Criminal proceedings have started in the case of sexual harassment of an Under-17 footballer with the India team by an assistant coach, Alex Ambrose. This was confirmed to ESPN by SY Quraishi, the head of the Committee of Administrators, on Tuesday night.
The news is not surprising because the case attracts the provisions of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) and therefore has be far-reaching legal implications for the various parties involved - including the federation and other staff members present during the tour when the alleged incident took place.
Quraishi's comment was the first public statement from AIFF since the news first broke on Thursday. Quraishi himself had confirmed the news on Friday and named Ambrose and specified the nature of the incident; this was 48 hours after a vague statement from AIFF.
Alex Ambrose, Asstt Head Coach of Under 17 Women's team has been sacked for sexual misconduct. Further action under process.
- Dr. S.Y. Quraishi (@DrSYQuraishi) July 3, 2022
Meanwhile, there are questions that the people in the know must address:
The legal course is a major question for the body that runs Indian football. Is just sacking the coach enough? The answer could well be no.
The Indian government has a special law to deal with child sexual abuse cases, the POCSO Act, 2012. Under this act, the coach, the support staff that confirmed the incident, the federation and even the well-meaning individuals in the know waiting for proof, come under the scanner.
Right now, the first step is to report this case to the police, file an official FIR for proper, procedural investigation beyond the one done by the AIFF. This is where the POCSO Act becomes crucial. Section 21(1) of the POCSO Act, 2012 requires mandatory reporting of cases of child sexual abuse to the law enforcement authorities, and applies to everyone including parents, doctors and school personnel. Failure to report a suspicion of child abuse is an offence under the Act.
It is then the Federation's legal (and moral) responsibility to report this offence.
Ban Ambrose from coaching, for good
Ambrose held multiple positions in Indian football - he was the head coach of the women's U-15 and U-19 teams, assistant coach of the women's U-17 team and also the AIFF's head of scouting. In addition to this, he's also known to be a part of the football coaching units across several schools in Mumbai. He was also connected to a coaching center in the United Arab Emirates.
If found criminally guilty, Ambrose must not just be banned from coaching the national team, but the AIFF must revoke his license and ensure he is disallowed from coaching in India. The AIFF must also write to their counterparts in FIFA to ensure Ambrose doesn't coach anywhere, ever again.
Find the trail
Here's what the POCSO Act (section 19) says: "Any person (including the child), who has apprehension that an offence under this Act is likely to be committed or has knowledge that such an offence has been committed, he shall provide such information to, (a) the Special Juvenile Police Unit; or (b) the local police."
If a person who has information on any abuse fails to report it, they may face imprisonment for up to six months or a fine, or both. This is why finding the trail is important.
Who knew, and what did they do? Were there any previous instances or complaints? Legally, those who knew and looked away are also culpable and liable to be punished.
The role of the team manager will also need to be questioned in this case since it is their duty to ensure the safety of the girls and to address their grievances. The trail has to be identified and all those who've turned a blind eye to this or have enabled it in any capacity must be taken to task, as the law mandates.
Provide psychological support
As per the AIFF's statement on June 30, Ambrose was "provisionally suspended" and brought back to India from Italy. Three days later, Quraishi tweeted that Ambrose was "sacked for sexual misconduct." All this while, the players continued to train and competed at the Open Nordic Tournament in Norway. Despite all that's happened, they've continued to play. How is the Federation addressing the trauma and pain of the survivor and of everyone in the team?
Mental conditioning sessions are just as important for the India U-17 ���� girls, as they prepare for their match against Iceland today ��#INDISL ⚔️ #BackTheBlue �� #ShePower �� #IndianFootball ⚽ pic.twitter.com/DQJRgHLQka
- Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) July 4, 2022
They'd been training under Ambrose for the better part of a year and the world he'd created for them has come down crashing. And they play in the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in a little over three months from now. How does one prepare for such a monumental event when there is so much turmoil in the camp?
"This will affect the entire team now," says Anjali Shah, a member of the AIFF's executive committee and women's committee. "Some of them looked up to him as a father figure, and he's suddenly no longer there. It's going to be very difficult for them. They're going to need every bit of counselling plus their own parent's support to make them feel safe and secure."
A psychologist ESPN spoke to said the players need to receive immediate support to help them deal with the situation. "The players must go through a psychiatric assessment. Such an incident could lead to Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), flashbacks and panic attacks and it will hamper their performance on the football pitch."
Focus �� before the kick-off! ����#NEDIND ⚔️ #BackTheBlue �� #ShePower �� #IndianFootball ⚽ pic.twitter.com/S9SUOJDo5B
- Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) July 1, 2022
The onus is on the Federation to provide the players counselling services and support in any form they may require. The AIFF must also reach out to the parents of these girls and notify them of the steps it is taking to further protect their children, because they have failed to do so this time around.
There must be a mandate that all age-group teams have a full-time psychologist travelling with them to ensure they have a constant support system, especially when they're away from home on foreign exposure tours.
Issue a public apology
The lack of an apology on the AIFF's part is appalling. This terrible incident happened on their watch and the very least they can do at this point is to apologize. Apologize to the girls for failing to create a safe space for them and apologize to their parents for being unable to ensure their safety.
The Federation needs to acknowledge the situation and vouch to implement stringent measures to prevent such heinous acts. It needs to be transparent regarding the proceedings, prompt with updates and clear on what the next steps are.