Following Iceland’s dramatic performance at Euro 2016 and subsequent flop at Russia 2018, I was interested to know if the spectacular success of a remote island of 338,000 inhabitants had resulted in an upsurge of interest in domestic football.
Like many smaller UEFA nations the cream of Icelandic talent has always been quickly whisked away to more high profile clubs and leagues around Europe. Indeed the squad recently called up for the new UEFA Nations League matches included only one home based player, the veteran defender Birkir Sævarsson,who has spent most of his career in Norway and Sweden, before returning this season to play for champions elect Knattspyrnufélagið Valur.
Much has been documented about the sheer quality of coaching available to young players in Iceland. The success of the national team will have come as no little surprise to informed observers, especially under the astute guidance of Heimir Hallgrímsson after he stepped out of the shadow of a joint head coach role with the more heralded Swede Lars Lagerbäck in 2016. It is interesting to note that when Hallgrímsson joined Lagerbäck at the helm of the national team, Iceland were ranked 141 in the world. When he returned to his dental practice a few months ago they had been ranked as high as 18th.
Looking back in history it is interesting to note the influence of British coaching in the Icelandic game with Scot’s Murdo McDougall, John Devine, Alex Weir and Duncan McDowell, plus English coaches Freddie Steele and Tony Knapp all having stints in charge of the national team in the first 40 years after World War II.
The roots of the success were sown at the turn of the current century when the KSA, the Icelandic FA, began a huge investment programme on indoor training facilities. These were staffed by paid UEFA licensed coaches who took the roles as a supplement to their “normal” professions, no longer would clubs and academies be reliant on enthusiastic but unqualified volunteers. It was transformational with a huge influx of kids, male and female, undergoing proper coaching. You walk around Reykjavik now and you can barely turn a corner without seeing the faces of “golden generation” heroes like Gylfi Sigurðsson, Aron Gunnarsson and Alfreð Finnbogason being used to promote all sorts of products.
My first taste of Iceland football came on the Friday evening. There was only one mens game in the whole country and that was an under 19 match on the island of Vestmannaeyjar and while it was taking place on the bucket list ground of Hásteinsvöllur after a day of travelling and sightseeing the need to catch a ferry wasn’t appealing. There was, however, a full schedule in the second tier (1. Dield Konur) of women’s football. So the choice was UMF Afturelding/Fram against visitors from the east of the island, Sindri, in the attractive surroundings of the N1-Völlurinn Varma in Mosfellsbær, about a 20 minute drive north east of Reykjavík.
The visitors were bottom of the table and had several American players in their team and it was one of them, Katelyn Nebesnick, who broke the deadlock when, against the run of play, her speculative long range shot somehow found its way into the net. The hosts, with two Ghanian players in their side, then got a grip of the match and rattled in five unanswered goals. As an infrequent watcher of women’s football, it proved to be a decent standard and considerable skill was on view.
Friday September 14th 2018 – 1.Dield Konur
Afturelding/Fram 5 (Ómarsdóttir 38, Grétsrsdóttir 45, Birgisdóttir 54, Egyr 56, Ásþórsdóttir 72)
Sindri 1 (Nebesnick 20)
Att:53 Admission ISK 1,000 (£7)
With the Icelandic Cup Final due to be played at the national stadium on Saturday evening, it made perfect sense to tick off the Valbjarnarvöllur the small stadium adjacent to the national stadium and home to second tier outfit Knattspyrnufélagið Þróttur since 1999. The club had its origins in the impoverished western sector of Reykjavík in 1949 where most residents lived in Nissan huts. In 1969 they moved to the east side of Reykjavik before celebrating their 50th anniversary in their new surroundings of Laugardal.
Today’s second tier match sees Thór Akureyri make the five hour, 250 mile journey from the north of the island. A modest crowd gathers for what proved to be a highly entertaining game which was won by the visitors when their young Spanish import, Álvaro Calleja, completed a very impressive hat-trick before home centre forward, Viktor Jónsson, complete his own hat-trick in stoppage time. Þróttur are a well run and friendly club and the ground is certainly well worth a visit.
Saturday September 15th 2018 – Inkasso Dieldin
Þróttur Reykjavík 3 (Jónsson 8,39,90)
Þór Akureyri 4 (Calleja 27,84,87, Sigurbergsson 29)
Att:104 Admission ISK 1,400 (£10)
As entertaining as the Þróttur game was the Cup Final between Stjarnan and Breiðablik was a huge disappointment. Tickets went on sale promptly at 4pm and it appeared that both clubs had been given lots of free tickets for their junior players and to make an event of it a milk company provided free chocolate cake and milk. Sadly another company also provided free foldable cardboard clackers for both sets of supporters. Even though football programmes have no real tradition in Iceland, it was still a surprise nothing was published for the final.
It has to be said even with only the main stand open, the atmosphere was excellent with in particular the Stjarnan fans using English football tunes with their own lyrics. They even did several renditions of that cultural Icelandic phenomenon, the Viking Thunderclap, BANG! CLAP! HUH! It was all pretty decent apart from the 120 minutes of watching an astonishingly abject imitation of a football match being played out on the pitch. Yes the rain in the second half was biblical in quantity but does that really stop you from passing to someone in the same coloured shirt or producing anything remotely resembling an accurate cross? A goalless draw was inevitable and Stjarnan won the ABBA format penalty shoot out 4-1 when Breiðablik contrived to miss their second and third kicks therefore denying themselves an opportunity to even take a fourth kick.
The National Stadium, Laugardalsvöllur, took eight years to open, starting in 1949 and taking until 1957 before Iceland took on Norway in the first game at the stadium. The huge west stand was expanded between 1965 and 1970 and was joined in 1997 by the smaller east stand. Temporary stands were used to accommodate the 20,204 people present for a friendly against Italy in 2004. The stadium only acquired floodlights as recently as 1992 and, in truth, the venue could really do with modernisation.
Saturday September 15th 2018 – KSI Cup Final
Stjarnan 0 Breiðablik UBK 0
After Extra Time. Stjarnan win 4-1 on penalties
Att:3,814 Entry 2,000 Kr (£15)
It goes without saying that Iceland is a wonderful (if a tad expensive) place to visit. Vast tundra plains and volcanic extrusions give a sense of other worldliness. Fissures in the crust of the earth belch plumes of thermally heated water with a seemingly malodorous intent at the geysers of Haukadalur. Surely the waterfalls of Gullfoss should be as well known as those of Niagra, Iguazu and Victoria? The fury and force of water tumbling unrelentingly into chasms below is truly mind blowing. The serenity and deep green and blue colours of the vast crater of Kerið has a beauty beyond any adequate description. It is no surprise that tourism in Iceland has grown exponentially in recent years, its safe, liberal, accessible and simply glorious.