World Cup Preview: This one’s for the kid in us all.

A little over two years ago I wrote a piece about Iceland making the Euros and what a monumental achievement it was for the team and the nation as a whole. As I write this, nerves racing and a heartbeat that hasn’t dropped below 200 since Thursday night, Iceland are just one day away from making their World Cup debut. Iceland. World Cup. Iceland making the World Cup. Iceland in the World Cup. Iceland. Tiny Iceland. In the middle of the Arctic ocean Iceland. The population 343 thousand Iceland. My home. The place I grew up in. Players I played against as a kid going to the World Cup. I just have to repeat it to myself every so often, as if to reinforce the belief in my head that this is in fact very, very real and not just a convoluted dream I will wake up from tomorrow.

It is truly an extraordinary feeling that I truly struggle to put into words that don’t include swearing, shouting or the periodical primal screams of empowerment. But more than that, it feels like the end of a chapter that has more or less spanned my entire lifetime.

The earliest memory I have of football (that didn’t involve me kicking one) was on September 23rd 1995. I remember it so specifically because it was my cousin’s 15th birthday. Over the years I’ve started a sort of chicken-and-egg debate in my head over whether I remember it because it was my cousin’s birthday or whether I remember that it was her birthday because of that game. It wasn’t just so much a very memorable day as it more or less set the standard for how I watched the game of football for the next 20 years (and beyond).

The game was Liverpool-Bolton Wanderers. In the Bolton team was the captain of the Icelandic national team, but more importantly to me at the time, local hero Guðni Bergsson. He had come up through the club I supported and was about to start training with, myself. At this point he’d been a part of the national team for over a decade and had been on loan at the club from Tottenham Hotspurs (who I had never heard of at the time) the year before. To 5 year old me he was, essentially, the most famous footballer on the planet.

When the game started they referenced the fact that he’d made an assist in the league cup final against Liverpool a few months earlier (a game I apparently saw but have no memory of) and even though Bolton lost he was one of the shining lights on that day. The best player Iceland had, played for my club and even as a defender was setting up assists against one of the biggest clubs in the world. My expectations could not have been higher. For some reason the most vivid memory I have is him heading away a cross and imitating it myself in real time and feeling a sense of accomplishment, as if I’d helped make it happen.

But life isn’t always fair. My destroyer of worlds might not have been as deadly as J. Robert Oppenheimer’s Trinity bomb but this pale, bleach blonde devil that put 4 past poor Guðni Bergson and the rest of the Bolton team might just as well have been.

Fowler - Bolton

[“He’ll never amount to anything with hair like that” – Anton’s 5 year old logic]

Liverpool’s 5-2 thumping of Bolton courtesy of a relatively unknown and soon-to-be-forgotten striker called Robbie Fowler provided an Earth shattering reality check and a shift in perspectives to a young and naive footballing brain. The only conclusion that I could draw from that game was that if Guðni Bergsson had been the best player in the world prior to that, and Robbie Fowler had scored 4 goals past him, that could only mean that Liverpool were by definition the best team on the planet – a feeling that I can’t seem to shake to this day, despite what appears to be a lifetime’s evidence to the contrary.

More than that it gave me an inflated sense of what it takes to have a career as a professional footballer. Because if Guðni Bergsson can play for the same team as me and go on to captain the national team – and someone who looks like that can make him look like an amateur, then by putting 2 + 2 together I saw it as a foregone conclusion that my conquering of the world of football was more an inevitability than anything else.
The fact that it wasn’t, still stings, much as I try to deny it.

Growing up in Iceland to a team that was not only not very good, it was so bad that they wrote a song about it that, roughly translated, was called “Go Iceland (Even though we’re really, really bad)”. But we always had our moments and our specks of gold dust hidden among the frozen tundra of our talent production line.

I had 3 what you might call “heroes” or in today’s world “ones to watch” in those previews you’ve seen a million times. There was the aforementioned Guðni Bergsson, his national team partner and Bundesliga winner Eyjólfur Sverrisson, scorer of the greatest goal ever by Iceland (in objective terms, mind you) and Arnór Guðjonhsen, scorer of the greatest goal I’ve ever seen live .

They were players I had seen with my own eyes. Sometimes the national team would train close to where I lived and I would go watch them. I saw them with my own eyes and they epitomised my dreams. I wanted to become a professional footballer, too. I wanted to play for my local club like they did, especially after Arnór’s son made the leap from Valur to PSV, I knew it was not just a one off.

Eiður Smári
[You may have heard of him]

But more than anything I wanted to represent my country. I wanted to be someone’s role model, the way they had been for me. And even though I loved the Icelandic players, the more football I watched the more apparent it became that there was just a whole other level of football sophistication that just didn’t exist in the Icelandic game. And at the age of 7 worlds collided and I found myself worshipping someone of an entirely different breed.

On the wall in my bedroom was (and it’s quite surreal to think about it now, especially considering his reputation today) my most cherished possession in the entire world. I got an autographed Liverpool poster from Michael Owen that simply read:

“To our #1 fan in Iceland,

Michael Owen”

For most people it will be impossible to understand how much that meant to me, or anyone in my shoes for that matter. But for me it felt like a life changing moment. For the rest of the world, especially young people [he said, at the ripe old age of 28], it’s virtually unfathomable to grasp what it meant to be a football fan in Iceland. Hell, it’s virtually unfathomable to know what it was like to be Icelandic. On an island in the middle of the Arctic ocean, with no borders, no neighbouring countries, no way to get to another country except by boat or flying. And this was in a time before the internet, before low budget air travel, globalisation was happening – but a tiny northern arctic island of 250.000 people (when I was born) could not have been a lower priority to the world at large.

We were in the middle of nowhere, playing football on gravel and concrete and hardwood floors. In the winter sometimes removing the snow from the pitch took so long that we missed our allotted time in the schedule and the older boys who came after were the ones who got to play that day and sometimes vice versa. There were professional footballers, some of them very good, winning trophies in big leagues. But the thought of Iceland competing in international tournaments wasn’t even something that we hoped for, it just didn’t even occur to us that it could happen. In those days the most talked about Iceland game was a defeat 14-2 to Denmark, an event so traumatising to the national psyche that it was still talked about 30 years later, during my childhood.

And it was in that spirit that I cherished my one connection to the greater footballing world. I was incredibly proud of it and it genuinely meant something to me. It was the first time I’d ever seen Iceland acknowledged in the great big world as a thing that existed in football. Michael Owen even knowing what Iceland was completely blew my mind. When Owen scored *THAT* goal against Argentina the next year it felt incredible. It was, in admittedly a very childlike thing to think, something that I had that none of my friends or teammates had. Not only did I have the “bragging rights” of him being my favourite player before the World Cup and watching everyone jump on my bandwagon. I had a personally addressed autograph from a world cup scoring player and that meant that I was closer to having a representative at the world cup than any other Icelander. And you might laugh at that, I mean I do, too, but unless you come from as small a place as Iceland you can’t possibly fathom the sheer mental gymnastics required just to feel included in the conversation.

After the ‘98 World Cup we ended up in the same group as France in the qualifications for the Euros and there was a rush for tickets like had never been seen before. Not to see Iceland, though. People rushed to see France because everyone wanted to see the best team that would ever play on our stadium. Now I’m not saying that people didn’t support the national team, because that would be false. But make no mistake about it that people went to that game more to see France than Iceland and anyone who claims differently is looking at it with recency biased revisionism in mind. That game would become for me and my generation, arguably every generation, the defining game of the Icelandic national team. A 1-1 draw against France was beyond our wildest dreams and expectations. That was our “you’ll tell your grandchildren about this one day” game. But that result took us absolutely nowhere. Everyone recognised that this was a one off, never to be repeated. Against France was a sell out crowd 12.004 – 6 weeks later against Russia there were 3.345 and so it went for as long as I could remember. Even on the back of the greatest achievement in our football history we couldn’t gather momentum or support. With 9 points and undefeated in 5 games we never even got half the attendance again and we slumped down to our natural place and everything kept on the way it always had. We had our once in a lifetime moment and that was it. It was as if the country’s psyche had just accepted that this was where we belong and that hoping for anything more would only lead to disappointment, to the point that I, and others my age, were encouraged to find a different team to love or we’d never be able to enjoy the World Cup when it came around.

Slowly I accepted this and picked up lesser heroes (but far superior players) from all over the world. The likes of Gabriel Batisuta, Alessandro Del Piero and Fernando Redondo all got a run out, on the back of my imaginary jersey. I loved them because they were everything I wanted to but couldn’t be. Redondo particularly was pure magic to me. The way he glided effortlessly across the pitch, like an artist’s paintbrush on the canvas of the beautiful game. My attempts in midfield, however, proved to be more like the scene in Fellowship of the Ring when the cave troll breaks into Balin’s tomb. And even though Batistuta inspired me to believe the goals didn’t count unless I tried to break the net, “kicking the ball very hard” was deemed insufficient enough of a contribution to play striker and so, inexplicably, I was made a centreback. I tried to study the likes of Hierro, Ayala and Nesta (thanks to the magic of subscription sports channels acquired through months of delicately nagging my mother).

My idealised player though was Sami Hyypia. With my childhood heroes retired, he was the closest thing I had to a relatable role model. I even felt we had a lot in common and resigned myself to accepting that he was the best at what I realistically had to offer. Not the fastest, good in the air and a knack for scoring goals from set pieces. Sadly for me that comparison seized to be relevant after back to back knee injuries and permanent ligament damage retired my dreams before they even happened and today all that remains of my likeness with Sami Hyypia is that we’re both tall, blonde, Scandinavian and share an affinity for Liverpool football club.

Hyypia[Pictured – not me]

And so it was more or less for 12 years. The deeper I got into football the more it hurt accepting that I would never play and even more that I would never see Iceland win the world cup, as I had been planning on since I found out what the World Cup was. Rooting for the Icelandic team was hard. Every big win was followed by a bad result. Every run of form cut short simply because we weren’t good enough. There were occasional glimpses, memorable wins and so on but it was always just a bit short.

But what I think is important – and something that does genuinely bother me sometimes – is not to try and romanticise the barren years as something they weren’t. Yes there were plenty of people who went to every game. There were people who believed we could do it. But ask anyone who wins the lottery after they’ve won, and they’ll probably tell you that they just had a gut feeling that it was just a matter of time before things took off, the right one was just around the corner when looking back with perfect hindsight. Thankfully though (in no small part due to large investments in infrastructure and coaching) we Icelanders won the lottery.

In 2010 Iceland’s U-21’s came into their own, under the guidance of former national team captain (and my personal hero) Eyjólfur Sverrisson. After a very impressive 2-2 draw away to reigning champions Germany they then went on to crush the Germans at home 4-1 despite the German side featuring future World Cup winners Mats Hummels, Benedikt Höwedes and Kevin Grosskreutz, as well as Marcel Schmelzer and Lars & Sven Bender. But ask everyone who covers the English national team and they will tell you that all the young potential in the world doesn’t do you any good if you can’t make a team of them.

Iceland’s ultimate success lies, because more than anything Iceland’s success lies in the hiring of Swedish coach Lars Lagerbäck.  Roy Keane had been interviewed for the job and most felt that if we were going to hire a foreign coach, it should be someone who could instill a winning mentality. Keane’s exemplary playing record at Manchester United and his outspoken personality were seen by many as a perfect fit for the Icelandic squad.

Lagerbäck, who had a stellar record with Sweden, had just left a short term stint with Nigeria. There is, to me anyway, hilarious irony in the fact that a majority of people were unhappy with the hiring of Lars Lagerbäck. You won’t find a single person who’ll admit to it, but there were talks of boycotts of future national team games because people didn’t want to support “some Swedish mercenary who can’t  even get a job in Africa”. Most saw his appointment as a quasi-retired manager looking for one last payout (though, again, you’ll not find one person willing to admit having said that at the time). But Lagerbäck was quick to realise the potential in the Icelandic squad and had a keen talent for building a team spirit and camaraderie in the squad. He phased out older, more experienced players and built the side around the fearless young players who had experienced nothing but (relative to Iceland) success at youth level. He challenged them and pushed them and under his tutelage the Icelandic team became focused, dedicated and professional. Lagerbäck, with all his doubters and worries over his high wages, turned out to be the alchemist we had been looking for all along. He took a worthless rock in the north Atlantic and turned it into gold.

The core of that U-21’s team now features the mainstay of the current national team. Captain Aron Einar Gunnarsson, Birkir Bjarnason, Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson, Kolbeinn Sigþórsson, Rúrik Gíslason, Alfreð Finnbogason and, most importantly, Gylfi Sigurðsson all came through together and all played at Euro 2016. Most amazing of all is how calm and composed the players are. None of them has any kind of faux Joe Hart-esque machismo of chest pumping and loudly screaming in the tunnel. They don’t get intimidated by opponents and approach every game with the same mentality, whether away to Turkey in a key match or at home in a friendly against the Faroese Islands. They just go about their way as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. When we beat Holland a few years back I was running around like a headless chicken, diving through the air like Shefki Kuqi on a bad acid trip and these lovable bastards were giving interviews like they’d just come from the post office, talking about how it doesn’t matter and they have to focus on the next game. There is no feeling of complacency or achievement. They only want to win the next game. Which is why I think it’s important that people like me are screaming from the rooftops and howling like a wolf on a full moon. Because if you can’t go over the top on this, you never will.

And I think Iceland going to the World Cup is a genuinely good thing for the sport. International football has lost most – if not all – of its charm to most people and it’s vital to get stories that you can’t get enough of. Underdogs overcoming the odds and players and fans truly enjoying representing their country.

FIFA is being exposed as a cesspool of corruption and in some cases a literal international corruption and money laundering operation. The world cup host being decided by who bribed the best, at the small cost of selling weapons to extremist nations, condoning wide spread slavery and other human rights violations, mass damage to local infrastructure that isn’t properly dealt with after the tournament and so on.

And because of that I think, in a completely neutral and unbiased manner of course, that we need teams like Iceland.

I have talked about this with anyone who’ll listen – and admittedly plenty of people who won’t but suffer it either way – about how Iceland represents the joy of the game. That most childlike, exuberant expression of togetherness and camaraderie with the most random of people you’ll ever encounter in your life. Iceland just offers that something unique that deep down we can all relate to; Football being the greatest thing in the world. The feeling of not being able to sleep the night before a big game. Waking up 8 times in the night fearing that you overslept. Kids playing in the streets because they want to emulate their heroes. Generations of people coming together to experience something for the first time that every single one of them shared believing would never happen.

This is a stark (and beautiful) contrast with our history and “traditional place in the table”. This team has us all believing. The Icelandic fans and players have developed an almost beehive mentality that feeds off each other. We’re having the time of our lives regardless of who we play or the results. Every single home game is sold out and we went unbeaten in 13 home games from June 2013. Even losing 5-2 to France at the Euros contributed more to the population growth increase than anything the government has contributed to in the last 40 years.

Though I will never play in the World Cup, some of the boys that I’ve played against or watched from the sidelines in games of 7v7 thinking that I could beat any of them are now going to the World Cup. It’s a constant source of genuine bewildering laughter that that’s a thing. [Sidenote: Where else but Iceland would this be a thing?] But what I do have is I have beat them at a tournament something which Joe Hart, Kyle Walker, Danny Rose, Gary Cahill, Chris Smalling, Eric Dier, Deli Alli, Wayne Rooney, Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge, Harry Kane, Jack Wilshere, Jamie Vardy & Marcus Rashford have never done. And so I can at the very least take something away from my distinguished footballing career.

Admittedly I did it at a marginally lower level of football spread over years and dozens of games but if you think I’m going to let that stop me from making that the focus of my narrative you could not be more categorically wrong.

But come tomorrow, just shy of 23 years after I saw the best defender Iceland had get ripped apart and having my spirit of believing that Icelandic players were among the best in the world, that could hold their own against any team in the world, crushed we now stand only one game away from the World Cup.

And as if to close the circle my childhood heroes are as relevant to my life now as when I was a kid. I now live in Berlin, the city where Eyjólfur Sverrisson, U-21’s coach lived and played when captained the team and Guðni Bergsson is now the president of the Icelandic football association and will be sitting in the stands watching it all go down.

 

Tomorrow I will watch Iceland play at the World Cup. My only regret is that I can’t go back in time and talk to my younger self and tell him that all of the pain, all of the suffering and all of the frustration I felt watching Iceland be terrible will eventually be worth it. 5 year old Anton never stopped believing in this dream. At the age of 28 I’ll finally see it realised. Iceland, with a little help from two of my boyhood heroes, go to the World Cup.

And as a wise man once said,

Up the fucking Vikings!

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World Cup Preview: This one’s for the kid in us all.

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