Football halls, frozen pitches and fishing villages – A week in Iceland

“We’re now approaching Keflavík airport, with a temperature on the ground of -4°C and we’re currently experiencing some blizzard-like conditions on the runway.”

If you had asked me two weeks before I heard this rather ominous statement what I would be doing on Easter Monday, I would have probably told you I would be anxiously following the promotion race in the Championship, on the sofa with an Easter egg. Instead, I was braving the weather Google had assured me wouldn’t be an issue before we took off, and setting off on a pilgrimage to understand Iceland’s football culture, and how such a small country has found itself in a position where in two months time, they will kick off their maiden World Cup campaign with a game against Argentina.

DAY 1: REYKJAVÍK

I had never seen a plane land in the snow. The conditions in Keflavík would have caused any airport in the UK to shut down for several days and been national news, but our more experienced Scandinavian neighbours were well-equipped to deal with the heavy snow that was quickly settling on the runway.

The five-day excursion was the idea and year-long dream of my friend and fellow journalist Lucas Arnold. After several roles within a football analytics company, Lucas found himself analysing every game of last season’s Úrvalsdeild karla, the top flight of Icelandic football, which is colloquially known as the ‘Pepsi’. Since then, he has not only fallen in love with Iceland and their style of football, but has gained a substantial cult following on social media, which came in very handy when organising the trip.

Our 45 minute bus journey from Keflavík to Reykjavík exposed us to some of the most alien terrain we’ve ever come across and gave us a glimpse into the country we would be spending the next five days in. Vast expanses of rocky fields being buried under snow were dwarfed in the background by large, imposing mountains.

The majority of Iceland’s domestic football is focused within the southwest peninsula of the island, with Reykjavík located on the northern coast which may explain why the stubborn Arctic winds quickly forced us to seek refuge in the nearest Subway as soon as we reached the capital. However, this wasn’t before we spotted the football halls and stadia of FH, Stjarnan and Breiðablik from the windows of the bus, which only escalated our excitement, much to the confusion of our fellow passengers. These football halls are a hallmark of Icelandic football development and vital as Iceland continue to give their young players the best possible chance of reaching their potential.

We had an exciting meeting set up for our first evening, which allowed us to explore central Reykjavík for as long as the weather would allow us beforehand. Through the thick snow, we managed to spot first division side Þróttur Reykjavík’s ground and hidden just behind it, the Laugardalsvöllur, Iceland’s national stadium. It’s impossible to compare either of these places to their English equivalents. We discovered we had been especially unlucky that we visited the national stadium on a national holiday, otherwise it’s likely that someone would have happily let us walk around and explore the ground, a situation you could never imagine happening at Wembley.

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Dinner that evening was spent with two of Iceland’s most prominent football journalists; Magnús Már Einarsson, a reporter from fotbolti.net, Iceland’s leading football website, and Tómas Þór Þórðarson, a TV and radio presenter for Channel 2 Sport. Magnús, Tómas and Lucas spent much of the evening discussing the upcoming Pepsi season, and for the first time in my life I was completely lost and out of my depth in a football conversation. Our Icelandic counterparts were happy to talk at length about the chances of Grindavík and Valur in their upcoming cup final, the fate of newly promoted sides Fylkir and Keflavík and who they backed for next season’s title. Partly to test their guest to see if he was as knowledgable in the flesh as he was behind a computer screen, but mainly because this Scandinavian league, although not yet competitive on the continental stage, is absolutely fascinating.

Lucas’ notoriety within the Icelandic football community was even a brief topic of discussion as a series of Twitter he had been running highlighting a young player from each club was brought up, with Tómas recalling that he had been deliberating the choices of ‘The English Guy’ with his colleagues days before.

One of the few discussions I was able to be fully involved in was the upcoming World Cup. Iceland’s recent international success has come from the national side being settled and able to develop as a team, rather than a group of individuals. When asked who would be in England’s starting XI for our opening game in June, Lucas and I gave very different teams. Magnús and Tómas then assured us that if you asked any football fan in Iceland which side would start their opener against Argentina, nearly all of them would pick the same eleven players, a strength they confidently maintain will see them through their group ahead of Nigeria and Croatia.

After several Icelandic pints were drunk, and a horse steak was consumed (apparently a local delicacy although I’ll admit I wasn’t brave enough to try it) we retired for the evening before our first away day outside the capital.

DAY 2: SELFOSS

Our first full day in Iceland involved a trip to the other side of the Icelandic footballing peninsula (at this point I’m not sure it would even geographically be considered a peninsula but I’m going with it) to visit a small village called Selfoss. A two-hour bus journey saw us dropped off outside a KFC in a service station where a Spanish man named Iván Martínez, a.k.a. Pachu was waiting to meet us. Hopefully this statement goes some way to explaining just how surreal this whole trip was.

Pachu is the technical director at UMF Selfoss, a side in the second tier of Icelandic football and is also the first team’s central attacking midfielder. His day job involves scouting and recommending potential signings for the club, a role he took on shortly after joining from his previous club in Norway over two years ago. Pachu invited us to visit his club, gave us a tour of the ground and the town and gave us an insight into what it’s like to come to Iceland to play football as a foreigner.

The club are attached to the local high school and children are given the option of playing football, handball and basketball and this forms part of the club’s academy. The majority of the squad are made up of Icelandic players, but Pachu is one of a number of Spanish players who have turned out in Selfoss’ burgundy strip in recent years. His fellow countryman Toni Espinosa lives in the same building, a two minute drive from the ground, and recently joined the club after a turbulent spell playing in Indonesia. Pachu made it clear that one of their key transfer policies is to find players who either have experience playing in Scandinavia previously (Espinosa had a spell at Víkingur several years previously) or may are young players struggling for game time in Norway’s second and third tiers.

After an initial ground tour, Pachu left us to get some lunch before picking us up again for a pre-match coffee.

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Before his pre-match routine began, Pachu told us about his own struggles playing in Iceland, where even though he has been settled in Scandinavia for several years, he worries about his own mental health during the winter months where experiencing 24 hours of darkness is not uncommon.

“When you wake up every morning and it’s dark outside, and you know it isn’t going to get lighter, it’s difficult to motivate yourself.”

He told us of a foreign player who joined Selfoss, and one day midway through his first season, walked into the main office and said, ‘If I don’t leave the club today, I’m going to kill myself.’ He said that the rest of the squad had noticed that he didn’t always look happy at training, but when any of his teammates asked he was, he always insisted he was fine. To Pachu, this highlighted the importance of bringing players into the club who are not just good enough to play at this level, but mentally are capable of living in a small, isolated town in an environment which is likely to be very different from anything they’ve ever experienced before.

Pachu dropped us at the ground leaving his car outside the main office unlocked. “There’s no crime here, when I first joined the club my teammates asked me why I locked my car, and I told them it was what I was used to. Soon I learned that you can leave your keys in the car and no one will ever steal it. When I go back to Spain, I have to be careful as this is a dangerous habit to get into outside of Iceland”. Selfoss were playing Þróttur Vogum that evening, a club in the tier below them from Vogar, another small settlement on the south-west Icelandic peninsula.

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The game itself played out as many friendlies do, both sides looking to put into practice what they had been developed in training, improve their fitness, and ultimately win the game. Toni Espinosa’s 35-yard free-kick was the best goal of the game in a 3-1 win for Selfoss, but the highlight was new striker Gilles Ondo – brought in from Andorran side Engordany – nearly punching a man’s head off his shoulder after he accused the defender of trying to break his legs in what was a poorly-timed but not malicious challenge. The thing I will remember most from this match will be just how cold it was. The few other spectators who had braved the wind chill told us it was -12°C, and the Selfoss staff kept imploring us to drink more coffee to stay warm. To this day, I’m not sure whether I will fully regain the feeling in my toes.

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Pachu was kind enough to drop us off at the KFC again to catch the first of our two buses back to the capital and thanked us for visiting his little corner of Iceland. I had no idea what to expect going into this trip, but meeting Pachu and spending the day with him in one of the most surreal places I will probably ever visit was the highlight for me.

DAY 3: REYKJAVÍK

When planning what I was going to write for this piece, I had Day 3 earmarked for doing the things that tourists normally do when they travel to Iceland, such as visiting the famous Hallgrímskirkja church, buying the most expensive pints of my life in view of said church (£23 for 2 if you’re interested) or walking down the impressive coastline that borders Reykjavík to the south. Unfortunately, there was Champions League football that day, and it would have been rude for us to not to have soaked up the local atmosphere in the creatively named ‘The English Pub’ as Liverpool played Manchester City at Anfield.

There’s a recent tradition of Scandinavian football fans supporting Liverpool, which is excellently explained in this article on The Set Pieces, but it meant that the atmosphere inside this particular drinking establishment was better than anything I had experienced in London in the past year. A fan wearing one of Liverpool’s newest bright orange away shirts told us that the prevalence of his adopted side’s appearances on Icelandic television in the 80s and 90s lead to the upsurge of fans in the country and he and his friends were split between supporting the red half of Liverpool or the red half of Manchester.

Two lonely Barcelona fans were placed in the corner of the pub, forced to watch their game against Roma on a solitary screen while the rest of the establishment broadcast the all-English quarter-final, much to the delight of the majority of that evening’s patrons. Lucas explained to the Icelander we had befriended why we were here and after a quick prompt the man recognised him via his cartoon Twitter API and bought us a round of local IPAs.

He told us that he played in the 4. deild, three tiers below Selfoss who we had visited the day before, and said it was locally known as the ‘Passion Leagues’ because it allowed anyone to come along and play football. The thought of an equivalent team in England being four promotions away from the top flight of domestic football is remarkable, although still incredibly unlikely. The full-time whistle blew and before we could reciprocate the round of drinks he bought for us, he told us he was already half-an-hour late for a business meeting and had to go, but not before joining in with a rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone which started playing out over the speaker systems.

DAY 4: REYKJAVÍK, GRINDAVÍK AND KÓPAVOGUR

The final day of our trip was another busy affair, although not until the later in the day. This gave us time to take one final trip to a Reykjavík-based club, the home of the champions; Valur. Based in the east of Reykjavík, Valur were the unlikely winners of last year’s Pepsi, as the favourites FH stuttered throughout the campaign.

Lucas assures me that their side has only improved over the winter break, and they are in pole position to retain their title this year. They made a marquee signing in the form of right-back Birkir Már Sævarsson from Hammarby, who is an anomaly in Iceland in that he has returned to his homeland while still being an active member of the national team set-up.

As we arrived at their facilities, we noticed a side gate open with kids cycling through it, presumably the youth team arriving to train after they had finished school. We had been assured that wherever we went in the football community, people were likely to be friendly and welcoming, and despite the first team being in the USA during our visit, a youth team coach let us wonder around the grounds unattended. He told us that the site around the stadium was being developed, with a new indoor facility and stand currently under construction. The club came into some money recently which is being wisely invested in infrastructure rather than short-term squad investments, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Valur become the first Icelandic side ever to quality for the main draw of a European club competition.

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The evening before we left was to be the busiest part of our itinerary, with a training session followed by a friendly planned before catching a bus back to our hotel to try and get some sleep before our early flight home. Our first stop was the small fishing village of Grindavík, located next to the famous Blue Lagoon, which is quite literally one of Iceland’s hottest tourist destinations. Due to the rather inconsistent public transport schedule in Iceland, for a time we weren’t sure if we would be able to get there, but luckily midfielder and former Manchester United player Sam Hewson kindly stepped in and provided a much needed lift to the Icelandic outpost he currently turns out for.

Hewson is about to start his eighth campaign in Iceland with his third different Pepsi club. Originally signed from Altrincham by Fram, he spent several years at the Reykjavík-based club before joining FH where he won two league titles. He’s about to start his second season at Grindavík who have aspirations to once again challenge for European qualification after being the surprise package last year and narrowly missing out on a Europa League place. When Hewson came to Iceland, he admitted he wasn’t entirely convinced by the prospect of playing in the Pepsi. “When I first came to play here, I thought to myself it’s an opportunity, but if I don’t enjoy it, I know I can go and play somewhere else in six months”. Those doubts have been firmly casted aside now as Hewson has just had his first child with his Icelandic partner, and apologised when picking us up that he was very sleep deprived.

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Hewson admits that having a group of four British players in the Fram squad when he first came to Iceland was a key factor in helping him settle, and they’re a group he still now keeps in contact with. Similar to when we spoke to Pachu who reiterated the point in his recruitment strategy, having the correct mindset and a good coping mechanism is vital for a player coming to Iceland to play football. Although the majority of people speak English, the culture and lifestyle is alien to anything these players are experiencing elsewhere in Europe.

We arrive in Grindavík and immediately it’s clear why Hewson has chosen to stay in the capital and commute to training. It’s very much an outpost in an already sparse country and within two minutes of arriving we’ve driven through most of the town to arrive at the football ground. We’re welcomed into the Yellow Hut which acts as the meeting room and offices for the Grindavík staff and are introduced to manager Óli Stefán Flóventsson. Óli Stefán (it’s more common in Icelandic football culture to refer to people by their first names rather than their last names due to the number of shared surnames) is one of the most exciting coaches in Iceland, and he’s widely tipped to one of the next managers to be poached by a club in one of Scandinavia’s bigger leagues in the near future. He invited us to watch his side’s 90 minute training session as they prepare for the pre-season cup final against Valur.

After some warning-up and keep ball drills, he begins to develop the session. After exploring the area outside the football hall, Lucas and I return to see him organising what looks like a very complex shooting drill that tests players composure, movement in the box and ability to make the correct decision with their final pass. It’s intense, requires players to be constantly switched on and trains several different skills and makes it clear to us that a lot of preparation has gone into making the most out of the short period of time Óli Stefán has with his squad. Finally, they end with a seven-a-side game. Hewson tells us afterwards that the intensity is so high in these games because every player scores a point each time they’re on the winning side, and the player with the most points at the end of each month takes home a prize that the rest of the squad have contributed to.

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Óli Stefán told us “We’ve played well in pre-season so far, but before we play Valur I wanted to improve our shooting. We know they are going to be the stronger team, so I want to make sure my players are able to put away their chances when they come. I’m confident that if we stick to the plan we have in place, and the make the most of our attacks when we go forward that we have a chance.”

The training session ends and a large part of the squad come over to say hello and shake our hands. The majority of them have no idea who we are, but are interested as to why two English guys have suddenly turned up to watch one of their midweek training sessions. One of the most impressive players that evening was Marinó Axel Helgason, a bright young winger who looked like he always had time on the ball despite the game being played on a half-sized pitch. Marinó Axel has been in and around the Iceland U21s squad, and it’s understandable why given his impressive close control and acceleration.

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After training Hewson gave up a lift to Kópavogur, a town midway between Grindavík and Reykjavík and home of second-tier club HK who were the hosts of the most anticipated friendly of pre-season, as FH played Stjarnan. We arrived midway through the first half, walked through the main entrance, another set of double doors and then sat down in the hall without paying a penny, a scenario you could never imagine happening if trying to attend a match between two Premier League or even Championship sides. Stjarnan beat FH 2-1 on the night, with a 30-yard volley from a young Stjarnan startlet the highlight of the game.

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The culture allowing people to simply walk in and watch professional teams play football was much more fascinating to me than the game itself and summed up why I loved the way football is enjoyed in Iceland so much. Tómas was also present taking in the game as a fan but also to keep his Twitter followers informed of the goings-on at one of the most hotly anticipated games of the #30daysoffriendlies feature he had been running, and he and Lucas assessed the individuals they had become used to watching while I intermittently interjected with any analysis I was able to offer.

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The full-time whistle blew and Lucas and I both felt a pang of sadness as we realised this was the end of our experience in Scandinavia. Tómas had dashed off several minutes before the end, possibly because he had already seen enough from each of the team’s to form an opinion for the start of the upcoming season, but I suspect it was also to beat the traffic out the stadium. As we waited for our bus home, we reflected on what had been an incredible experience, and one I will always be thankful for. If you ever get the chance to visit Iceland, make sure you find a cheap place to buy alcohol and get yourself to a match because I can promise you it will be like nothing you’ve ever experienced before.

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