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2015 Women's World Cup

Lawyers: FIFA threatens retaliation against players fighting artificial turf

BC Place, where the 2015 Women's World Cup final will be played, has an artificial turf surface. All six Canadian venues are scheduled to use artificial turf. (Photo: Canada Soccer)

BC Place, where the 2015 Women’s World Cup final will be played, has an artificial turf surface. All six Canadian venues are scheduled to use artificial turf. (Photo: Canada Soccer)

Lawyers representing a group of women’s soccer players fighting artificial turf at the 2015 World Cup on Monday added a retaliation claim against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association, claiming “unlawful reprisal threats” toward participating players.

Monday’s retaliation claim comes in addition to the players’ legal claims that being forced to play the 2015 Women’s World Cup, the largest women’s sporting event in the world, is gender discrimination under the Ontario Human Rights Code. They say men would never have play on the plastic pitches. Every senior level men’s World Cup ever played has been on natural grass.

The lawyers filed Monday’s claim in the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, the same tribunal in which the original complaint of gender discrimination was filed earlier in the month. They say players’ human rights are protected from reprisal under Section 8 of the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Monday’s allegations state that several players – including Teresa Noyola of Mexico and French players Camille Abily and Elise Bussaglia – were forced to remove themselves from any legal action for fear of retaliation from FIFA.

The new claim references U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, who is also a member of the FIFA Executive Committee.

 [MORE: Complete coverage of the 2015 Women’s World Cup Turf War]

In the legal document obtained by The Equalizer, players’ lawyers claim that Gulati indicated that he believed U.S. players risked suspension by FIFA for their legal action. Gulati goes on to say in an email that “U.S. Soccer plans to continue abiding by all applicable laws, rules and regulations, including state and federal law and the regulations imposed on it by virtue of its membership in CONCACAF and FIFA, in addition to U.S. Soccer’s own bylaws and policies.”

Lawyers state in documents that FIFA threatened to suspend Noyola from the recently completed World Cup qualifying event because of her participation in the legal action. Mexican officials allegedly then indicated to Noyola that she would not be selected for the tournament if she remained part of the legal action. Mexico qualified for the World Cup on Sunday in a match in which Noyola played.

Abily and Bussaglia were allegedly “led to believe that their continued participation in this legal action would lead to retaliation by FIFA in the awarding of the 2019 Women’s World Cup.” France one of a few nations bidding for the 2019 tournament.

Two Costa Rican players are also referenced in the new document as having been intimidated.

“As a result of the threats, a retaliation claim has been added to the players’ sex discrimination action,” said Hampton Dellinger of Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP, a law firm representing the players, in a statement. “Inspiringly, many players have stepped forward to take the place of the few forced to withdraw as a result of threats initiated by FIFA and CSA.  The replacement of three applicants with 20 new ones brings the players’ legal coalition to over 60 members and shows that the retaliation threats – while reprehensible and legally actionable – have backfired against FIFA and CSA.

Players filed their initial complaint of gender discrimination with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario on Oct. 1. They requested an expedited hearing given the short timeline until the World Cup, which starts on June 6.

FIFA is yet to respond to the complaint or the request for expedition, “refusing acceptance of the Notice and enclosed documents on the basis that the procedure for delivery provided for by relevant international treaties had not been complied with in the present case,” according to Tribunal documents. The Tribunal, which in Canada overseas human rights legal issues, has directed FIFA to provide a written response by Nov. 6 as to whether it has received effective legal notice from players’ lawyers.

In a statement issued to The Equalizer on Tuesday, a FIFA spokesperson cited Article 3 of the FIFA statutes, which prohibits discrimination, and said that “FIFA’s commitment to these principle is unwavering and it remains a strong advocate for the equal treatment of men and women in all aspects of life.”

But the statement goes on to reiterate that FIFA has not properly any legal paperwork:

“FIFA is aware of reports in the media of representations made to a tribunal situated in Canada in respect of the 2015 Women’s World Cup. However, FIFA has not been formally served with any legal materials related to those proceedings. Until FIFA has been properly served, it would be premature to comment on any allegations that have been made in those legal proceedings.”

A FIFA official said in September that there is “no Plan B” and that the 2015 tournament will be played on artificial turf across the six Canadian venues.

Last week a FIFA turf consultant stated that “only football turf is a credible surface to meed the demands of the weather and usage” in Canada.

The Canadian Soccer responded to the complaint earlier this month, stating that the players’ claims of increased injury on artificial turf are without merit.

“The core issue in terms of the claim that’s been advanced is that FIFA 2-star turf is somehow second-class,” said Sean Hern, a lawyer from Farris, Vaughan, Wills & Murphy LLP who represents the CSA. “It is a first-class playing field. It is part of the Canadian game. It has been recognized as appropriate.”

Some men’s players recently got behind the women’s fight. NBA star Kobe Bryant and American goalkeeper Tim Howard tweeted their support of the women’s players.

“I’m fully behind them,” Toronto FC captain Steven Caldwell said in a recent interview with the Canadian Press. “I don’t think they should be playing the World Cup or any games on turf in any professional league. Fingers crossed that it’s a precedent for the future in that we can try and hopefully get to a position where we can eradicate turf from all professional leagues.”

Players recently made a $3 million proposal to FIFA and the CSA in an attempt to avoid legal action. The proposal involved laying temporary grass over the current artificial turf surfaces.

Players’ lawyers have requested an expedited hearing of Nov. 26. There is no decision yet on whether or not that will be granted.

Jo-Anne Pickel, one of the HRTO’s vice-chairs, has been assigned as the adjudicator for the case.

The reprisal claim lists the applicants as “Abby Wambach and Players on National Teams Participating in the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015.” CSA lawyers took issue with the gender discrimination claim listing applicants as “Players on National Teams Participating in the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015,” calling it misleading. CSA lawyers said earlier this month that only seven players filled out a consent form that he says is mandatory (the players’ lawyers disagree).

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