From Iceland — Iceland's National Sport: Football On The Edge Of The World

Iceland’s National Sport: Football On The Edge Of The World

Published August 5, 2015

Photo by
Art Bicnick
Baldur Kristjánsson

On a recent grey and drizzly summer evening, the streets of downtown Reykjavík were oddly empty. But other than the unseasonal weather, there was perhaps another factor in the quietness. Just outside of the downtown area, by the domestic airport, over 1000 Icelanders—mostly from 101 or the neighbouring areas—were descending on a small, windswept sports stadium. The occasion was a clash between local football rivals Valur and KR, two of Reykjavík’s oldest clubs, who’ve been competitors for over 100 years.

Arriving through the rush-hour traffic, we miraculously found a parking space right by the entrance. My friend reached into his pocket as we passed the ticket gate, passing me a red Valur scarf: “We’ll have no objective reporting here,” he said, wearing a mock-serious expression. Valur, it turns out, have yet to beat KR at home since they moved into this stadium eight years ago, and their fans are quietly hoping that tonight could be the night.

“Young Icelandic players have football in their blood. We are ambitious here in Iceland. We take our football seriously.”

As we found seats in the packed Valur side, we noticed the owners of a house overlooking the ground come onto their roof to see the game. Small kids lined the barriers, watching the players warm up as a small northbound passenger plane took off in the background. Before long, the whistle rang out, and we were underway. After just ten seconds, a KR player flew in with a crunching tackle, the Valur fans roaring with indignation as the medical team rushed out onto the field. The tone of the match had been set.

Six minutes later, the first opening came, with three red players breaking through and racing towards goal. The black and white KR defenders piled in like guided missiles; seeing a stray challenge somewhere in the meleé, the referee pointed to the spot, awarding a penalty amidst deafening roars from both sets of fans. Danish striker Pedersen coolly slotted the ball home, and ran to the joyful, screaming fans to celebrate.

The crowd drummed and chanted, clapping their hands and singing to keep warm. Valur kept KR on their back foot for most of the game, despite heavy KR tackles flying in thick and fast. After one such challenge, the referee took out his foam spray to mark the pitch, stooping down to the playing surface—but the wind was so strong it blew away the marking spray before it could reach the grass.

Valur rifled home two more in the second half, the final goal coming after a rowdy confrontation between the two teams. As the final whistle rang out, the celebrations were loud: the jinx had been broken. Valur had finally scored a win against KR in their new stadium.

Sigurbjörn Örn "Bjossi" Hreiðarsson, Valur Assistant Coach

The Coach

Returning to the ground a few weeks later, I find assistant coach and club legend Sigurbjörn Örn “Bjossi” Hreiðarsson still buzzing from the victory. “KR are our main rivals,” he smiles. “It’s like Liverpool-Everton in the English Premier League. They’re based just a kilometre or two from here, and we’re two of the oldest clubs — matches between these two teams are always big, so it’s very good to win them. It was good to finally beat them in this stadium, and to take three points away from them.”

Bjossi was born in Reykjavík, and started playing in Valur’s first team aged just 16, after a stint in the north. “I played here for twenty years in the first team,” he recalls. “It’s the most games anyone has played in the history of the club. I played my last game here in 2011, and then got into coaching.”

Most of Bjossi’s time is spent on the pitch working with the players, or helping analyse future opponents and improve performance. “In a typical week, we play on Sundays,” he explains, “then we come here on Monday, and the players who were in the match take it easy and talk about the game. The other players do a full practice — I’m normally with them. Tuesdays we take off, then training on Wednesday or Thursday. Then we prepare for the next game—figuring out our opponent. Then we set the training up to focus on their weaknesses.”

Although he clearly lives and breathes football, the Icelandic season is short, so Bjossi teaches during the long winter. “It would be crazy not to work on something else in the winter here in Iceland,” he says. “Even if we’re always thinking about football, we also have to put food on the table. But young Icelandic players can now train indoors all year. They have football in their blood. We are ambitious here in Iceland. We take our football seriously.”

Haukur Páll Sigurðsson, Valur Club Captain

The Club Captain

Haukur Páll Sigurðsson, Valur’s club captain, is one player who has seen the evolution of Iceland’s training facilities taking place. “I was probably around five years old when I started playing and training regularly,” he says. “We’d play outside in the middle of the winter, in snow and freezing conditions. It was hard. But it’s getting better and better—players train on astroturf in the winter now.”

Haukur contends that the improvement is visible in how many Icelandic players are bought by overseas clubs. “We have players going to Norway, Sweden or Denmark,” he says. “And Holland, England, Spain… all over the world, there are Icelandic players now. They have a great work ethic, and they want to do well.”

“All over the world, there are Icelandic players now. They have a great work ethic, and they want to do well.”

Although the new indoor facilities have benefits for year-round training, league matches are usually played outdoors. Many Icelandic football grounds are in coastal towns very close to the sea, and even in the summer, they are subject to high winds, single-digit temperatures, rain, sleet and snow—unusually difficult conditions, by any standard.

“You do have to keep the ball down in Vestmannaeyjar and Keflavík,” says Haukur. “And in Akranes, the sea is just a few metres away. It can be really windy here in our ground, but this stand and the walls around the pitch help. But if the ball is in the air on a windy day, it can go anywhere.”

Haukur recalls one particularly difficult game in the 2014 season. “We went to the Westman Islands,” he recalls, “and the game was postponed because there was water all over the pitch. So we went back five days later. The wind was ridiculous and the pitch was the same. It was really difficult to play. The wind was going towards one goal… so when the goalie was playing against the wind, the ball was very unpredictable. It could just fly into the top corner.” He smiles grimly at the memory. “It wasn’t ideal.”

The Groundsman

Alexander Júlíusson is a local and lifelong Valur supporter who works for the club each summer as stadium manager. He got the job two years ago after four years as understudy, and his responsibilities include maintaining the playing surface in the difficult conditions that Iceland presents.

“We look after watering, painting and remarking the pitch,” he says, “maintenance of the goals, the sanding, the seating, and pinning. That’s when we use a machine to pin the surface, and the grass lifts up, so the roots of the grass gets more air.”

He explains that this has been a good year for the pitch, especially compared to a disastrous start to 2014. “The winter has been very hard in the last two years,” he says. “Most of the surface died here last spring. It happened to stadiums all over Reykjavík—it was the first time in a very long time that it happened. There was a lot of snow, and the climate was such that the snow melted and then re-froze over and over again. The grass died and rotted under the ice. We reseeded the whole pitch and put down mats, but it wasn’t ready in time for the start of the season—we had to play two or three games on astroturf.”

“Most of the playing surface died last spring. It happened to stadiums all over Reykjavík. The grass died and rotted under the ice.”

Alexander explains that the pitch has a heating system that melts the snow to give the stadium team an extra few weeks to prepare each spring. I wonder how it must be looking after the more remote playing surfaces, such as the iconic Westman Islands pitch (as seen on our cover) which is surrounded by craggy mountains, raging sea and unforgiving winds.

“The Westman Islands actually are probably helped by the weather,” muses Alexander. “There’s sea spray and constant wind, so the snow doesn’t stay as long—they never have a situation with the grass dying like we did last spring. It’s on a volcano, of course, the whole island—so there’s heat in the ground, also.”

Víkingur youth team player

The Hopeful

No stranger to playing in the snow is Kolbeinn Theodórsson, a promising 14-year-old player who trains with Víkingur, a club in Rekyjavík’s eastern suburbs. “We practice five to seven days a week,” he says. “Mostly on astroturf, but in winter we train on heated ground, so the snow melts. When the weather is too bad, we cancel a practice, but that’s rare—we just play in the cold and the wind and snow.”

The harsh conditions offers challenges for young Icelandic players. “When it’s windy, you can try to head the ball, but you don’t really know where it will end up,” says Kolbeinn. “It’s best to begin with the wind behind the team, and press the game to score some goals—then in the second half you hold the score. I’m a centreback, so that’s my job. We stop the attacks and build the play from the back.”

Kolbeinn says that many people his age play for the fun of it, but those who take it more seriously get extra training sessions, and have high ambitions. But while Kolbeinn takes inspiration in form of current Icelandic internationals like Gylfi Sigurðsson and Kolbeinn Sigþórsson, he has his feet on the ground.

“I would love to be a professional, of course,” Kolbeinn says. “I think about it a lot. The dream would be to play on the international stage with a good team in England or Spain. But I’m going to stay in school and take it as it comes. It’s just one thing that could happen.”

Loji Höskuldsson, musician and sunday league player

The Fan

Bordering Víkingur are Fram, a Reykjavík club that started in the early 1900s. After a prolific period during the 1980s, Fram’s fortunes have dipped dramatically in recent times. Loji Höskuldsson is a musician and a long-time Fram supporter.

“When they’re in school, kids learn to play with the team that is in their home neighbourhood,” says Loji. “So, I played with Fram’s youth team when I was a kid, through until my late teens. But Fram’s neighbourhood is very small. It’s an area near the Kringlan mall, and it’s kind of hemmed in by Valur and Víkingur, like a little island. There are just a few streets there, and they have an ageing population. There aren’t that many teenagers left, so youth recruitment is down.”

Fram’s ground is Laugardalsvöllur, the biggest stadium in Iceland. While that might sound like a good thing, filling it is actually just another challenge for fans of the club.

“Compared to purpose-built club grounds, it can be difficult to get a good atmosphere going there,” says Loji. “There might be 900 people at a game, but when we’re all spread out in a huge stand built for 15,000, it feels like we’re just 70 or 80. It’s hard to be a supporter of Fram, I would say. All my life, the team has been struggling—saving their asses for a few years, then being relegated, and coming back, and doing the same thing over again.”

Loji now plays football in a Sunday league team made up of fellow musicians. “The team has people like Gunnar from Grísalappalísa, Sindri from Sin Fang, Örvar from múm, a lot of artists,” he explains. “Einar Þór from Singapore Sling is the heart and soul of the team. Högni from Hjaltalín plays for us, too. He’s a great finisher, I would say!”

The team plays in the Gull league, sponsored by the Icelandic beer, and features all kinds of teams. “Sometimes the other teams are made up of a group of friends,” says Loji. “But sometimes they’re people from Domino’s pizza or something. It’s nice— competitive, but fun and relaxed. We get on a good run now and then and win two or three games. Other times not so much. But I have a really good feeling about this summer!”

Pétur Marteinsson, retired footballer & businessman

The Veteran

Pétur Marteinsson also started playing at Fram. He’s a well-known professional footballer in Iceland, now retired after a career as a defender that took him to clubs in Sweden, Norway and England, and saw him win 35 caps with the Iceland national side.

“I grew up in Breiðholt,” says Pétur, “so I started playing at the club Leiknir, aged six. I cried, and said ‘But my dad played for Fram!’ until I got to go and practice there.” He started taking the half-hour bus ride to the club’s ground three times a week. “Most of the practices were on gravel,” he remembers. “There was no astroturf at that time. We were tackling in training, and we’d get bloody. Not a single kid today would train in those conditions, but back then it was just part of the game — it was all about the tough vikings going out to play.”

Pétur advanced through the youth system until he was spotted playing for Iceland during an under-21 friendly match against Sweden, where he was named man of the match. The resulting attention ended up with him signing a two-year contract with Swedish side Hammarby, and postponing his enrolment in a pre-med course at Berkeley in the US.

“I was just playing because it was fun,” Pétur smiles. “I didn’t have any grand ambitions. But when I got the call to try out as a professional player, I didn’t hesitate. It was a ‘Sliding Doors’ moment—choosing to be a footballer in Stockholm or a doctor in the States.”

Now a successful businessman, Pétur still follows the game closely. He’s watched with interest as the Iceland national team has risen in the rankings over recent years, and offers various insights as to the reasons for their gradual improvement.

“Our current national team is not just a fluke,” he says. “It’s not something that just happened. It’s been a ride. Back in 1998, Gylfi and Kolbeinn and the rest of the national team were eight, nine, ten years old. They saw Iceland play France after they’d just won the World Cup, and draw 1-1, and they thought: ‘We can do this.’ Even those playing in ‘98 had their role models—Ásgeir Sigvinsson, who was one of the best players in Europe, and Arnór Guðjohnsen, who was a really good international player. When I was little I thought, ‘These guys are heroes! I would love to be like them!’ And today, hopefully we’re seeing the result.”

Iceland and Shijazhuang Ever Bright player

The Superstar

One such role model is Eiður Smári Guðjohnsen. Now aged 36, Eiður’s illustrious career has seen him play for some Europe’s biggest clubs, including stints at Chelsea in the UK, and Barcelona, for whom he was the first Icelander to appear in the UEFA Champions League finals.

Eiður recently moved to China, signing for Shijiazhuang Ever Bright. “I’ve been here for just under a month now,” he says, over a crackling phone line. “It’s not something I ever anticipated, to play in China! But when it came up, it was a very interesting opportunity. It’s a different world out here—the further you get from Shanghai and Beijing, the less people speak English. We international players have a translator with us—they’re doing everything they can to help us settle in.”

Eiður is a former Iceland captain, and holds the honour of being the nation’s all-time highest goal scorer, netting 25 times in 79 appearances. He’s seen the team’s fortunes fluctuate over the years. “We fell out of the top 100 in the international team rankings at one point,” he says. “It was a low point. But now we’re 23rd. When you have good results and a good run of form, you climb steadily, and we’ve been doing that for a few years.”

“The majority of the players in the current national team are… I hesitate to use the phrase, but you could say they’re a golden generation,” he continues. “They’re the first Icelandic players to make the Under-21 European Championship finals. They’ve been together for a long time. They’re also the first generation coming through since Iceland got indoor pitches—they’ve been ready to play abroad younger, and gather that experience. And they also have an experienced manager in Lars Lagarbäck. It’s the combination we’ve been waiting for.”

Eiður thinks the current team has every chance of being the first men’s team to break through into the European Championship finals, and are perhaps paving the way for the future. “I hope that this team has set some role models for the younger generations to come,” he says. “Every boy dreams about playing in a European Championship or a World Cup. Maybe now they’ll realise it doesn’t have to stay a dream.”

Fanndis Friðriksdóttir, Kolbotn IL and Iceland player

The International Midfielder

For the Iceland national women’s team, the dream of playing in the European Championships is already a reality. Fanndís Friðriksdóttir is a current member of the squad, currently ranked 20th in the world, which in 2009 became the first Icelandic football team to progress from the qualifying stage into the finals of an international tournament.

“We almost made it through the playoffs for the World Cup,” says Fanndís. “We were really close! But we got to the finals of the European Championship in the last two tournaments. In 2013 we got pretty far— the quarter finals. And we’ll compete again this September.”

Fanndís has been playing since she was six years old, originally for her home team in the Westman Islands. After moving to Hafnarfjörður aged 14, she started playing for Breiðablik, and things went from there. “I never really planned to play professionally,” she says, “it just kind of came to me. There was an agent from Norway who contacted me, and the national team coach at the time also told me it would be possible. I’d love to do it full time here in Iceland, but there’s not really enough money, so I’m in school as well—a lot of players go abroad to play full time.”

“Women’s football is continually improving, so the big tournaments are getting more popular. The women’s game today is getting more attention than ever.”

Fanndís made her full international debut in 2009, and has taken part in both of the team’s forays into the UEFA European Championships. She puts the recent increased attention on the women’s game down to a wider cultural shift.

“Women are getting more attention in every way,” she says. “Bigger jobs, and everything like that. And now people are realising that women’s football is a good sport to watch. You could see that with the Women’s World Cup that just ended now. A lot of reporters covered it, a lot of people watched it—people could see that the standard is high, it’s good football. It’s not only about the men!”

Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir, Iceland captain and FC Rosengård player

The Women’s Team Captain

The captain of the Icelandic women’s team is Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir, who has been playing in the national side since she was 16 years old. Now a professional player for FC Rosengård in Sweden, Sara became the captain in 2014, and has scored 16 goals for the national team alongside her 57 club goals.

“Women’s football has been developing and getting better every single year,” says Sara. “We have more good teams and more solid leagues all over in women’s football. The quality is getting better and better all the time. It’s a really positive time.”

The recent Women’s World Cup was something of a breakthrough for women’s football, on several fronts. The games caught the public imagination, appeared as global trending Twitter topics, and got unprecedented media attention—in the USA, the final was Fox’s mostwatched football match ever, with an estimated 25.4 million viewers. It’s a big improvement, and a step towards the approximate billion people who watched the men’s final in 2014.

“It’s nothing new to us women players that people focus on the men’s game, so we’re kind of over that!” says Sara. “But as women’s football continually improves, the big tournaments are getting more and more popular. With the Euros, the World Cup and the Champions League… the women’s game today is getting more attention than ever.”

And with both the men’s and women’s national teams far outstripping the expectations for a nation of 320,000, Sara thinks there’s more to come from both. “Our nation is very impressive in sports, given its size,” she says. “It’s amazing what Lars Lagerbäck has done with the men’s team. It’s good for the whole country. And the women’s team have already been to the Euros twice. I think it’s fascinating how far Iceland has come as a sporting nation, and how far we can go.”

Read more about Icelandic football here.

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