It was quite surreal at first, having 24 hour daylight, but that’s just how it is there during the summer months. The sun would simply drop down to the horizon (blanketing us in stages of orange, red and pink), linger there for around twenty minutes and then ascend for the second dawn of the day. Things like that really mess with your head. We have our European preconceptions about how each day should be structured, but Iceland is really something quite different. It’s one of the most fascinating countries in the world. They have glaciers, magical green lights, no army (why need one?), and a happy population. The people denounced McDonald’s for its corporate evil and live long, pure lives, with a diet of local water, fresh air and protein.
I was fortunate this summer to visit Iceland and spend time with one of their top flight clubs, Þór Akureyri (Thor). Þór are in an unfortunate situation being the furthest club away from the capital Reykjavik – 7 hours – and are without the finances to fly to matches. They really do struggle to survive and rely mostly on success at home. Their biggest idol at present is local hero Aron Gunnarsson (tough tackling Cardiff City midfielder and International captain, who probably deserves to play in the Premier League) despite him only playing twenty three times for the club. When you think of clubs having local heroes you picture Totti the Roman, Scholes the Manc, Puyol the Catalan – their loyalty and longevity esteemed. For Þór and Akureyri it is different: Gunnarsson is held in such high regard because he “got out”. Had he stayed like the aforementioned players he probably wouldn’t be as popular. This is symbolic of the league; any success for Icelandic football hinges on the talent moving abroad.
European clubs favor Icelandic players because they are the perfect ‘type’. They’re powerfully built with stamina in abundance. They aren’t pretentious like many modern footballers and apply themselves professionally. Although it doesn’t always work out: Victor Pálsson at Liverpool, Jóhann Guðmundsson at Chelsea, Hörður Magnússon at Juventus (despite currently being on loan) there are examples where expectations are surpassed: Kolbeinn Sigþórsson at Ajax, Alfreð Finnbogason at Heerenveen and Eidur Gudjohnsen absolutely everywhere he’s ever been. The level of investment in the football is increasing and I was surprised when I was there at how many football pitches there actually are. Along the grass-backed roads from town to town are 3G pitches with kids playing football. I don’t know what it must be like during the winter months when its dark for 24 hours and the pitches are coated in snow, but certainly there are more multi-weather pitches in the Reykjavik area than there probably are in many major UK cities.
This is of course an issue. The world’s greatest players tend to be South American or Southern European where weather isn’t a barrier to participation. To harness their technique Icelandic youngsters need to be able to continually play, so it’s fantastic for the long-term that investment has been made into facilities.
In regards to the short-term, things aren’t going too badly either. The historic win over the Netherlands on Monday night offers testament to how far the nation has come. Goal scorer Gylfi Sigurdsson labelled the result as ‘perfect’ and it sees Iceland rise to the forefront of this round of European Championship qualifiers; which follows three straight victories so far. The result has also rubber stamped a fine three years for the emerging nation, which almost included qualification for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
They have never managed to qualify for a major footballing tournament, having only seen an upturn in fortunes at the turn of this millennium. They attempted to qualify for the World Cup in 1958 in Sweden but after four games, four defeats and twenty six goals conceded the dream of crossing the Norwegian Sea and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Pele’s Brazil came to nothing. This trend continued as Iceland struggled to make an impact on a qualification campaign; that was until the recent journey began to qualify for Brazil 2014.
Iceland opened the qualifying campaign at home to Nordic neighbours Norway. A 2-0 victory, with goals from Árnason and Finnbogson, set the tone for a successful and exciting journey which produced five victories, two draws and three defeats from ten games. This resulted in securing the second spot in the group behind the undefeated and all conquering Switzerland. The draw for the play-offs threw up Croatia which was to become arguably the biggest and most significant game in the history of Icelandic football. It was held in the Laugardalsvöllur Stadium in Reykjavík in November 2013. A pitch black sky in the land of ice, snow drenched floors reflected by the chill of the moon. People were in hibernation in November, nevertheless 9700 (95% of the stadia capacity) filed in to back their country in the first leg, dreaming of Brazil. The match ended in a hard fought 0-0 draw and Iceland travelled to Zagreb with a newfound level of optimism, hoping that a positive result could secure a place in the draw for a first ever World Cup. Unfortunately, goals from Dario Srna and Mario Mandzukic saw KSI fall at the final hurdle. A fairy-tale story which would have seen Iceland become the smallest nation to ever qualify for a World Cup were dashed, and as we now know, they would have romantically played against Brazil in the opening game of the tournament.
However, adversity fuels the desire to succeed: the failure to qualify should not be looked back on as a negative. KSI showed they can compete with much larger nations and the near miss of qualification for the World Cup could be used a stepping stone for qualification for Euro 2016. Three wins from three has seen the Icelandic’s set the tone for what should be an interesting and successful eighteen months as they approach France.
Reasons for this spike in success can be attributed, as mentioned, back to two key factors: an increase in development and investment in the homeland, and an increase in Icelandic footballers plying their trade in Europe’s finest leagues.
The improvement in facilities, coaching and a focus on football as a national sport are undoubtedly key components, providing improved facilities for Iceland’s younger generations to develop skills, coupled with a philosophy that has helped improve the national team’s fortunes steadily over the last fourteen years. A look at the latest UEFA coefficients shows that Iceland is improving, albeit at a steady pace. The rating of 0.375 in 2010-11 has now been increased to 2.500 in 2013-2014.
You would be forgiven, several years ago, for only being able to recall Eidur Gudjohnsen when asked about Icelandic footballers in Europe’s elite. But now their game is booming with the undoubted star of the current side being former Reading man, Glyfi Sigurdsson. After an inconsistent spell at Tottenham he is running the show for Swansea: assists, goals and man of the match performances have been flowing so far. Thankfully he’s taken that confidence and form into his international fixtures, with the Netherland’s victory being his cherry topping.
In front of him are the prototypes; the two stereotypical Icelandic footballers, built on protein and fresh air. Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and Alfred Finnbogson are both architecturally vital for the nation’s style of play. Aged 24 and 25 respectively, there is still plenty to come from these young talents who do so well leading the line and bringing their talisman in to play. Competing regularly against Europe’s crème will no doubt bring them both on, too, for Ajax in the Champions League and for Real Sociedad against La Liga’s finest.
Lest we forget that Iceland only has a population of 325,000 – Coventry has as many people, but the closest the midland city has ever come to producing flair came via Lady Godiva nine hundred years ago – making every achievement for the Scandinavians all the more impressive. All in all, the victory over the Netherlands was the icing on the cake for the KSI rise through the international scene, from minnows to a competitive European nation. After the positive start, qualification will be expected, and there is hope that this side can take their ascendancy through the game in to France ’16 in a summer where the sun won’t set.
Upp á Íslendingana !