24 Women Soccer Players Accuse Venezuela's Ex-Youth Coach of Sexual Abuse

The alleged abuse took place between 2013 and 2017 while Kenneth Zseremeta was coach of two women's youth soccer teams.
Deyna Castellanos of Venezuela
Deyna Castellanos of Venezuela runs with the ball during the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup Quarter Final match between Mexico and Venezuela at Amman International Stadium on October 12, 2016 in Amman, Jordan. Photo by Boris Streubel - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images.

Venezuelan prosecutors are seeking the arrest of a former national women's soccer coach on sexual abuse charges after a group of 24 players accused him of a litany of violations in an open letter.

The alleged physical, psychological, and sexual abuse occurred between 2013 and 2017 while Kenneth Zseremeta, now 55, served as coach of the women's U-17 and U-20 national soccer teams. 

“Although it sounds crazy, for us it was normal that our coach gave opinions, commented and questioned us about our sexuality and intimacy while we were still minors,” states the letter that was shared on social media this month by star player Deyna Castellanos.

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“Today we understand that these actions had the goal of manipulating us and making us feel guilty,” the letter adds.

Three days after the players published their letter on social media, Venezuela’s attorney general said he had obtained a warrant for the arrest of Zseremeta, and his former assistant Williams Pino, who is also named in the letter.

In separate statements, Zseremeta and Pino rejected the accusations and called for the public to respect the presumption of innocence. Zseremeta is Panamanian and left Venezuela in 2018. He noted that out of roughly 600 players who he coached in Venezuela, only 24 have made any form of accusation against him.

Pino said in his letter that he was outside of the country, and according to his LinkedIn profile, he has been coaching women’s soccer in the Dominican Republic. He asked why the players had waited so long to make the accusations and that they present evidence to support their claims.

The allegations come amid a global reckoning on abuse within women’s soccer that includes scandals in the United States, involving alleged sexual harassment by a coach of the women’s pro soccer league, and in Australia, where a prominent former player said she was groomed and preyed upon by older players early in her career.  

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The alleged abuse in Venezuela stands out for the victims’ youth and the rarity of women speaking out against sexual abuse in a region where the “Me Too” movement has struggled to gain traction due to the deeply ingrained chauvinistic culture. 

According to the 24 players who signed the open letter, the abuse was constant while Zseremeta coached their teams, and while some suffered more than others, few were spared.

Heterosexual players were subjected to sexual insinuations, repeated comments about their physical appearance, unwanted massages and “other situations that definitely were not normal.” Meanwhile, LGBTQ players were threatened with being outed to their parents if they didn’t perform well, according to the letter.

In the most troubling allegation, the letter said that a player confided in her teammates in 2020 that Zseremeta began sexually abusing her in 2014 when she was only 14 years old, continuing until he was dismissed as coach three years later. 

“This has been news that for all of us has been very difficult to assimilate, to the extent that many of us feel guilty for having been so close to all this and not having noticed something so serious and reprehensible,” the letter says. 

“At the same time, the confession did not surprise us, as that was the kind of environment that the coach cultivated every day.”

Zseremeta allegedly took advantage of the fact that the pay the young player earned from her spot on the national team was often the family’s only source of income, which gave him power over her because she feared not being selected for the team.

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In response to the allegations, which quickly went viral and garnered an outpouring of support worldwide, Venezuela’s soccer federation issued a statement reaffirming its commitment to protecting the wellbeing of the players. The federation sent letters to regional and international soccer bodies, including FIFA, requesting an investigation of the coach’s actions and asking that he be prohibited from holding any job within soccer worldwide.

Zseremeta started coaching women’s soccer in Venezuela in 2008. He was fired in 2017 following a third-place tournament finish that he attributed to the poor nutrition levels of the players. At the time, the country was in the early stages of a deep economic recession that dramatically increased poverty and food insecurity. The coach said he was fired because he pointed out the crisis.

The swift indictment of the coach and his assistant is surprising in a country where the justice system is often slow or reticent to act. While the move was applauded by many, it also raised questions. “Three days after the accusation and the investigation is already done?” said a user on Twitter. 

In their letter, the players said that they had explored the possibility of filing a criminal complaint but ultimately decided that the public statement was the best avenue to achieve some form of justice.

“Many people might ask why it took us so long to say this,” they said. “This process has not been easy for us, but we have come to understand that as victims of abuse it is important to raise our voice, to defend the honor of our teammates, and for a person like this to never have the power to harm another girl or woman.”