I was sexually harassed by the manager as soon as I went into the job,” says Carolina Rozo, the former physiotherapist of Colombia Women Under‑17s. “It started with words. He would tell me I was very pretty and then he would try to take advantage of me when we were together at mealtimes and other places. Saying goodbye he would push himself against me very hard and whisper into my ear how much he liked me.”
Rozo reported to the Colombian Football Federation (FCF) her allegations and those relayed to her by the players she treated, before speaking out publicly after it failed to deal adequately with the claims. Two and a half years since she went public with her allegations against the-then head coach of the under‑17s team, Didier Luna, finally Rozo has some form of justice.
Luna, having initially denied all allegations when charged with sexual assault, agreed a plea deal with the prosecutor’s office on 9 June that meant he avoided prison by agreeing to a reduced charge of injuria, essentially an admission of occasional, one-off harassment.
The tipping point for Rozo came in January 2018. “He came to the dining room where we were eating with a photograph of me,” she says. “He pointed at the photograph and said: ‘That’s the woman I want,’ and: ‘Be careful, because if you’re not careful I’ll kiss you.’ So I said to him: ‘Don’t you dare do that, we are just eating.’
“That evening, when I was going to my bedroom, he was there, he met me on the way. He said he was being serious about wanting to have something with me, to be ‘his special friend’ and that he could bring me to great things in Colombian football. And then he pointed to the logo of the team on my chest and he said: ‘I want you to give me a piece of your heart.’
“I stepped away and said no, and asked him to respect me, that I didn’t want anything, that I didn’t come here looking for a boyfriend or a husband, that I just wanted to work. He got pissed off and said: ‘This will have bad consequences,’ and then he walked away. From then on, he started to put pressure on me and harass me during work.”
She reported her allegations about Luna’s behaviour to the federation, as well as her concerns for others. “I told them I had noticed he was acting in a strange way with the female players,” says Rozo. “One of the players was injured and she came and told me that another of the training staff had come into her room and tried to abuse her. And then when I was doing the rounds in the evening, to the different players for medical assistance, they started to tell me about how uncomfortable they felt about how they were being touched by the coach.”
Rozo says her motivation for not leaving was to help build the case against Luna and protect the young players, but the situation took its toll. “September 2018 I had a crisis of depression and I decided to make a formal complaint against this guy. When I saw nothing happened as a result, I became braver and made a complaint to the media.
“During the 18 months I was there I saw how he behaved. He used to touch them, caress them, stroke them, stroke their backs and kiss them, and he’d even ask them to take off their jerseys so he could see their underwear.
“The players don’t speak out because the federation has a thing hanging over them, a veto, where if they speak out they can be immediately removed from the team.”
The FCF has not responded to a request for comment. In a statement in March 2019 it said it “categorically rejects sexual and labour harassment, and declares zero tolerance for acts that in any way threaten the integrity of any member of our Colombian teams”.
Rozo is still struggling from the ordeal but speaking out has brought her out of the worst spell, which left her needing psychological and psychiatric help. “It’s very important that women unite their voices together and speak out. Silence makes us complicit in what these abusers are doing.”
The impact of Rozo’s case has been strong and not only in Colombia. She has been approached by players in Ecuador for assistance. She is now working with several government departments and a number of charities to try to prevent abuse and harassment in women’s football.
Working for Acolfutpro, the players’ union, and being in a position to fight for change, has acted as further therapy. “I’m still in a process of recuperating,” she says. “It impacted me emotionally and it will still take time to go through that, but the work I’m doing with the union, with Acolfutpro, with women players, helps me.”
However, “absolutely nothing has changed” in terms of safeguarding protocol within the FCF. “Even though the government is monitoring this case they really haven’t done anything to make life easier for female footballers.
“It’s very difficult for a young footballer to make a complaint for a number of reasons. It brings out a lot of emotions and you feel like you risk falling out of love with football; you’re scared, you think you might not be believed because it is hard to prove abuse, there may be no marks on your body; and there’s a lack of knowledge and education around abuse.
“They were in pre-season training for a three-month season but it wasn’t very sustainable and facilities were poor. An 18-team tournament was going to take place, but when coronavirus happened many of the contracts were suspended and players were put in a critical situation.”
In conjunction with the sports ministry, the union has been providing care packages for players. “The players are in a very vulnerable situation. Some of them are amateur players and normally the union only represents professional players.”
Of the 18 clubs, originally four continued to pay the players when the pandemic hit, but that petered out and now none are providing financial support. “A lot of these players left jobs outside football to pursue this passion for football and signed short-term contracts to be able to play. They signed up to start the season and now they are without any jobs at all.”
The lack of support is fuelled by “a footballing establishment that is very male and macho and stuck in their ways. It’s a male sport, it’s not a women’s sport.”
There was hope in the form of the bid to host the 2023 Women’s World Cup that offered an opportunity “despite all the contradictions in attitudes, help women players and women’s football in Colombia and other countries in South America”.
Outsiders from the off, Colombia came closest to beating the Australia and New Zealand joint bid, despite the combined bid scoring higher in Fifa’s technical reports.