Aron Einar Gunnarsson is, to many, the face of Icelandic football. The talismanic captain of the national team, he’s an imposing presence on the field; a bearded, tattooed midfielder with a hard-tackling style that Cristiano Ronaldo probably still remembers.
His impact on Iceland’s mentality and performance is undeniable. While Aron doesn’t have the same kind of silky skills as footballing stars like Cristiano, Lionel Messi, or Iceland’s flair attacker Gylfi Sigurðsson, he personifies the committed, determined, never-say-die mentality that has driven the team’s recent success.
This attitude has endeared Aron, and the Iceland team, to international football lovers. When they defied expectations to reach the quarter finals of the Euro 2016 tournament, it was Aron who, in euphoric disbelief, led the supporters in a rendition of the “Viking clap” that’s since become iconic.
It was the kind of moment that reminds football fans of all stripes why they watch the game at all, and has led to a swell of support ahead of Iceland’s first ever foray onto the biggest stage of all: the FIFA World Cup.
Aron is in relaxed and confident form before the journey to Russia. He contemplates the team’s relationship with the fans—and the nation of Iceland as a whole—as factors in the team’s visible on-field motivation.
“Our deep connection with the Icelandic supporters is something that I don’t believe any other team has,” says Aron. “I know that I speak for all of the players in the team when I say that those who follow us wherever we go have a real place in our hearts. They give their all in supporting us, and they give us a real boost. We’re a small nation, and togetherness is something we know by heart. We are not about to roll over and let our people down.”
For Aron, this closeness is a part of the Icelandic psyche. Due to the relatively small amount of Icelanders there are in the world, it becomes second nature to find forms of cooperation in order to collectively endure living together on the edge of the Arctic Circle.
“Generation after generation, we’ve had to stick together to survive in hard conditions, darkness, wind and freezing cold,” he says. “That breeds togetherness and willingness to stand up for each other when it really counts. I’m proud of those roots. I’m proud to belong to a country built by hard workers who did what they needed to do to survive. Whenever I pull on the national team shirt it reminds me to appreciate where I am from and to be grateful to those who were here before me.”
This kind of intensity does not go unnoticed. After Iceland’s unforgettable showing at Euro 2016, Aron’s impassioned performances put him on the radar of the world’s media, leading the Guardian newspaper to describe him as “the obvious leader of the team, he’s ambitious, passionate and driven, and brings a combative style to Iceland’s play.”
“This fire is not new,” says Aron. “I’ve had it since I first entered a football pitch. I will always give my all, wherever I play, and I’ve always had a good connection with teammates, coaches, and fans at all my teams. This is common with many of us Icelandic players. Ask any manager who has had an Icelander on their team. He will tell you that we always give 100%.”
This much is certainly true of Heimir Hallgrímsson, the manager of the Icelandic team. Watching the team train at Laugardalsvöllur stadium ahead of the trip, a look of fondness crosses Heimir’s face when asked about Aron’s qualities.
“Aron is important to us in all areas,” he says. “As a person, and as a captain, he is vital. He’s a shining example of what we would like to stand for. What he stands for as a player… he’s our living identity. He’s disciplined in everything he does. He’s a shining example, off the pitch, of how players should behave and how they should support each other; on the pitch, he’s vital for organising the team. He knows the position of every player, and he’s demanding. And on top of that, he’s just a very good football player.”
These leadership qualities have reaped dividends. After a qualifying process that saw Iceland top their group— which included Croatia, Turkey and fellow Nordic nation Finland—Iceland are now hoping to continue their winning streak.
The team were pulled in a difficult group with Argentina, Croatia, and Nigeria, but Aron is optimistic about Iceland’s chances of progressing to the knockout stages. “Everyone saw how good a team we really are during qualifying,” he says. “Euro 2016 was no fluke. We earned our right to play there, and we certainly earned our right to play at the World Cup. We won our group, and we are not done yet. We’re a team, and we have shown that we can perform consistently. Any team that thinks they can steamroll us is in for a rude awakening.”
One of the biggest tasks on the menu is containing Lionel Messi, arguably the world’s greatest attacking player. “We managed to keep Cristiano Ronaldo fairly quiet at the Euros, so why should Messi get a free pass?” says Aron. “I’m under no illusions about our opponents. We’ll play against the best of the best in the world, and we respect that. The question is, do they respect us? Underestimating us can prove to be a banana peel. Just ask England.”
Indeed, the star-studded England team are very well aware of the team’s fighting spirit. When Iceland bested them in the last sixteen at Euro 2016, the emotional outpouring of the aftermath showed how much the game meant to the players. The post-match celebrations were televised around the world—for Iceland supporters, even thinking about it is enough to get goosebumps.
For Aron, it was a defining moment. “It was incredible,” he remembers. “The way we worked as a team in that game and the way our strategy worked perfectly. Every single one of us was up for that game. The English Premier League is a big thing in Iceland, and we loved the challenge of testing ourselves against these players. Beating them and giving a performance like we did was a dream, and I will never forget it. The moments after the game were just pure happiness. I think we reached the maximum happiness any person can reach, and to be able to share that moment with our terrific fans and to know that pretty much every single Icelander was celebrating back home made it all the more incredible. That was one of the best days of my life.”
At club level Aron plays for Cardiff City where, despite a few periods of injury, he has become a firm fan favourite. He was voted player of the season for the 2016/17 season, and his rugged performances helped fire Cardiff back into the Premier League in 2018.
His contract with Cardiff expires this summer, but with a new deal on the table, Aron is yet to sign. “I got injured at a very bad time, and I have been solely focussing on getting fit for the World Cup,” he says. “I’ve hardly given it thought what happens after that to tell you the truth, but that said, I‘d be happy to be a Cardiff City player when the new season starts. A lot will happen in the next weeks, and I’m at ease regarding this matter. I’ll start thinking about it once the World Cup adventure is done.”
That late-season injury initially put Aron’s World Cup participation in doubt. After an operation on his knee, he went to a state-of-the-art recuperation facility in Qatar to get back on track, and now looks set to play in the all-important first match against Argentina.
“I’m feeling good,” says Aron. “I’m training well and I’m doing all the things the other players are doing during the training sessions. I’m of course not rushing into anything but I feel good and I’m confident that I´ll be ready against Argentina. The trip to Qatar was great—not only for me to get the best possible treatment, but also for my wife and son to spend quality time together in the sun, and charge the batteries before the battles ahead. I am very grateful for what I have, and without them I’m not sure I would have made it through this process.”
This kind of determination has been widely described as “Viking Spirit.” The term has proven divisive, as despite often being cast as adventurous heroes in popular culture, the Vikings were an aggressive and unrepentantly violent invasive force who, for a while, terrorised much of the northern hemisphere.
But the comparison does still carry some significance. For Heimir, it’s about determination in adversity. “The only way we will win games is to be harder working and more disciplined than our opponents, and have more fighting spirit than the others,” he says. “If you can correlate that to Vikings, that’s even better: everybody knows what they stood for. They went in few numbers to invade countries, and did it. They were barbaric, of course—but we like to think we can do the same, in a fair play manner.”
Aron, too, sees some value in the comparison. “There has been a bit of controversy about what Viking spirit actually is because, to be fair, the actual Vikings weren’t really honest and trustworthy men, were they?” he says. “They were a bunch of thugs who did things none of us should be proud of.”
“What we call Viking spirit is the spirit of Nordic people giving their all to survive in hard conditions,” he continues. “If the true Viking spirit is to explore new territories, settle down, raise children and build a life, then there is definitely an inspiration there. We’re a team of motivated footballers who are passionate about what we are doing, and we don’t take anything for granted. We know we have to work hard and give it everything we’ve got—and we’re absolutely up for doing that. That’s the Viking spirit we’d like to be recognised for.”
After their recent run, the Iceland team are amongst the most talked-about presences at the World Cup. But despite any hype, the team remain focused and grounded. Whether they progress from their group or not, being at the tournament is a victory in itself—and when Aron and his teammates take their Viking spirit onto the field, there’s a feeling that anything is possible.
“There are many things that motivate me,” he finishes. “The love for club, country and everyone and anyone who has ever been there for me is at the top of my mind whenever I enter the pitch. I also just love the sport, the competition and everything connected with that. Finding the drive to give 100% every time comes naturally to me. It’s the only way I know how to play. And when I represent my country, that motivation reaches new heights.”