RREYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) — Iceland’s national soccer team took on Romania on Thursday in the first match since the team was rocked by a series of sex abuse scandals that saw the country’s entire soccer association board resign after it was accused of covering up assault allegations.
Outside the Laugardalsvöllur stadium in the capital Reykjavík, protesters held banners expressing solidarity with victims of sexual abuse ahead of the game, which Romania won 2-0.
Iceland prides itself on gender equality, and the many tickets left unsold for the World Cup qualifying match suggested that the team’s popularity had taken a hit.
The sexual misconduct scandal engulfing Icelandic football has been building up since July, when a prominent Icelandic player was arrested in the U.K. over an alleged sexual offence against a minor.
The Icelandic soccer association had repeatedly denied knowing of any other incidents of sexual misconduct, until a local woman stepped forward in a TV interview last week saying she had been attacked and harassed by the striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson at a nightclub in 2017.
“I was incredibly surprised to hear the association deny ever dealing with a case of sexual violence,” Thorhildur Arnarsdottir said in the interview with public broadcaster RUV. She claims a lawyer from the soccer association attempted to have her sign a non-disclosure agreement.
Sigthorsson allegedly paid her a settlement a year after the incident and was temporarily removed from the team, but the reason was not made public. He has now been taken off the team for an extended period of time, together with midfielder Runar Sigurjonsson, whose case has not been explained publicly.
Gudni Bergsson, chairman of The Football Association of Iceland, stepped down earlier this week, followed by the resignation of the governing body’s entire board of 16 members. On Wednesday chief executive Klara Bjartmarz said she was “taking time off” — leaving no top figures left in charge.
The team’s official fan club, Tolfan, has instructed supporters to stay silent for the first 12 minutes of Thursday’s game in solidarity with victims who may be afraid to speak out.
Iceland, a country of just 360,000 people, has long been known for punching above its weight in football and beat England at the 2016 European Championship before making it to the World Cup in 2018. Members of the national team are celebrities and are often referred to by the media as “our boys.”
Activist Johanna Jonsdottir, who was among the organizers of Thursday’s peaceful protest, said she was proud of the Tolfan fanclub for standing firmly with victims of violence, however painful those stories might be.
“I’m not sure that would have been the case 10 years ago,” she said. “We are moving forward.”