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Tottenham must find a way to reassure supporters about Yves Bissouma, or walk away

UK libel laws make it difficult to talk about it. Spurs must find a way, or step back from this signing.

Brighton & Hove Albion v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

By now you’ve seen the news that Tottenham Hotspur are close to an agreement with Brighton & Hove Albion for the transfer of Mali international midfielder Yves Bissouma. The fee is still under negotiation but is expected to be around £22m-23m. This has, as expected, thrust Tottenham into a maelstrom of discourse, due to a shroud of legal ambiguity over a sexual assault allegation that has hovered above Bissouma for nearly a year.

We need to talk about that shroud, because this is extremely important, and silence is death.

I want to start by saying that Yves Bissouma is an excellent footballer, and he would indisputably improve Tottenham’s midfield next season. He’s a player that I’ve watched and whose play I’ve admired for a couple of seasons now, and if this signing were taking place purely in a football context then it would be a hugely exciting one. Tottenham Hotspur would be a better-performing football club with Bissouma on the pitch.

But that’s not the issue here. Bissouma’s current legal status is, to put it quite mildly, extremely murky, and due to the nature of the incident in which he is connected (a reported case of sexual assault) at present it is impossible for me to comfortably disentangle Bissouma’s on-pitch ability with what has been reported about what took place that night.

I am not an expert on legal issues in the United Kingdom. I know that libel laws in the UK are strict, and that is almost certainly why Bissouma’s status has not been addressed fully in the media. It’s also why neither Brighton nor Tottenham have issued any sort of public comment. My status as an American and this blog being located in the United States likely gives me more leeway to talk about this situation. However, I feel as though it would be a disservice to speculate at all about Bissouma’s legal status, what he may or may not have done, or what it potentially means. Speculation does no one any good in this matter.

There’s a decent summary of Bissouma’s status on Reddit, with a minimum of editorializing. Very briefly, here’s what we know: in early October 2021, Bissouma was arrested along with another man in his 40s under suspicion for their roles in an incident of sexual assault that took place at a Brighton nightclub. Bissouma was released the following day on bail until November 3. His and the other man’s bail was extended over the next weeks until early January 2022.

The last relevant update from the Sussex Police in April announced that while the man in his 40s has had his bail extended further, Bissouma was “released under investigation while inquiries continue.” Notably, following a short period after the arrest, Bissouma continued to play football for Brighton & Hove Albion and also at the African Cup of Nations with Mali.

In the immediate wake of the incident, Brighton & Hove Albion made the following statement, to my knowledge the only public statement it has made on the incident:

“Brighton and Hove Albion are aware that one of its players is assisting police with the investigation of an alleged offence.

“The matter is subject to a legal process and the club is therefore unable to make further comment at this time.”

Bissouma was not charged with a crime from what happened in October, but he very notably was not fully released from suspicion, and has yet to be. That has put him in a legal grey area where he is (obviously) innocent until proven guilty, but still under a legal cloud that does not eliminate the possibility that he was involved in or committed a crime.

UK libel laws mean that there has been very little actual reporting done on what happened in October, and what we don’t know could fill a volume substantially larger than what we actually do know. There are rumors. You probably know about some of them. They should not factor into our considerations on this issue. Because of this ambiguity, I am deliberately trying not to draw any conclusions other than what has been reported by the police and in the media. It is this very ambiguity that is the heart of the issue for me, and why at this time I would feel deeply uncomfortable with Tottenham Hotspur proceeding with this signing.

I would like to believe that Tottenham knows what it is doing here. I want to assume that club officials have access to information, even confidentially, that is not available to the general public, and that Spurs are making a transfer decision with enough knowledge to make an informed decision about Bissouma’s legal status and what it means for him to continue to play football. I want to believe that Tottenham, which has outwardly shown support for marginalized supporter groups and good causes in the past, has done its due diligence here and that as fans we can assume the best about what this signing means for the club.

I am, unfortunately, not confident that this is the case.

The truth is that we just don’t know. And when it comes to incidents of sexual assault involving a current, past, or future member of Tottenham Hotspur, not knowing and assuming the best isn’t good enough.

Tottenham is likely severely restricted in what it can and cannot say about Yves Bissouma, both in what has happened to him and what could yet be in his future. It’s altogether possible that they are not able to issue a public statement at this time about what it means. But if they ARE able to do so, the club absolutely must address supporters with all due haste to give some assurances that they know what they’re doing. And if they are NOT able to do so, then the club has no business trying to sign Bissouma and should look elsewhere for a midfield reinforcement.

Other clubs clearly have different priorities and comfort levels with this kind of thing. Manchester United notably signed Cristiano Ronaldo in 2021 while he was credibly accused of rape in the United States, and has played for more than a season under that cloud; the suit against him was recently dismissed by a magistrate not because Ronaldo was found not guilty, but because of his accuser’s lawyers committing malfeasance. But Ronaldo’s status as an accused sexual predator clearly didn’t bother Manchester United at the time. I expect a lot better than that from Spurs.

I want to be perfectly clear here about my position. I am not assuming that Bissouma has done anything wrong. He may not have! If more information was to come out that provides further clarification that exonerates him further or explained his situation more fully, something that is very unlikely to happen at this point in time, then I would be extremely pleased with Bissouma’s signing and very relieved that he has been cleared of wrongdoing, because he’s a hell of a footballer.

But that’s not the issue here, and until we know for sure, Tottenham is in a position where they are potentially signing a player that is still under the shroud of an ongoing sexual assault investigation. Fans cannot, and should not, give the club the benefit of the doubt in these circumstances. Think about what it means for Tottenham fans — or football fans in general — who are survivors of sexual assault and who see a player still under suspicion of that crime joining their club. Are we to expect that those supporters are supposed to stay silent? Why should they assume the club is doing the right thing when they are not giving us reason to do so?

Should this signing go through, the onus is on Tottenham to reassure supporters that they are making a decision that is in the best interests of the club. It is THEIR responsibility to do so. It is NOT the responsibility of supporters to assume the best. If they are committed to signing Yves Bissouma, they need to find a way to convince edgy Spurs fans like me as soon as possible, and through some sort of official or trusted channel. “Innocent until proven guilty” may be the burden of proof in a court of law, but is not applicable in non-legal applications or in the hiring practices of football clubs. In this case, it is simply not good enough.

And to be even more clear, if the club gives assurances to supporters as to Bissouma’s status and if the preponderance of evidence bears that out, then I will be over the moon. I want to be able to enjoy watching Bissouma play without wondering if he has done something wrong, because football is more than just watching players on the pitch. If Spurs are truly committed to being a club for everyone, then all of its transfer moves must be held under a strict system of scrutiny.

There are plenty of good and available central midfielders that Tottenham Hotspur could sign this summer. Signing Bissouma under the circumstances as we understand them now is a CHOICE, but until more information is communicated, I am in the unenviable position of not supporting this signing, or Tottenham’s decision-making as part of the process. There is no place on this team for sexual predators, and even the slim possibility that Spurs may sign one is abhorrent to me, and should be to all supporters. Tottenham either needs to explain itself, or walk away.