Ciara McCormack: the Canadian whistleblower turned soccer CEO

<span>Photograph: The Canadian Press/Alamy</span>
Photograph: The Canadian Press/Alamy

When Ciara McCormack finished her testimony before a Canadian parliamentary committee hearing on safe sport last April, she decided to buy a soccer team. It was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. For over a decade, the former Vancouver Whitecaps player and Republic of Ireland international had fought to highlight abuse and cover-ups at the highest level of Canadian soccer.

Some people listened to McCormack and her fellow players. Others didn’t. Or if they did listen, they decided everything was OK. Or decided institutions must be protected above the welfare of people. With the exception of police reopening an investigation into former Vancouver Whitecaps and Canada national youth coach Bob Birarda that led to multiple sex offence charges, a guilty plea and jail time, not much changed. The system remained intact and enablers dodged accountability.

“After I went to Ottawa for the hearing in April I realized that if we want change then we have to be in the mix about making decisions for everything,” McCormack says. “It is easy to complain about how things should be but I decided to do something about it. It all unfolded pretty quickly.”

After a playing career that included time with the Vancouver Whitecaps, Fortuna Hjorring in Denmark, and the Newcastle Jets in Australia – becoming the first North American to play in a Uefa Champions League final along the way – McCormack activated ‘veteran status’ on her playing card earlier this year to turn out for the Limerick-based Treaty United in League of Ireland. Although born in Canada, eight caps for the Republic of Ireland a decade ago had solidified ties with her ancestral homeland.

“I saw that Treaty had amazing volunteers but the club was underfunded,” McCormack said. “I could see that Ireland was heading towards professionalizing club soccer and Treaty was hanging on between professional and amateur.”

It is easy to complain about how things should be, but I decided to do something about it.

Ciara McCormack

Over the past summer, McCormack had some discreet – and frank – conversations in Ireland and Canada. A bold idea became reality when Vancouver-based investment group, Tricor Pacific Capital, stepped up to finance buying the club. McCormack was installed this month as co-owner and CEO of a reinvigorated organization featuring Limerick’s only professional men’s and women’s soccer teams, with a focus on youth development. The takeover makes McCormack the first female CEO in League of Ireland.

“It is about creating a blueprint for what a player-centric situation looks like,” says McCormack, who is also on the board of PFACan, Canada’s player’s union. “It won’t be perfect because nothing ever is – and it would be silly to promise that – but as a player who has gone through some fairly horrific things, what is best for the player will always be first in mind. It is important to put players first.”

Treaty FC’s men’s team will kick off their League of Ireland season in February next year, five years to the day since McCormack wrote an explosive blog post revealing coach Bob Birarda was still coaching young women in Vancouver, despite being released by Vancouver Whitecaps and Canada Soccer after allegations of sexual misconduct. Reporting by the Guardian revealed a toxic Canadian soccer system with no accountability. Senior officials at both club and national level had downplayed or ignored multiple complaints about Birarda from players for years and kept secret the reasons he had been dismissed.

Last April was McCormack’s second appearance before Canadian politicians in Ottawa. She was questioned about the need for a government inquiry into abuse across all Canadian sports. In an at-times harrowing testimony, McCormack said she left Canada in 2007 after reporting abuse by Birarda. A year later, Birarda left his roles at the Whitecaps and Canada Soccer by what was publicly described, at the time, as a “mutual agreement”.

Numerous former high-level soccer players allege Canada Soccer, the Vancouver Whitecaps and club president Bob Lenarduzzi, pictured, failed to take their concerns seriously.
Numerous former high-level soccer players allege Canada Soccer, the Vancouver Whitecaps and club president Bob Lenarduzzi, pictured, failed to take their concerns seriously. Photograph: Darryl Dyck/AP

“Inexplicably he was allowed by Canada Soccer to continue coaching teenage girls,” McCormack told the committee hearing in April. “For 12 years, I and others reported this known predator repeatedly, to no avail.”

McCormack has consistently highlighted the leadership roles played by Concacaf president and Fifa vice-president Victor Montagliani, a former president of Canada Soccer, as well as Fifa World Cup 2026 executive Peter Montopoli, a former general secretary of Canada Soccer, during the time.

“Victor Montagliani was also identified in the July 2022 McLaren report to have been directly involved in covering up for a now-convicted sex offender, along with Peter Montopoli, someone who should also be called to answer for his despicable conduct in his time with Canada Soccer,” McCormack told the committee hearing. “Both continue untouched in their prominent roles at Fifa … I just feel ashamed, honestly, to be a Canadian – ashamed that this is the reality of what it means and of the response to being a Canadian athlete.”

The McLaren Independent Canada Soccer Review was commissioned by Canada Soccer and published by McLaren Global Sports Solutions in 2022. The report set out to review Canada Soccer’s response to harassment allegations made in 2008 against Bob Birarda in his role as U-20 women’s national team coach.

Birarda’s departure was characterized by Canada Soccer at the time as a mutual parting of ways. No mention was made of the allegations against him and he was given Canada Soccer’s “best wishes”. In his role as Canada Soccer vice president Montagliani was a central figure in how the departure was managed and Peter Montopoli, now in charge of Canada’s 2026 World Cup host role, was the organization’s general secretary.

The McLaren report found that Canada Soccer: “misled players and obfuscated the true reason for his departure: his continued harassment of players and abuse of the power… [Canada Soccer’s failure to terminate Birarda and impose disciplinary sanctions afforded him the opportunity to continue coaching, putting other players at potential risk.”

A Concacaf spokesperson, speaking for Montagliani about his time at Canada Soccer, previously told the Guardian “the subsequent handling of Mr Birarda’s departure, including the communications, was led by Canada Soccer’s legal counsel.”

“I have had a wide array of experiences and from every place, there are good and bad things,” McCormack told the Guardian. “What happened in Vancouver was the worst and elsewhere there have been clubs that didn’t have resources but the people involved really cared about making the players feel safe. The Canadian abuse situation is a massive issue and everything that happened with Spain after the World Cup showed the reality that we are still battling.”

Canada Soccer announced late last year that it plans to launch its own professional women’s league in 2025 currently called Project 8. Three teams have been announced: Toronto City, Calgary Foothills and Vancouver Whitecaps. With McCormack’s strong ties to Vancouver and Treaty investors Tricor Pacific Capital also based in the city (Vancouver is also Concacaf President Montagliani’s home town) wouldn’t it make better sense to invest in Canada?

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“I am in total support for any opportunities for Canadian women to continue playing and I think a pro league in Canada is very long overdue,” McCormack says. “But after everything that happened in Vancouver and the fact that the same [Vancouver Whitecaps] owners that really harmed us for over a decade are going to be involved in this new league, it doesn’t feel like the right thing for me to be involved with.

Alongside Canada Soccer, Vancouver Whitecaps failed to publicly acknowledge the reasons for the departure of Birarda as well as his successor Hubert Busby Jr who also left the club in controversial circumstances. Vancouver Whitecaps majority owner Greg Kerfoot, a software millionaire, and executives Bob and Dan Lenarduzzi, were all in decision-making positions with the club and remain with the Whitecaps.

“Ireland was the country that gave me an opportunity internationally and it checks the boxes of being able to impact a country that rescued me from a terrible situation,” McCormack says. “Stepping into roles where women are not traditionally involved is a way to make a positive impact on the landscape. We need to open the doors so leadership in soccer is more diverse and other voices are heard. If we want to change things on a global scale then this has to start happening.”

For now, rather than be exhausted by Canadian soccer’s administration, McCormack is excited by her new Treaty adventure in Limerick. As she sees it, good people can make great things.

“So many unbelievable people are involved at Treaty, from volunteers to coaches, and I have been genuinely blown away by the quality of people around the club,” she says. “This is a long term project on and off the field and we need to put money into the infrastructure. The goal is to be a winning club and we want to be competitive in Ireland and then build from there. There has not been a men’s international player from Limerick in about 40 years so we also want to change things like that.”

“The one thing that I have always been is authentic, for better or for worse,” McCormack adds. “I cannot erase the experiences I’ve had and they have made me the person who I am. I will forever be advocating for players. Players are the lifeblood of the sport. To lose that part of me would be to lose my soul.”