A family’s fine football tradition

Young Albert Gudmundsson has the style of Gylfi Sigurdsson, Iceland’s talisman at Everton. He has scored 37 goals in 57 matches for his club, PSV Eindhoven’s reserves, and is a product and child of Iceland’s football revolution in the 1990s.

It is a ritual that’s repeated every four years, in May, to be precise. The minutiae are always the same: hysteria and speculation in the build-up analysis and, at times, discontent in the aftermath. The press pack, driving different narratives, are front and centre of the drama, while the fans all have their own favourites.

The coach sits down, often in a nondescript auditorium, with a list of 23 names in front of him. Everywhere, there is flash photography. The nation is watching. And, suddenly, before it has even begun in earnest, it’s over. The 23 names of the World Cup squad have been revealed and preparations for the final tournament can begin. Across continents, the ritual is repeated in 32 countries.

On May 11, Heimir Hallgrimsson, coach of World Cup debutants, Iceland, sat down behind the lectern in the auditorium of Laugardalsvollur, Iceland’s national stadium in the capital Reykjavik, to read the names of the 23 chosen ones. From the qualification campaign, Birkir Bjarnason, Kari Arnason and other stalwarts of the team had been guaranteed a spot on the plane to Russia. The inflexion of the coach’s voice, the tension in the auditorium, the media inquisitiveness — it was no different, but for one family, the Gudmundssons, the squad announcement was the apex of a long-standing relationship with the beautiful game.

Plying his trade in Holland

In February, Albert Gudmundsson, an attacking midfielder who plies his trade with PSV Eindhoven in the Netherlands, featured in Hallgrimsson’s squad for the March friendlies against both Mexico and Peru. Iceland didn’t win those matches, but Gudmundsson played valiantly, in particular in the first half against the imposing Mexicans. “He is always dangerous, he gets the ball, makes runs, dribbles past one or two opponents,” says Thorsteinn Hardarson, football director at semi-professional second division club Olafsvik. “He is a good shooter, he is active, he creates a lot of chances.”

Albert has the style of Gylfi Sigurdsson, Iceland’s talisman at Everton. He has the potential, but needs to mature further. The PSV player, who has scored 37 goals in 57 matches for his club’s reserves, is a product and child of Iceland’s football revolution in the 1990s. The nation has been a model of resource allocation, building full-size domed pitches and remodelling its coach education system.

Albert has the style of Gylfi Sigurdsson (in pic), Iceland’s talisman at EPL club, Everton.   -  AP

 

Through the youth ranks

He belongs to the second generation of players who could practise football all year long. Born in 1997, Albert came through the youth ranks of Knattspyrnufelag Reykjavikur, Iceland’s most decorated club with 26 league titles, the majority of them won before 1968. During winters, he didn’t have to practice in small basketball halls on wooden floors, like his father Gudmundur Benediktsson, who holds 10 caps for Iceland and played for Belgium’s Germinal Ekeren and Verbroedering Geel. For the majority of his career, he was also a ‘KR’ player. “Football was played for three months a year in my time,” says Benediktsson.

“The Icelandic team wasn’t the best at the time,” admits Benediktsson. “We were never really close to qualifying for the European Championship or the World Cup. We had the character, and mentality — Icelandic sportsmen normally have the right mentality — but we didn’t have too many players with great technical ability. I scored the winning goal in my first game for Iceland against the United Arab Emirates in a friendly [in 1994]. That is a great memory.”

Benediktsson and Iceland were also invited to the Millennium Super Cup in 2001 in India, but by then Benediktsson’s career was beginning to suffer from injuries. Before signing for Ekeren at the age of 16, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Everton had shown interest in the talented youngster, but, as soon as his injuries played up, they dropped their interest.

Son Albert also left home early. Aged 16, he went to SC Heerenveen in Holland. The move had a simple reason: to become a genuine professional one has to leave Iceland, where much of the elite domestic game is semi-pro, with players often holding up a job. The Netherlands is a popular destination among Icelandic players. Aron Gunnarsson, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and Johann Gudmundsson all began their professional career at AZ Alkmaar. The club’s chief scout Michel Doesburg likes the attitude Icelandic players bring to the team. “The clubs in the Netherlands get strong characters when they sign Icelandic players,” affirms Benediktsson.

Protagonists

At EURO 2016, the Alkmaar trio were protagonists. Iceland’s historic campaign was a whiff of fresh air in a tournament that was reminiscent of football’s dark ages and the 1990 Italy World Cup, a tournament of cautious defending. A European version of Uruguay, Iceland, with a population of 334,000, squeezed the maximum out of a limited talent pool. They played with a lot of grit.

“Iceland has a certain fisherman’s attitude. The country has a big fishing industry,” says Hardarson, explaining a parallel between national and footballing identity. “When you are working as a fisherman you have to be organised, work hard and just do what has do to be done. That’s the definition of this Iceland team.”

Iceland’s players celebrate their team’s victory against England in the Round of 16 match in EURO 2016, in Nice. The nation’s splendid run ended with a 5-2 loss to France in the quarterfinals.   -  AFP

Iceland is indeed a land of fishermen, who have sailed the Arctic Sea and Atlantic Ocean without waterproof jackets or rubber gloves in times gone by. They also tried harnessing geothermal energy to make aluminium and even had a cataclysmic fling with investment banking. Once a hipster destination, the island today attracts a somewhat more mundane form of mass tourism.

The national identity has always been conceived in relation — not so much to water as to the self-conscious uniqueness of a hardened folk who built a life on a remote volcanic rock, in heroic harmony with nature. At the Stade de France, backed by the boisterous Icelandic ‘Hu’ chant, that self-determination, and first-four-matches aggression, made way for an expansive experimental game in the opening minutes of the EURO 2016 quarterfinal. The daring approach backfired and the hosts France breezed to a 5-2 win.

By then, however, Iceland had left an indelible mark. In the third group game, it had beaten Austria. Benediktsson was commentating from the press box for Iceland’s Channel2Sport. As Lars Lagerback’s team broke away in the dying seconds of the game for Arnor Traustason to tap in the winner at the far post, Benediktsson’s commentary went crescendo — encouragement and shouting followed by ecstatic shrieking. In all the exuberance, Benediktsson seemed to have lost his voice. In the age of viral videos, he gained worldwide fame. “It was almost an out-of-body experience,” remembers Benediktsson.

Love for the game

The commentator exuded his love for the game. His wife Kristbjorg Ingadottir played for Iceland’s women’s team. Her grandfather, another Albert Gudmundsson, born in 1923, was the first professional football player in Icelandic history. At a young age, he went to study business at Skerry’s College in Glasgow. Albert played for, amongst others, Rangers, Arsenal, FC Nancy and AC Milan. Ingi Bjorn Albertsson, Ingadottir’s father, held Iceland’s domestic topflight goalscoring record with 126 goals until he was overtaken by Tryggvi Gudmundsson, who is not a relative.

Benediktsson and his son come from a long line of football players. Outside Iceland’s national stadium, a bronze statue honours the elder Albert Gudmundsson as a pioneering football talent. On May 11, PSV’s Albert became another pioneer for the family in going to the World Cup. In Moscow, on June 16, Benediktsson, as part of the family’s fine football tradition, will roar from the press box as his son and Iceland stride out against Lionel Messi and Argentina.