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NWSL scandal hangs over Iceland's biggest game

October 10, 2022

A World Cup berth has so far eluded Iceland. But Midfielder Gunnhildur Yrsa Jonsdottir believes the team can grasp their playoff chance and spoke of her relief that the NWSL scandal is in the open.

Gunnhildur Yrsa Jonsdottir in training for Iceland
Gunnhildur Yrsa Jonsdottir has been playing for Iceland for more than a decade but is on the verge of a first World CupImage: Sven Beyrich/Sport Press Photo/ZUMA Press/picture alliance

As Gunnhildur Yrsa Jonsdottir prepares to represent Iceland in what she calls "the most important game" in her career, the football scandal rocking the United States, where Jonsdottir spent a chunk of her childhood and now plays, still hangs heavy.

The Iceland midfielder, commonly known as 'Gunny', spoke to DW from the Portugese city of Porto ahead of her team's Women's World Cup 2023 playoff against Portugal on Tuesday.

If they win, Iceland make it into their first World Cup (though they've made the last four Euros).

Any outcome other than that, and a complex playoff system leaves things up in the air.

"This is the biggest game in Icelandic women's football history. So we know that, and we know what we need to prepare for," she said. "Iceland, on the women's side, has never qualified for the World Cup. So this is huge. If we go to the World Cup, I think we'll be writing history for the women's game."

Iceland fans charter plane

That phrase has become commonplace in European women's football in 2022, with Iceland part of a Euros that set multiple records, mostly regarding attendance.

Although Iceland has a population of less than 400,000, team fans have developed a reputation for traveling to matches in large numbers and creating an enormous spectacle.

Despite Iceland's fans only finding out where they were traveling to late last week after Portugal beat Belgium, Jonsdottir said "there is a whole plane coming."

"At least we'll have that, which is wonderful. And we also feel the support from home," she said.

The day after Iceland found out they were to play Portugal, Jonsdottir's adopted nation, the US, played in front of more than 76,000 fans at Wembley in a 2-1 loss to England.

Players from both sides wore teal-colored armbands and held a banner saying 'Protect the Players' following the publication of an inquiry that found that US's top domestic league, the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL), had a "systemic" culture of abuse and misconduct.

Jonsdottir, who plays for Orlando Pride in the NWSL, said the report's findings came as a "relief". 

Pride coach and former US international Amanda Cromwell is one of those terminated following the year-long investigation.

'Women's football deserves better'

"Finally, there's something happening, and you see that there are strides in the right direction," she said.

"Women's football does deserve better, does deserve more. It's wonderful that players are speaking up and demanding better. And it's great to see teams taking action and players taking action.

To me, that is number one because without the players, you don't have this sport. So I think it's time that you treat the players better and coaches and staff and owners don't get away with how they've been treating players in the last years."

The 33-year-old added that she believes the increased attention on women's football is helping create an environment where victims of abuse are starting to be believed above perpetrators.

Things things need to keep progressing though, she said.

"It took a player like [USA forward] Alex Morgan to get things moving because she has the platform. And it's wonderful that she did that, because it started a movement in this sport that has been well needed," she said. "Hopefully, people then are starting to feel more confident about speaking up if that happens to them, or is in their environment."

Iceland squad the right blend

Having won 95 caps since making her Iceland debut in 2011, Jonsdottir is well-placed to judge the merits of the current Iceland set up.

Iceland players celebrate a goal against Italy at Euro 2022
Iceland drew with France and Italy at Euro 2022 but couldn't progress past the group stageImage: Harriet Lander/Getty Images

"I would say it's probably one of the best," she said. "It has such a good balance of young players who have experience, young players that are so hungry to do well with older players who have been here for a while and have a lot of experience. Then you also have the ‘Inbetweeners', so I think when you have that great balance and great morale and a team, you can get so far."

For a country of their size and resources, Iceland have already come a long way. But not quite far enough for Jonsdottir and her teammates. They need to get all the way to Australia and New Zealand for the World Cup 2023.

Edited by: James Thorogood