cup this summer in Australia and New Zealand.

The United States, a four-time world champion, and Ireland will play a second tuneup match on Tuesday in St. Louis. In a 2-0 defeat to the Americans on Saturday in Austin, Farrelly sought to bring a calming presence while starting in Ireland’s midfield after only two training sessions.

Pauw said that she had spoken to Farrelly before she joined the Irish team and had tried to make her feel comfortable. They share a desire to perform on soccer’s grandest stage but also a horrible commonality. Last year, Pauw said that she had been raped by a Dutch soccer official when she was a player and that she had also been sexually assaulted by two other men.

For 35 years, she kept the abuse private, Pauw said in a statement last July, allowing the memories “to control my life, to fill me with daily pain and anguish.”

In a broad sense, the Pauw-Farrelly union can be viewed as a dispiriting sign of how widespread accusations of impropriety are in women’s soccer.

On a personal level, Pauw is trying to restore her reputation, which she believes was unfairly tarnished. And Farrelly is attempting to restart a career, once blooming with promise but prematurely shriveled by what she has described as sexual coercion, emotional manipulation and the shattering of her self-confidence by a former coach, Paul Riley.

In September 2021, Farrelly told The Athletic that Riley, one of the top coaches in women’s soccer, had coerced her into a yearslong sexual relationship and once manipulated her into kissing a teammate with the Portland Thorns in front of him in exchange for a less strenuous team practice. The teammate, Mana Shim, confirmed Farrelly’s account and made other similar allegations of misconduct against Riley. He has denied having sex with any players.

The revelations pulled back the curtain on systemic abuse in women’s soccer and led to wide-ranging fallout across the N.W.S.L. An investigation headed by Sally Q. Yates, a former deputy U.S. attorney general, described Riley’s misbehavior over the years as an “open secret.”

Farrelly said on Saturday that her comeback would not have been possible without the catharsis of telling her story publicly. “That healing and liberation from that had to occur before I could ever play again,” she said.

She has described her return to soccer as one day at a time. Farrelly said she has been asking well-wishers, “Will you still love me if I totally mess this up?”

“Because that’s my biggest fear,” she told a small group of reporters. “I don’t want to go out there and fail and make mistakes. That’s just how my brain works.”

Instead, she said, she was “really trying to take people’s support and not twist it into pressure.” She wants to be grateful for the experience of attempting to make a World Cup team. “I play my best when I’m having fun. I just need to bring it back to that every time.”

Farrelly announced her retirement in 2016, the result of injuries both psychic and physical, including those sustained in a 2015 car accident. But she returned to the N.W.S.L last month and signed with Gotham F.C., saying in a statement that she wanted to be a dependable player while “also having grace and compassion with myself” and hoped to “inspire others to follow their dreams, no matter how far out of reach they may seem.”

Pauw’s return to the N.W.S.L. remains uncertain. Last December, in the report organized by the league and its players’ union, Pauw was accused of shaming Houston players in 2018 about their weight and attempting to “exert excessive control over their eating habits,” including discouraging the eating of fruit because of its sugar content, “with no apparent correlation to performance or health.”

She was also accused of exerting control over players’ personal lives while living in the same apartment complex. The accusations included knocking on a player’s door at night and inviting herself inside; favoring some players by inviting them over for coffee and biscuits; restricting players from using the pool during the afternoon; and discouraging them from lifting weights in the belief that it would make them too “bulky.”

Pauw vigorously defended herself at Friday’s news conference.

“If there’s one thing that I don’t do, it is body shaming,” she said. “There is no scale in my dressing room, there’s no fat percentages taken.”

“What is the standard?” Pauw said plaintively. “Can you not educate players in getting the best out of themselves with something that is technically just coaching?”

No one would have complained if she were a male coach, Pauw said.

“As a female coach, you’re not safe in your coaching,” she said. “You’re not safe to do your job. There’s double standards here.”

The World Cup begins in three months. Farrelly and Pauw are looking ahead, seeking repair and renewal.

Pauw said that Farrelly “trusts me; she trusts the truth.”

Farrelly appears more wary. She said she was cautious about playing for a coach accused of abuse, even if it was not sexual wrongdoing.

“I think it’s just going to be time for us to build trust and stuff like that,” Farrelly said. She took a risk, a leap of faith, she said, hoping the Irish national team would be a healthy environment for her. “It’s an ongoing thing, I think.”