Fifpro asks why Gabon’s FA chief was at World Cup opener when facing trial | World Cup 2022

The international players’ union, Fifpro, has questioned why the president of the Gabonese Football Federation (Fegafoot) was allowed to attend the opening match of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar despite being charged in connection with the investigation into allegations of widespread sexual abuse in his country.

Pierre-Alain Mounguengui, who was released at the end of October after six months in preventive custody in Gabon having been charged with “failure to report crimes of paedophilia”, was pictured alongside the Fifa president, Gianni Infantino, and Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, at Sunday’s opening ceremony at Al Bayt Stadium.

He was also pictured hugging Patrice Motsepe, the South African mining billionaire businessman who became president of the Confederation of African Football (Caf) last year and visited Mounguengui in the Gros Bouquet Central prison in Libreville during an official trip to Gabon in August.

It is understood Mounguengui was provisionally released after mounting pressure from Caf. He is awaiting trial after being charged in relation to allegations first published by the Guardian last year. There is no suggestion Mounguengui has been accused of sexual abuse himself. He has not commented on the charges.

“Pierre-Alain Mounguengui is currently under investigation for allegedly covering up the widespread abuse by not reporting to the competent authorities,” read a statement from Fifpro. “Caf executives visiting Mounguengui in custody, on the eve of his release, and photographs of Caf’s president hugging Mounguengui at the Fifa World Cup do nothing to persuade victims and whistleblowers to risk their lives and those of their families to give evidence. How victims perceive these moments matter and could significantly impact the integrity and efficacy of Fifa’s investigation.”

When contacted, a Fifa spokesperson declined to comment. In May Fifa’s ethics committee opened formal proceedings against a former Gabon national under-17 coach, Patrick Assoumou Eyi, and three other coaches as part of its investigation into allegations of sexual abuse. All four had their provisional bans extended in August.

Fifa has yet to take any action against Mounguengui, with sources close to some of the alleged victims concerned that his presence in Qatar alongside Infantino may deter others from coming forward.

Gianni Infantino at the World Cup opening ceremony
The Fifa president, Gianni Infantino, and Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, were also at the opening ceremony on Sunday Photograph: –

It is understood that investigators from Fifa’s ethics committee were in Gabon to gather evidence the week before Mounguengui’s release from custody, although several alleged victims are believed to have been left deeply frustrated by the process so far.

Fifpro said: “Allegations of widespread, systemic sexual abuse possibly impacting hundreds of players in Gabon must be properly investigated both by Fifa and authorities in that country. Fifa’s investigation can only be successful if there is trust in its efficacy and independence. Victims and whistleblowers must believe that – if the evidence substantiates it – those responsible for the abuse will be held to account. We know from supporting victims of abuse in football around the world that this trust is fragile: players who were abused have already been repeatedly failed by football authorities when they were not protected or listened to.”

It can also be revealed that Mounguengui spoke at an event last week in Libreville described as “a workshop for the fight against harassment and sexual abuse in the Gabonese football community”. It was attended by representatives of the World Health Organisation, Gabon’s ministry of sports and health, and was held “in collaboration with Fifa”. Mounguengui welcomed the proposals for a plan that will be sent to world football’s governing body.

“The relevance of your contributions and analysis has led to the development of a document substantial enough to open a new page in the fight against harassment and sexual abuse,” said Mounguengui.

In May, the Guardian revealed that the Caf’s general secretary, Véron Mosengo-Omba, attempted to intervene in the state investigation into Mounguengui, alleging in a letter to the Gabon sports minister, Franck Nguema that Mounguengui’s arrest two weeks after Mounguengui was re-elected was evidence of “a new attempt to remove Mr Mounguengui from the management of Fegafoot”.

Those concerns were dismissed by Nguema, who wrote back that it “is not up to the government to instruct the justice to quickly release Mr Mounguengui, as suggested by the Caf by your care”.

A Caf spokesperson declined to comment on whether it had invited Mounguengui to Qatar. “It is a matter for Fifa,” he said.