LONDON • Two weeks ago, retired British professional football player Andy Woodward stepped out from the shadows, telling The Guardian in an extensive interview that he was raped hundreds of times as a child by serial paedophile Barry Bennell, a former elite youth coach who used his power and prestige in the sports world to lure, manipulate and sexually abuse young players decades ago.
What was shocking about Woodward's raw account was not the identity of his abuser, for Bennell had been convicted of raping him decades ago.
It was the former player's speculations that Bennell may have victimised hundreds of other boys like him - and that the sexual abuse of players by coaches in the English youth football network was far more widespread than anyone in the 1980s and 1990s knew.
Around the country, other former players, now adult men, read Woodward's words. Then they too started stepping forward.
Now, dozens have reported to authorities and alleged in media interviews that Bennell and other coaches sexually abused them as boys.
The accused, along with their accusers
A talent spotter at Crewe Alexandra and a coach at Manchester City, Bennell worked for a number of clubs in England's north-west during the 1980s. He was charged with eight historical sex offences against a 14-year-old boy on Tuesday.
Started at Crewe and played for six clubs.
Youth team player with Crewe and City but never played professionally.
Youth team player with City and then Crewe before leaving football at 16 to play golf.
Crewe's youngest debutant in 1988.
Preston North End reserve side player at the centre of the case that put Bennell behind bars for the third time in 2015.
One-time England international and long-time City player.
Former Newcastle youth coach sentenced to six years in 2002 for offences committed over almost 25 years.
Former Newcastle player.
Former Newcastle player.
Former Chelsea chief scout who has since died.
Part of Chelsea's first-team squad from 1978-81, who was paid £50,000 (S$90,300) by the club to stay quiet.
Unnamed abusers and their accusers
Former Tottenham and Liverpool player was abused for four years by a coach, who promised to "make him a star".
DEAN RADFORD & JAMIE WEBB
Former Southampton youth players say they were abused by a club employee.
The growing case has drawn comparisons to the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Penn State football programme in the United States in 2011, and in Britain to the one involving one of their most-loved celebrities, Jimmy Savile, a cigar-chomping BBC television star who abused hundreds of youngsters over six decades.
Savile's crimes did not come to light until his death, aged 84 in 2011.
"It is a sickeningly familiar tale," an editorial in The Sunday Observer said. "Report after report has revealed how institution after institution - the Catholic church, the BBC, the National Health Service, councils acting in loco parentis for children in care - have chosen to look the other way when signs emerged of child abuse within their walls."
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) charity said that a helpline dedicated to the football abuse scandal had received almost 900 calls in its first week.
The charity's staff had made 60 referrals to police or social services in the first three days - triple the number made in the wake of a similar scheme for victims of Savile.
"We've had a staggering surge in calls to our football helpline which reveals the worrying extent of abuse that had been going on within the sport," said Peter Wanless, NSPCC chief executive.
British police said on Thursday that about 350 victims had come forward to report sexual abuse within football clubs and indicated the number was likely to rise.
English football's governing body, the Football Association, has launched an internal review into what it admitted could be one of the sport's biggest crises, but cast doubt on claims that some clubs had tried to cover up allegations.
"If the FA have made errors, we will own up to them as must the rest of football if avoidable errors have been made," Martin Glenn, the FA chief executive, said on Thursday.
"The only way that this gets dealt with is through openness and honesty and everyone exposing what has happened."
Bennell has been accused by at least 20 footballers of abusing them when he worked for Crewe Alexandra, Manchester City and Stoke City across three decades beginning in the 1970s.
On Tuesday, the 62-year-old, who is the target of five separate police investigations, was charged with eight historical sex offences against a 14-year-old boy.
They included indecent assault, inciting a boy to commit an act of gross indecency and assault with intent to commit sodomy.
Victims tell similar tales of how they were targeted while playing for youth teams and feared speaking out would wreck their dreams.
"My life has been ruined," Woodward, 43, said in his Guardian interview on the abuse he suffered playing for Crewe Alexandra. "We've seen with the Jimmy Savile case how people have had the courage, yet I'd say within the football world it's even harder to speak out."
Among the former players who waived a legal right to anonymity to tell their stories are former Manchester City player David White, who won an England cap, and another ex-England striker, Paul Stewart, who had a successful career at Man City, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool.
"My belief is that there are hundreds," a tearful Stewart told BBC TV last week, saying he believed the scandal would prove to be worse than the Savile revelations.
"The access to the children at sport level is very easy and it's perfect ground for (child abusers) to prey."
Former Newcastle player David Eatock, 40, said he had been a victim of former youth coach George Ormond, who was sentenced to six years in 2002 for offences committed over almost 25 years.
"One of the more difficult parts for me is that I wasn't as young as some of the others," Eatock told The Guardian newspaper. "I was 18 when I got to know George Ormond. I can still remember the look on his face, how terrifying it was, and how his eyes were possessed."
He added: "I'm just glad Andy Woodward, by speaking out, has given me the strength to do this because I never would have otherwise. It has been like a knot in my brain and I'm now trying to pick apart that knot."
REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST