Sports

French Coach Fired for Interactions with Young Players Moved From Job to Job

Credit…Ed Alcock/eyevine, via Redux

Young Players, Blurred Boundaries and a Coach on the Move

Inappropriate text messages. Nude weigh-ins. Player sleepovers. An instructor quietly discarded by France’s soccer federation over his contacts with a teenage player continues to work in the game. The federation says there is nothing it can do.

Credit…Ed Alcock/eyevine, via Redux

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At France’s national soccer academy, an instructor was investigated after he sent dozens of disturbingly affectionate text messages to a 13-year-old boy. But he was dismissed only after he invited the boy to lunch.

At his next club, the man came under suspicion after the worried mother of a young player approached a team official and asked if it was normal for the boys to be weighed without their underpants on. But he was fired only after he was caught working with an agent to guide players away from the club.

When he turned up working as the youth director for yet another French team this year, two people who knew of his past behavior called the club’s president to warn him. But the French soccer federation, which had once fired the man from his job at its national training center for his inappropriate interactions with a young prospect, said nothing.

Instead, for the past eight years, it has allowed its former staff member to quietly move from job to job, always retaining a highly valued certificate issued by the federation that has eased his ability to continue working in the sport. His contact information remains available to potential employers on the federation’s website.

The man, David San Jose, has never been the subject of an official complaint of sexual abuse or improper physical contact with a child. But that he has been able to continue working with young athletes despite red flags has raised new questions about the inability, or unwillingness, of sports organizations to conduct meaningful investigations into the conduct of adults responsible for the care of children.

In recent years, that lack of oversight has led to scandal, and criminal charges, in cases involving gymnasts in the United States, soccer players in Britain and figure skaters and swimmers in France. In almost every case, investigations later found, rumors and claims of misbehavior and abuse were well known but ignored.

When contacted to discuss his time at France’s national training center at Clairefontaine and his work history after he left the center there, San Jose declined to comment. But others, including former federation coaches, officials and employees and 10 former teammates of the boy who received the text messages, agreed to be interviewed.

“I still don’t understand how San Jose can work with children after what happened at Clairefontaine,” said the center’s former director, Gerard Precheur. “I don’t understand how he is still in football.”

The messages, according to teammates and the boy’s mother, sometimes came in flurries: greetings, invitations, declarations of love. To the 13-year-old boy who received them they were confusing. Why would an adult, and especially an instructor at one of the world’s leading soccer academies, be showering him with such attention?

For a while the boy — now 23, and whose identity is being withheld to protect his privacy — kept the messages to himself. He knew he was fortunate, selected among a group of two dozen boys who were given coveted places living and training at France’s national training center at Clairefontaine, arguably the world’s leading soccer finishing school. He knew Clairefontaine had been the launching pad for dozens of top French professional players. So rather than speak up about the disturbing messages, the boy said nothing to his teammates, coaches or parents.

The first inkling that something was wrong came on a bus ride in 2012. The squad of talented teenagers was in a typically boisterous mood. They were poking fun at one another when Tiago Escorza, one of the players, picked up his teammate’s cellphone. Escorza, now 23, recalled seeing messages from the instructor to the boy, telling him he loved him. His reaction was to burst into laughter — and then to read the messages aloud to the rest of the players.

“We all said to him, ‘Is that your father or what?'” said Hedi Mehnaoui, a goalkeeper who was present. Just entering their teens, he said in a recent interview, they were not mature enough to grasp the impact the messages might have had on the boy, or any motives San Jose may have had for sending them.

But, looking back, Mehnaoui said, he now remembers his friend talking often about quitting the academy. “He never really explained why,” said Mehnaoui, who was the boy’s roommate. “He kept everything to himself, so I didn’t ask too much either.”

A few months later, the boy’s mother also became aware of the messages. Switching on a new cellphone she had bought her son, she discovered a text from San Jose.

Her husband was furious about the message, she said, but he was also dealing with a serious illness, so she decided she would be the one to confront San Jose, in person. She did so with a letter, handed to him at Clairefontaine, that instructed him not to send any more messages to her son or to be alone with him under any circumstances. San Jose, she said, disarmed her by telling her that in his culture — he has a Spanish background — it was routine to say things like “I love you” even to people outside your own family.

The matter might have ended there but for a conversation overheard by two watchmen responsible for looking after the team during a routine evening inspection. They were shown messages — forwarded to two other boys — that they were told had been written by San Jose. “I’m fed up that it’s always me saying I love you,” one read, according to one of the watchmen.

The next morning, one of the watchmen informed the boys’ coach, Philippe Bretaud, and also Precheur, the Clairefontaine director, about what he had learned. Precheur, who left Clairefontaine in 2014, said his first reaction was outrage. “I went mad,” he said.

He said he immediately called the boy’s parents and advised them to file a complaint, but that they declined, fearing that doing so could jeopardize their son’s prospects for a soccer career. Precheur then showed the messages to his boss, Francois Blaquart, then the technical director of French soccer. “I remember that they were love messages, totally inadmissible vis-a-vis a child,” Blaquart said.

Blaquart placed San Jose, who was responsible for players’ nonsoccer education at the facility, on leave and ordered him to leave Clairefontaine, he said, and then followed established guidelines and passed the file to the human resources department of the French soccer federation.

The French federation insisted it thoroughly investigated the accusations, conducting multiple interviews and arranging for a psychologist to speak with the boy. But it also said that it had found no proof of any messages of a sexual or romantic nature between San Jose and the boy, and that it could do nothing more with the accusations.

“There was no element capable of justifying a denunciation of the federation to the judicial authorities, as the facts mentioned could not characterize a criminal offense,” Florence Hardouin, the organization’s director general, said in emailed responses to questions from The New York Times in November.

Hardouin noted that the player’s family did not report this case to the authorities or file a complaint. But the federation fired San Jose anyway, after finding he had sent a direct message to the boy and once had invited him to a McDonald’s restaurant, behavior that was, according to Hardouin, “inconsistent with his professional obligations.”

After this article was published on Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the French sports ministry said the organization would open its own investigation into the case.

ImageFrance's soccer federation houses and trains dozens of young prospects at its academy at Clairefontaine.
France’s soccer federation houses and trains dozens of young prospects at its academy at Clairefontaine. Credit…Ed Alcock/eyevine, via, Redux

The federation’s descriptions of the thorough nature of its investigation were disputed by a number of figures present at the time, including several of the boy’s teammates, his mother and former senior officials at Clairefontaine, including Precheur, the training center’s director, who said he was never questioned about what he knew.

Mehnaoui, the goalkeeper who roomed with the boy, said the same. “If the federation says it questioned us today, that is a lie,” he said. “No one ever spoke to me. No one.”

Several attempts were made to contact San Jose by telephone and text message before he eventually replied to a LinkedIn message seeking to discuss his time at Clairefontaine and his later career. San Jose declined. Then he blocked any further attempts to contact him on the platform. Soon afterward, he deactivated his profile.

Ian Ackley, a survivor of abuse by a former top British soccer coach, now heads a group that supports victims with similar experiences in English soccer. He said potential cases of abuse are frequently resolved quietly, and that efforts are made to draw minimal attention to them.

“But it produces a problem elsewhere,” said Ackley, who said he was abused for almost four years, until he was 13, by a coach at Manchester City. “They don’t want the reputational damage of a public inquiry or investigation, and they don’t want to put people off.”

With no finding of abuse or harassment, San Jose was allowed to quietly leave his post with his highly rated, federation-backed qualifications intact. The federation said the qualifications allowed San Jose to work as a volunteer, and under French law there is no provision for a full background check of volunteer coaches.

One of his next stops was at Olympique de Valence, a team playing in the lower rungs of French soccer about an hour’s drive south of Lyon. Malik Vivant, the team’s sporting director, recalled being surprised that someone as qualified as San Jose was available. Given San Jose’s tenure at Clairefontaine, Vivant considered it a coup to have hired someone of his pedigree to coach Valence’s under-15 team. Within months, though, Vivant began to have suspicions.

First, the worried mother of a young player approached the club’s treasurer and asked him why players had to be weighed naked. More alarm bells sounded when club officials learned a young player had stayed overnight at San Jose’s house.

Precheur, the former Clairefontaine director, said that when he found out San Jose was working in Valence, he contacted team officials to tell them what had happened at his academy. Valence eventually removed San Jose, but not for his interactions with young players; he was dismissed after the club discovered he was working with an agent to pitch its players to other teams. “As I had already had doubts, I didn’t hesitate, and I fired him,” Vivant said.

San Jose stayed in the region, though, working in schools and most recently at another amateur team, F.C. Rhone-Vallees. Vivant and Precheur said they had both warned the team against employing San Jose, and had described to club officials the incidents that had taken place at Clairefontaine and Valence.

The team’s president, Yves Jacquier, acknowledged that he had received calls warning him about employing San Jose, including from Precheur, but that he had been unable to “get to the truth.” San Jose, he said, had described the exchange of affectionate messages with the boy at Clairefontaine as a friendly back and forth.

San Jose also persuaded the boy’s mother to write a letter to F.C. Rhone-Vallees confirming that he had never had physical contact with her son. She obliged in July.

“We received a letter from the mother saying there was no physical act on her son, but that’s all,” Jacquier said. “I never was aware about the text messages, never. I was fooled. He lied to me, to us and I’m responsible. I feel ashamed.”

The club said last week it would terminate San Jose’s contract.

The French soccer federation, however, continues to insist that it did nothing wrong, and that without proof it has no standing to bar San Jose from working in soccer, or with children. (The federation awarded him one of its highest-level coaching licenses in 2017.) But France’s sports ministry, reeling from a sexual-abuse scandal in swimming and figure skating, said in a statement to The Times that its guidelines meant it was required to look into the accusations — and at the actions taken by the country’s soccer federation.

While that investigation takes place, others are wrestling anew with the decisions they made. The soccer federation hired a crisis communications consultant soon after receiving questions from The Times about San Jose. Precheur said he was still outraged about what he saw as the federation’s failure to protect a young player. The boy is no longer involved in soccer, and his former teammates now say they wish they had done more to help him. Even the boy’s mother, who in an effort to preserve his dream of a soccer career decided not to rock the boat, is retracing her steps.

Eight years after seeing the message on her son’s phone, she said, she wishes she had just gone to the police.

Elian Peltier contributed reporting.