One is the elder statesman of football, the other the commentator who lost his mind at the Euros. Together they review the incredible rise of the Icelandic national team—one year since Iceland beat England 2-1.
Bjarni Felixson, aka Bjarni Fel, is the living encyclopaedia of Icelandic football. He is so revered that a sports bar in Reykjavík is named after him. Following his career as a football player in the 50s and 60s, he became the voice of Icelandic sports as a commentator for RÚV. Today, at 81years old, he has seen it all—nobody is more qualified to provide a retrospective on the unexpected success of the national team.
“I saw the first national match in 1946. We lost against Denmark, as we often have,” Bjarni recounts. “I also commentated on the 14-2 loss against Denmark, so I remember bad times for the national team.”
Seen it all
Listening to Bjarni talk about the national team is astonishing. Not many people can boast of having been where it all started.
“The 14-2 match was the low-point of our football history,” he says. “Things have changed drastically since then. We would always play at eight o’clock in the evening, because work didn’t finish until seven. There was no astroturf, so we played on gravel, and the snow kept us from playing during winter.”
Bjarni claims that, ironically, the progress began when RÚV started broadcasting matches from England in 1968. This allowed young boys to dream of playing professional football as they watched the superstars dazzle.
“It is basically the English’s own fault that we beat them last summer,” he smiles.
The problem with the league
According to Bjarni, the biggest problem ahead is changing demographics in the Icelandic league. Pushed by a strengthening króna, more foreign players have come in. This has diminished first team chances for young talent.
“There are too many foreign players now,” he says. “This has meant that 16-18 year old Icelandic players actually need to go abroad, for instance to Scandinavia, to get a chance. We need local teams to act for the benefit of our youth.”
According to Bjarni what has changed in recent years is that the fighting spirit that has always been shown by athletes is now mixed with a high degree of professionalism and ambition.
“It began when we got our independence from Denmark—that was the birth of the mentality that we can achieve,” Bjarni Says. “But I would never even have contemplated us beating England at a major tournament. But I’ve always said that just because we are 300,000, and others have tens of millions, football is eleven against eleven.”
Bjarni started noticing something special brewing in 2011, when the national U-21 team reached the finals of the European Championship with a team that makes up the spine of the current squad. He believes the next generation can continue this newfound winning mentality.
Guðmundur Benediktsson, aka Gummi Ben, is a former footballer turned commentator, who became world famous for his out of control Euro celebrations. “The tournament was the most amazing thing I have ever experienced,” says Gummi. “I was terrified before the tournament that we didn’t belong in a major tournament. When I played for the national team, I always dreamt about it, but I had given up hope.”
Gummi struggles to put into words the experience, claiming it was like “a surreal dream” that he never wanted to wake up from. He broadcasted from every match,and despite his doubts, he claims that every time he attended the team’s press conferences he felt success was assured—especially before facing England.
“You sensed they were natural winners, and you felt proud,” Gummi says. “Before every match I feared humiliation, but there was also something about the English that made me feel less worried. Especially because all Icelandic boys dreams of playing against England, so although they scored early, we equalise quickly and you felt it would be alright.”
According to Gummi, since he was involved in the national team, a new sense of belief in victory has grown, from the administration down to the players. Not that long ago the team was more amateurish than professional.
“Lars [Lagerback, the former coach] changed everything,” he says. “He had credibility, which allowed him to demand investment and ambition. The quality of everything increased. Now our players make sure that everyone does their part. Players might dislike not playing, but they keep working. We might have had better individuals in the past, but the mentality has changed.”
The road to Russia
Both legends agree on one thing: Iceland’s chances of qualifying for the World Cup look good. “I was worried when Lars quit last summer,” says Bjarni. “But we are still winning matches. Heimir Hallgrímsson is a good coach and our chances of qualifying are good.”
“I think Croatia will top the group, but we could make playoffs,” says Gummi. “But the boys have shown us that everything is possible. I worried that we might struggle, as teams don’t underestimate us now. For instance, the Dutch are arrogant and thought they’d win the (Euro qualifying match) and it hurt them. Now people expect us to perform, and it will be difficult—but this team keeps on making you eat your words.”