BRUSSELS (AP) — Fans of Sweden’s soccer teams will be advised against wearing clothing in national colors when they travel abroad in the wake of the killing of two Swedish supporters before a European Championship qualifying match in Belgium.
At least one of the men shot dead in the incident in Brussels on Monday was wearing a Swedish soccer jersey.
They got out of a taxi not far from King Baudouin Stadium, which hosted the Belgium-Sweden match, and were chased into a building before being gunned down by a Tunisian national who posted a video online saying the Quran was “a red line for which he is ready to sacrifice himself.”
Sweden recently raised its terror alert to the second-highest level in August after a series of public Quran burnings by an Iraqi refugee living in the country resulted in threats from Islamic militant groups.
At a news conference in Stockholm, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said “everything indicates this is a terrorist attack against Sweden and Swedish citizens, just because they are Swedish.”
Martin Fredman, head of security for the Swedish soccer federation, said Tuesday that fans making trips abroad will be advised not to wear the blue-and-yellow attire associated with the country’s sports teams.
“It’s the case that a perpetrator has targeted Swedish citizens,” Fredman said, “so it would be reprehensible not to go with a recommendation that we should avoid (Swedish team clothing) when we are out on trips like this.”
Fredman said he hadn’t received any such advice from Belgian authorities before Monday’s match.
Sweden’s National Sports Confederation, a body which oversees the various sports associations in the country, on Tuesday published a list of “preventative measures” for fans traveling abroad for sporting events.
Among them was the “extent one should be exposed to Swedish paraphernalia.”
Sweden’s players returned to their clubs Tuesday after taking an overnight flight following the suspension of their match against Belgium at halftime, by which time news had filtered through about the shootings.
The Sweden squad went directly to the airport once they were allowed to leave the stadium, which was locked down for 2½ hours before officials began an evacuation process around midnight.
The last of the Swedish supporters — totaling about 650, according to the Swedish soccer federation — left the stadium at about 4 a.m. under police surveillance, along with some staff from the federation.
All hotels where Swedish supporters were staying were also guarded by police, the federation said.
European soccer governing body UEFA said a moment of silence will be observed at all Euro 2024 qualifiers on Tuesday.
It remained unclear whether the Belgium-Sweden match would be completed at a later date. UEFA said it was too early to make any decision.
Belgium and Austria have qualified for next year’s tournament in Germany, but both teams can still win Group F.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino wrote to Swedish soccer officials Tuesday to “to express our deepest condolences” and to express solidarity that can “to some extent be a source of support and comfort.”
The Belgium team said it was “still devastated” by what had happened in a country hit by several extremist attacks in recent years, including suicide bombings in 2016 that killed 32 people and injured hundreds more in the Brussels subway and airport.
As Belgium woke up in a state of shock, many schools remained closed for the day as a terror alert for Brussels was raised overnight to 4, the country’s top scale. The alert level in the city and the country was reduced to 3 after the suspect was killed by police, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said.
“We want to thank all the fans in the stadium for their understanding and support in these difficult circumstances,” the Belgium national team said on social media. “Our thoughts are with the Swedish, we hope everyone gets home safely.”
The suspect was shot dead by police on Tuesday morning, Belgian Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden said, and the weapon believed to have been used by the man was recovered.
Swedish soccer officials said information about the shooting incident, in which another Swedish national was seriously injured, reached them just before the match began and that Belgian authorities and police considered the game should be played because the stadium was viewed as the safest place for the visiting fans.
A decision was made to halt the match at halftime.
More than two hours after the game was suspended, a message flashed on the stadium screen saying, “Fans, you can leave the stadium calmly.” Stand after stand emptied onto streets filled with police as the search for the attacker continued.
“Frustrated, confused, scared. I think everyone was quite scared,” said Caroline Lochs, a fan from Antwerp.
Brussels Mayor Philippe Close told La Premiere radio that the game had not been regarded as a high-risk match.
“We were (alerted) to the context in the Middle East, but not to the burnt Qurans,” Close said. “Objectively speaking, we have to admit that.”
Belgium international player Thomas Meunier, who did not play on Monday, shared his thoughts after the match.
“Let’s have a prayer for the victims and the people badly influenced by the wrong teaching of a religion. May God help them to find the right way,” Meunier wrote on social media.
Sweden’s under-18 team, currently in Slovakia, decided not to play the second of two international matches on Tuesday for security reasons.
“The U18 match in Slovakia would be played in an open facility where the same level of control is not possible. Therefore, it feels like an easy decision to forgo that match today,” the Swedish soccer federation said.
An under-21 qualifying match for the European Championship in Georgia will, however, be played, the federation said.
“The U21 match in Georgia has an extensive security apparatus around the match and an appointed UEFA delegate,” the federation said. “Since yesterday’s events in Brussels, the hosts in Georgia have taken additional security-enhancing measures, which makes us feel safe with the situation there.”
Douglas reported from Sundsvall, Sweden.
Associated Press writers Sylvain Plazy, Raf Casert, Lorne Cook in Brussels and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to this report.
AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer