September 6, 2013. It’s a warm fall evening in Bern, and Iceland squares up against a much-fancied Switzerland side in a World Cup qualifying match for. Iceland, led by Swedish coach Lars Lägerback and his assistant, Heimir Hallgrímsson, have performed admirably so far in qualification. The dream of playing in fabled Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro, the home of football in Brazil, is still distant, however. After an unexpected Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson opener, the Swiss team appears to be a number too big for the Icelandic players, as Iceland find themselves 4-1 down 54 minutes in. After a quickfire Icelandic equalizer, Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson steps up as he scores two breathtaking goals to draw the Icelanders level and complete his hat-trick – the first one that an Icelander has ever scored in a competitive match. The image of the Icelandic team celebrating still lingers in people’s memories. That night in Bern gave both the nation and the team a newfound belief – and Iceland hasn’t looked back since.
Five years later, Jóhann Berg is gearing up for the World Cup tournament in Russia. Although the surroundings will be different, the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow will be the setting of the same spectacle as the sandy beaches of Brazil promised some years back. The Icelandic team came so close in 2013, losing a play-off matchup against Croatia. The Croatians wait again this time around, as they have been drawn with Iceland in a group. Jóhann Berg is riding high into to the tournament, as he enjoyed a fantastic season with unfancied outfit Burnley in the English Premier League. He was voted into the ESPN Team of the year for players outside England’s top six and has provided 8 assists along with goals against stalwarts such as Liverpool and Manchester City. If anyone is ready for the World Cup, it’s Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson. We picked Jóhann’s brain on the upcoming World Cup, beating England at the EURO 2016, and his Counter-Strike skills.
Jói Bern and playoff heartbreak
After the hat-trick in Bern, Jóhann Berg received the apt nickname Jóhann Bern. “That night in Bern helped the team immensely. We saw how good we could really become. It was one massive step in the process of us going to the World Cup. It was a magnificent night for Icelanders as well as me personally. I will always look back fondly on that night.” The dream of qualifying for Brazil 2014 ended abruptly, however, in a two-legged playoff against Croatia. At the time, many Icelanders felt that they had lost their one and only chance and the players struggled with the defeat. “It was difficult to recover from that blow. There were many who believed this was the closest we would ever come to qualifying for the World Cup. What helped us immensely was to recover by qualifying for the EURO 2016. Then we managed, incredibly, to seal our ticket to the World Cup by coming in 1st place in a group with four teams who played at the EURO 2016.”
World Cup fever
Iceland is the smallest nation ever to reach a World Cup tournament, so Icelanders are eagerly waiting for the matches in Russia this summer. Qualifying for the World Cup is way bigger than we realize, I think. In a few years, we will look back on these achievements and realize how great they are. I’m just trying to enjoy the moment while it lasts.” He also recognises the pressure they’re under, as the team was the darling of the EURO 2016. “When you perform well, it makes people sit up and notice. There is pressure on us to do well after our performance at EURO 2016, but I’m not stressed about it. I am just going to play football at the World Cup and have fun. We can do great things if we give 100% in every match.”
An Icelander in England
The famous victory against England at the EURO tournament meant a lot for Jóhann as he lived in England during his teenage years, as well as currently playing in England. “It was extra sweet to beat England. Everybody in Iceland watches English football, and most support England at international tournaments.” Jóhann was on the books of Premier League clubs Fulham and Chelsea as a youngster but suffered an injury which forced him to return to Iceland “I got the taste of being a professional which gave me the extra motivation to return abroad to play. I knew I had the chance after I played one season at home in 2008, and that’s when I received my first international cap as well.” Jóhann was in England when they played at the 2006 World Cup, “If you told me I would play at the World Cup twelve years later with Iceland, I would have thought you were crazy. It was, of course, a dream of mine, but I thought it would never happen.”
The multitalented footballer
Jóhann Berg’s talents are not only showcased on the football field, as he is rumoured to have been a skilled player in the shooter video game Counter-Strike, “I played it a little bit too much at one time. I was good and enjoyed playing with my mates. Let’s just say I was not as good in Counter-Strike as I am at football.” Jóhann recently released a football trivia game in Iceland named Beint í mark, and fancies himself as a bit of a football trivia master “I know quite a lot about football as I both read extensively and watch a lot of games. I think I do alright.”
The golden generation?
Iceland has a great squad of players who play for each other, but what sets the team apart from other teams? “It is very difficult to break us down defensively, so we don’t concede a lot of goals. Couple that with the fact that we always believe we can score, you’ve got a great formula. We’re a difficult side to face as we’ve got big men up top who can win every header.” But is the current generation a so-called ‘golden generation? “It’s not a sure thing getting such a group of footballers together, we’re incredibly lucky. Everybody is willing to run until their lungs burst and we also happen to be good footballers. It’s going to be difficult to get another generation like this, but hopefully qualifying for big tournaments becomes a habit. We need to keep the same values we have today in order to enjoy success in the future.”
Iceland’s opening match at the World Cup is against Argentina, where the players will face off against the genius of Lionel Messi. The Icelandic team faced a similar situation at the EURO tournament when the first challengers were eventual champions Portugal, starring the world-class Cristiano Ronaldo. When asked about the phenomenal challenge of facing Lionel Messi, Jóhann Berg remains undaunted “These are two of the best footballers in the world, it would be pure joy to get a result against Argentine as we did against Portugal. These players are on another level and play a completely different brand of football than we do. We will do everything to shut down Messi just as we shut down Ronaldo.”
During Heimir Hallgrímsson’s reign as the Icelandic national team’s manager, Iceland has enjoyed unprecedented success, qualifying for the EURO 2016 and will now step on the grandest sporting stage of them all, the World Cup. By doing so, Iceland became the smallest nation ever to qualify for the tournament.
Heimir’s honest approach to work and life has gained him many admirers. A testament to how beloved he is by his countrymen, a hop-heavy pale ale named Heimir has recently been specially brewed in his honour. We sat down with the charming Heimir to discuss his background in dentistry, his philosophy, and how he plans to stop Lionel Messi this summer.
Team Iceland vs. Messi
Iceland will face off against Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria at the World Cup and the first hurdle at the tournament will be stopping Lionel Messi on the 16th of June in Moscow. “We always work as a team, even when facing superstars. We would never ask one player to stop Lionel Messi, it would be unfair. We do everything together – that is our philosophy.” Teamwork and unity is what sets Iceland apart from other teams. According to Heimir, “Our identity is based on working as a team. There are certain fields we want to be the best in and these are different from other nations. We are unique due to the players’ hard-working nature and unity we display on the field”.
Sharing top secrets
Heimir started out as assistant coach to Swede Lars Lagerback in 2011, at a point when interest in the Icelandic team was at a low and the team hovered around 130 on the FIFA World Rankings. Since Heimir’s work with the team started, Iceland has progressed step by step and is now ranked as the 22nd best footballing nation in the world. He took it upon himself to meet Tólfan, the Icelandic supporters group, in a small pub before the Icelandic team’s home matches. In the meeting, he discusses tactics and discloses the team’s starting line-up, sometimes even before the players themselves know the starting eleven. “Our relationship is on another level. This is unthinkable for other national teams. When we started out there were only seven people attending in a small room. It has grown since then, along with our respect for each other.” Heimir is not afraid to disclose secrets to the select group of fans, “No one wants to destroy this by leaking anything out.”
The optimistic Icelanders
The Icelandic nation eagerly awaits the World Cup, but what can the Icelandic team achieve at the tournament? “Optimism is in Icelander’s DNA so the people want us to win all of the matches in the group – it is simply in our nature. We are realistic however and know that we can everybody as well as lose. Even if we play our best possible match we can still lose against nations like Argentina. I think the best philosophy is to try to enjoy the tournament and approach the World Cup in as relaxed a mood as is possible. If we do our best, we have a chance”
Dentist turned coach
Heimir is a dentist by profession, having tended to the teeth of residents of the remote Vestmannaeyjar archipelago for years. Having now turned his attention fully to the national team, dentistry work is never far away. When attending a match in the women’s top division in his hometown, Heimir was called upon when a player lost a tooth after a clash. In typical unfazed fashion, Heimir drove her to his nearby office and stuck the tooth back in. His background as a dentist has helped him as a manager, as well “As a dentist, you deal with different people throughout the day. The person in the chair might be relaxed, anxious, agitated or desperately frightened. This one-on-one work helps when dealing with football players as you have to treat different people in different ways.”
The unorthodox coach
Heimir’s experience as a football manager differs from most of his colleagues at the World Cup. Heimir has a unique background as he started working as a youth coach with 6-year olds, progressing his career step by step towards coaching women. Transitioning from coaching women to the men’s game is a rarity in football. Since he started working with the Icelandic team he has risen from assistant coach to joint manager and after the EURO 2016, he was hired as the sole manager. “I think that no-one at the World Cup has taken this route in coaching – having such a long career as a youth and women’s coach. One role has led to another as I’ve always been trusted with larger roles. I have never in my life thought ‘What next?’. When I was coaching 6-year olds I really enjoyed it, living in the present and feeling good. Then when I coached a top division women’s team, ÍBV, I thought that was the biggest role I would take on. When you are in the present you give it your all and good things happen to you”.
The World Cup – a different beast
The Icelandic football association has felt the increased interest level around the World Cup. “When Iceland Review comes to a press meeting held by the Football Association of Iceland, it shows that the interest level is tremendous. There have been television crews here from Brazil, Japan, China and Argentina here for weeks on end. It is a great promotion for Icelandic football as it gains more respect worldwide.” When asked if the current success is sustainable, Heimir is not short for answers “The current atmosphere is that this success is completely normal – while there are large nations who have not made it to the World Cup. This team have gotten us to a place where we are among the best – which is a fantastic achievement. People will not realize for about 2 or 3 years how far this team has come. If we attain this level for years to come, we will not always qualify for large tournaments – but if we are in the fight it is a gigantic step for such a small footballing nation as Iceland is.”
Heimir for president?
After the Icelandic team’s success at EURO 2016, there were many who called for the Swedish coach Lars Lagerback to run for the President of Iceland. When asked if he will be in the same position if Iceland performs well at the World Cup, Heimir laughs “I know President Gudni Th. Jóhannesson well enough, and he can do no wrong. If he puts on the wrong pair of socks it simply becomes a trend. There is no-one who will overthrow him unless he decides to leave himself.” On that note, we say goodbye to Heimir and wish him well for the challenges waiting at the World Cup – Áfram Ísland!
Read the full article in the June-July issue of Iceland Review magazine. Subscribe here.