Another day, another note of horror. Another reminder that football has unconquered issues with how it cares for and guides its young men. And for Manchester United, another note of disaster when it comes to employee management, public relations and general preparedness for the vicissitudes of modern life.
Not least when those vicissitudes have been flagged up since early June, when the first public complaint of domestic abuse was made against Antony, marquee signing of the club’s latest new era.
Over the weekend United’s media relations arm was busy with other matters, making it known, publicly and in no uncertain terms, that recent criticism of its middle management had upset the hierarchy; that the club feels such criticism is undeserved, that things are turning around now, that it is a tightly run ship these days. A fair point, perhaps. But the timing has turned out to be deeply unfortunate. Since then a 3-1 defeat at Arsenal has been followed by a disastrous act of public laundry‑wringing by Jadon Sancho. And now we have this.
The allegations against Antony have been lurking in plain sight for three months now. On Monday afternoon they became unignorable – no matter how hard the club might try – with the publication of further deeply depressing claims in Brazil. Four alleged incidents of violence, injury and threat have been reported to São Paulo police. Greater Manchester police will also now examine the available evidence after Antony’s former partner Gabriela Cavallin spoke to the Brazilian website UOL and produced pictures of alleged injuries sustained. Antony is accused, among other things, of punching Cavallin so hard in the chest she needed surgery on a breast implant, and of sending messages that sound a bit like death threats.
It is important to note that Antony has vigorously denied all the allegations. “My relationship with Ms Gabriela was tumultuous, with verbal offences from both sides,” he wrote on social media. “But I never practised any physical aggression. I trust the ongoing police investigations will reveal the truth about my innocence.” Brazil have since dropped him from the current squad. United are, at the time of writing yet to make any comment. And stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before, but frankly this is starting to feel like a pattern, not to mention, once again, an abject mess.
There are some obvious points to be made here. Should Antony be banned from playing football because there is an allegation against him that will now be tested by the Crown Prosecution Service? Not on the face of it. The presumption of innocence exists for good reason. Is this a non-negotiable principle for all employees? Should it make any difference whether an individual is employed by entities that still claim at heart to be community sports clubs? Teachers and lawyers, among many others, are held to higher standards of behaviour than simply not being convicted of a crime.
It is the kind of issue an employer must be trusted to judge against carefully drawn guidelines. And here we have the real question. We may not prejudge Antony. But we can judge United’s response to the issues raised and ask exactly why this vast, fan-dependent institution, having spent a year and a half wrestling with the issues around Mason Greenwood, does not have a transparent public policy dictating how the club responds when one of its players is accused of violent crime, domestic crime, or crime against women?
Mason Greenwood was suspended by Manchester United for 18 months before the club made the decision for him to leave. Photograph: Adam Vaughan/EPA
It seems inconceivable that in the last three months there hasn’t been a meeting at United of HR department, CEO, head of comms and director of football to establish a clear, public facing set of protocols on how to handle this kind of incident. Perhaps this is already happening, and has been in place for some time. But the key point is, you wouldn’t know it looking on.
The first allegations against Antony emerged three days after the FA Cup final. He has played in all four Premier League games this season. No public statement was made, even as Greenwood was being hastily ushered off the set, with the sense, correctly or not, of an institution simply holding its breath and hoping the bad thing will go away. Is there some kind of lesson to be learned here, perhaps?
Not that United are alone here in any sense. Contracts will of course contain clauses relating to how they behave in public. Employment law offers a framework of rights and obligation. But football clubs are more than simply employers. The wider question is: why doesn’t every Premier League club, and indeed the league itself, have a transparent protocol to deal with such incidents?
These are businesses that proudly monetise their community ties and their family appeal, that style themselves as dream factories, their players as heroes. They are also institutions that hothouse young men on an industrial scale from an ever-younger age, a surrogate school, family, cultural home. And yet as the organisation The Three Hijabis stated last month in an open letter to the football industry, there is no identifiable structure of care here, just an ever more frantic dance of horror, blame and punishment.
“Solely focusing on the actions of individual players allows football clubs and institutions to evade accountability for the role they play in maintaining a culture of silence and impunity – a culture that enables these abuses of power and status in the first place,” the letter notes. “This is a structural issue that football must take responsibility for.”
And it does seem astonishing there is a need to state this so late in the piece, for an organisation such as the End Violence Against Women Coalition to point out that the Premier League and Football Association really should have protocols in place for education, guidance and care on how the thousands of young men passing through this industry interact with women. The point being football has a massive opportunity to do something good in this area, to set standards, to lead the way, rather than burying its head in the sand.
And of course the arguments are commercial, too. You can dismiss the wider arguments entirely. These are your key assets. If money really is driving the show then there is very little money in losing a £100m homegrown player, present at the club since the age of 10, because these lessons are instead being learned in the most painful and public way.
Plus, of course, that duty of care applies to the players themselves. Football has always eaten its young. That process now begins from the age of five or six, or in Antony’s case from his first contract aged 10. He grew up in São Paulo’s Little Hell favela and has talked openly about the powerful effect his environment had on him, from stepping over a corpse in the street aged eight to the motivation to go, as he puts it, “from the slums to Ajax to Manchester United in three years”.
Has professional football been a kind, soft, pastoral place for a 23-year-old who still appears to call himself “the boy from hell”? Perhaps, and perhaps not. Certainly the game can do better; if only because it does so, so little at a time when it has a deeper reach than ever before.