Iceland rudderless after alleged sexual abuse scandal

Published : September 02, 2021 19:19 IST

Gudni Bergsson, who headed Iceland's football federation, resigned earlier this week. Photo: imago images/Seeliger

An alleged sexual abuse scandal has left Iceland’s football program rudderless amid calls for change of an "unacceptable" culture at the highest level. Their World Cup qualifying campaign begins on September 02.

It was a brutal and potentially life-changing moment for a young woman as 25-year-old Thorhildur Gyda Arnarsdottir revealed the alleged details in a TV interview. Arnarsdottir said she and another woman were assaulted by a player on the national football team while at a Reykjavik bar in September of 2017. Both women, Arnarsdottir added, were injured, and the two filed complaints with police the following day. Arnarsdottir's parents later spoke personally with KSI chairman Gudni Bergsson, she said.

Arnarsdottir said that the alleged perpetrator admitted his actions, apologized, and paid compensation. But, she said, only after an attempt by the Football Federation of Iceland to buy her silence. "A lawyer from the football association asked if I was ready to sign a non-disclosure agreement and also to receive compensation," she said. "And, naturally, I said no."

National broadcaster RUV asked Bergsson whether the complaint or "any such cases" had crossed his desks. "No, not in any formal manner," was the reply — but the claim was later contradicted by email correspondence between Arnarsottir's father and the president of Iceland, who acknowledged communicating with the chairman about the matter. Bergsson resigned his post on Sunday.

Arnardsottir called for the entire KSI executive committee to likewise resign and acknowledge they had approved hiring players with abuse allegations against them. The committee did so, en masse, on Monday, saying in a statement "we as a community all need to do better to support victims and fight sexual violence."

'We failed the victims'

Such words have been uttered before in Iceland, a country regarded, without irony, as the "best place to be a woman" because of its 12-year run atop the World Economic Forum's Gender Gap Index. That index details the world's top countries on issues of gender equality.

Yet, according to a University of Iceland study in 2018, one in four Icelandic women has been raped or sexually assaulted. The Scandinavian Journal of Public Health also published a report in 2020, citing an extraordinarily high incidence of what it calls intimate-partner violence at the top Reykjavik hospital's emergency room.

At the KSI, and on the men's team, allegations of abuse have dotted the landscape for years, as detailed last month in a piece by columnist Hanna Bjorg Vilhjalmsdottir in the Reykjavik Visir. She recounted incidents of alleged sexual and domestic abuse by team players, and an alleged gang rape about 10 years ago which some players later joked about.

Vilhjalmsdottir asked whether the KSI would continue to send the message to boys and men that they can use violence against women and not "have to take responsibility for their acts."

Following the resignations of most of the Football Federation of Iceland's top brass, the new, acting chairman said this: "I think it's very clear we need a big internal tidy-up," said Klara Bjartmarz, who refused to quit her post as executive director of the KSI even as most of the federation's leadership, resigned. "We need to listen. We need to learn… we failed the victims."