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Does Solskjaer deserve due process?

Saturday 15th February 2020
Decisions often come back to haunt us. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's choice to trust a player while at Molde now undermines his standing at Old Trafford.
Decisions often come back to haunt us. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's choice to trust a player while at Molde now undermines his standing at Old Trafford.

On Friday, the Telegraph reported on a rape case in Norway involving a player managed by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer while he was in charge at Molde. Babacar Sarr allegedly assaulted several women during his time at the club but Molde stood by him. That decision now threatens Solskjaer’s reputation and his job at Manchester United. Should it?

For now, the club believes it should not. United issued a brief statement on the issue when the story broke.

As manager of Molde at the time, Ole Gunnar Solskjær fully respected the due process of the Norwegian legal system, which is still ongoing.

The Twitterverse, of course, does not believe in due process. It prefers to try anyone and everyone in the court of public opinion where lies are more readily believed than facts. In that arena, Solskjaer’s detractors attempt to portray him as a manager so desperate to win he’d knowingly play a rapist and even name him captain.

In this regard, the Norwegian failed to help himself when sanctioning the loan for Odion Ighalo just as the transfer window closed. United were desperate for another body, anybody, at centre-forward with Marcus Rashford lost for the season. The problem is Ighalo is represented [we think] by Jim Solbakken, Babacar Sarr's former agent. After Solskjaer left Molde, Solbakken may or may not have arranged to get his client out of Norway and the reach of the courts. Solbakken and Solskjaer are also said to be close friends.

The original trial ended with a split verdict acquitting Sarr. The two laymen who heard the case believed guilt wasn’t proven beyond a reasonable doubt but the professional judge felt it was. Even though he wasn’t convicted, the court demanded the player pay restitution to the victim. The prosecution immediately appealed the verdict as insufficient.

Shortly afterward, Sarr returned to old club Enisey, in Russia, before moving on to Damac in the Saudi Pro League. He is currently without a club. Meanwhile, the Norwegian prosecutor claims Solbakken assured her his client was aware of his court date this past June. The accuser's attorney told the press that the defence informed him Solbakken was expected to testify on his client’s behalf. When Sarr failed to show, Solbakken denied he was still the player's agent or had been since his transfer to Enisey.

Signing a player represented by his friend in these circumstances doesn’t paint Solskjaer in the best light.

At the same time, it isn’t solid evidence that the United manager played Sarr with knowledge of his guilt. It’s understood that the player assured Molde and Solskjaer of his innocence. 

Given that the Norwegian courts presume innocence until guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt and because the rest of us cannot be trusted to follow suit, the press typically protect the identity of both victims and accused with their futures in mind. Unlike the United Kingdom or America where Sarr's name would be plastered across front pages, it is normal in Norway that the club would not have suspended the player pending a verdict.

Solskjaer Solbakken Redcafe Mpalazzotto

Assuming Sarr’s identity wasn't revealed and he was unanimously exonerated, he could continue his life without the spectre of the accusation hanging over him. That is as it should be. Unfortunately, prevailing opinion in most countries, especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement, is that the accuser’s credibility should never be questioned while the accused’s life must be put on full stop and held under the harshest light, guilty until proven innocent. 

It’s an extremely difficult problem with no clear solution. Rape is a vile crime that simply cannot be tolerated but justice is not served by accepting the lesser of two evils. On the one hand, it’s too easy for rapists, especially those in power or who have powerful friends, to discredit a victim. On the other, it’s just as easy to destroy a life by falsely playing the victim. Point the finger and let the court of public opinion tear your rival down. A fair justice system cannot play whack-a-mole with people’s lives. Norway’s approach has its problems as well. Secret courts cannot be trusted at any level. Everyone deserves justice but it cannot be delivered easily.

In this case, Sarr’s innocence appears to be dubious at best, unlikely in the face of leaked information and the fact there are others who also accuse him. The victim who spoke to the Telegraph doesn’t come off as dishonest or a publicity seeker. Yet, Sarr’s case still cannot be tried fairly on the internet. Nor can Solskjaer’s. He isn’t the first or most successful manager to play a footballer accused of rape who refuses to offer himself up to the courts for judgment.

Massimiliano Allegri started Cristiano Ronaldo for a full season under those circumstances. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner won't travel to the United States lest he be detained. When the Las Vegas district attorney declined to press charges, Ronaldo’s accuser sued. Last week, a federal judge recommended the case be settled in private arbitration, behind closed doors. Regardless, Allegri wasn't sacked for harbouring a suspected criminal. He was dismissed for not winning the Champions League despite Ronaldo's presence.

With all that in mind, judgment on Solskjaer hinges on personal opinion. He followed his employer's wishes, letting the court decide the player’s guilt or innocence. He chose to believe Sarr, who looked him in the eye and said he was innocent when he probably wasn’t. He now stands by a personal friend and continues to do business with him after said friend’s credibility is seriously questioned. It isn't beyond the realm of possibility that Jim Solbakken believed he was helping a client escape a grave injustice although, if he was complicit in Sarr's flight from Norwegian authorities, he must answer for his actions. In any event, Ole’s detractors are happy to label him as anything from naïve to duplicitous, not out of any moral outrage but simply to be rid of him as manager. His supporters see a fierce loyalty in his actions, refusing to abandon those he trusts on the word of strangers, a quality the best manager must possess.

The alleged victim's pain leads her to claim Solskjaer doesn’t deserve to manage Manchester United or even the night shift at the local factory. She deserves justice. But, as deeply as she suffers, she cannot in fairness condemn others for trusting Babacar Sarr. Where she sees conspirators there may only be more victims. The doubt I now hold in my mind about a manager I respected unconditionally just a few days ago only confirms it.

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Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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