Icelandic football – far from crisis

by David Harrison

With a population smaller than Leicester, one can acknowledge with respect why Iceland have never featured in a major international tournament. Since their first official international match in 1946 against Denmark (a 3 – 0 victory), the minnow nation has reached a high of 37 in the FIFA rankings in 1994 and has produced some impressive players over the years.

With the Úrvalsdeild, or Icelandic Premier League to us, only attracting an average of 1,205 during the regular season which runs over the spring and summer months due to the harsh Icelandic winters, it is hardly a European heavy-weight.

With the majority of players in the domestic league being home-grown, the Icelandic league continued while the Euro 2012 competition ran for the majority. Despite the issues with domestic football in this small corner of the world, Icelandic born players have certainly made an impact across the water in Europe.

For young players in Iceland the dream is to move to the continent, where opportunities are rife, wages are higher, the quality of football considerably better and the support for the game is at a level unrecognised back on the island.

For some though, this dream has come true and Icelandic players are increasingly becoming key players for clubs in Europe.

The obvious choice is Eidur Gudjohnsen. The striker who started his career at Valur, a side in the Icelandic capital Reykjavik, has reached astronomical heights over his 18 year professional career.

Playing in three of Europe’s top leagues, the Premier League, Ligue 1 and La Liga, he has become a regular on European score sheets and become a cult hero at Bolton and Chelsea.

After also having stints at Fulham, Stoke and Tottenham the Icelandic national top goal scorer has amassed a total of 76 goals in the English Premier League and stands as an inspiration for young players back at home.

After his well-documented spells at Bolton and Chelsea, Gudjohnsen would go on to feature 108 times for Spanish giants Barcelona over a three year period.

In Spain he would add to his two Premier League titles, two Community Shields and one League Cup which he won with Chelsea, by helping Barcelona lift the La Liga trophy in 2008-2009, along with a UEFA Champions League and Copa del Ray in the same year.

Gudjohnsen had helped Pep Guardiola win Barcelona the treble in his first year of managing the Catalan side, which was also the first ever by a Spanish club.

After this season, Gudjohnsen would be moved on to Monaco, before now playing for AEK Athens in Greece. Gudjohnsen is clearly a highly decorated player, but as his career is on the decline he has pathed the way for a new wave of Icelandic footballers to entertain crowds in European stadiums.

Among the new breed is the highly regarded Gylfi Sigurdsson. The 22 year old striker only began to make waves after joining Premier League new boys Swansea City on loan from Hoffenheim in January of this year.

The attacking midfielder made an immediate impact after joining the Welsh side, scoring seven times and creating four goals in his eighteen appearances.

Gylfi has since attracted suitors of greater pedigree and secured a move to Tottenham Hotspur where he has become integral in manager Andre Villas-Boas’ plans.

Another of the young-guns is Aron Gunnarsson, who was crucial in Cardiff City’s plight for promotion to the Premier League.

In 50 appearances for the Bluebirds his central midfield performances helped the Welsh side get to the playoff semi-finals, before losing to eventual playoff champions West Ham.

It is not only England that has been graced by Icelandic players. FC Copenhagen’s central defensive partnership comprises of Iceland Solvi Ottesen and Ragnar Sigurdsson, both of whom featured in the Danish side’s Europa League starting elevens.

Simiarly, in Holland Johann Gudmundsson who was on the youth books of Chelsea and Fulham now is a regular in AZ Alkmaar; helping AZ to a Europa League quarter-final spot in 2011/12 season.

Although not receiving the most recent international call up, there are plenty of other Icelandic players who have made their mark on Europe. No one ne more so than Heider Helguson.

The experienced striker has been plying his trade in England since joining Watford in 1999. After spells at Fulham, Bolton, Queens Park Rangers and Watford again he has appeared 342 times in England’s top two divisions, scoring 106 goals in the process.

He has gained a reputation across the English leagues for his powerful approach to the game and his devastating ability using his head.

Another experienced head is Gretar Steinsson who although being released by Bolton following their recent relegation from the Premier League, proved an important player over his four year spell for Wanders.

With his ruthful ability at the back he accumulated 126 starts for Bolton during his career in the North-West and now plies his trade in Turkey for Kayserispor.

Iceland has produced a strong set of defensive players over the years, with second in the national side’s all time caps rankings, Hermann Hreidarsson, being one of the most famous.

With a career spanning 15 years in English football, the left-back has performed across both the Premier League and Championship for various clubs. Most credible are his spells at Charlton and Portsmouth, where he became a regular Premier League player.

During his career in England which is still in full swing at Coventry City, Hreidarsson has appeared 440 times across England which surely makes him one of the pioneers of Icelandic football players in the English game.

While there are still plenty of Icelandic players frequenting European pitches in 2012, there are others who have bowed out of the game that still deserve notable mention.

Gudni Bergsson, now retired, had two extensive spells at Tottenham and Bolton appearing in a combined total of 342 games in the 80s, 90s and 2000s, where he became famous for scoring from defence under Sam Allardyce.

Similarly impressive is the career of Brynjar Gunnarsson who at the age of 36 has a glittering career coming to a close. Since 1999 Gunnarsson has appeared in the red of Stoke and Nottingham Forest, as well as for Watford and Reading, with a combined English appearance total of 322.

It is clear that Iceland has a proud footballing history and despite missing out on Euro 2012 and all other major tournaments, they have had players and still do have players who are doing their country proud on the continent.

With a fresh batch of youngsters coming through the ranks and impressing in England, one could argue that with the right leadership, Iceland could potentially launch a serious campaign for qualification to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

With a group comprising of Norway, Slovenia, Switzerland, Albania and Cyprus, the North Atlantic Islanders have arguably the most favourable group for their chance of qualification.

What is needed, however, is development of the domestic game, but with Icelandic players proving to continually impress abroad it is increasing the profile of the sport back at home which should in turn help increase funding to bolster the Icelandic game.

With things on the up in Iceland it could be worth labelling them one to watch in the qualifying stages for the World Cup in Brazil and although the word crisis has surrounded Iceland in recent years due to the financial issues, it is fair to say their football is certainly far from crisis, but rather, in rude health.

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