Captain-Less Iceland Takes on Israel in Euro Play-Off Match

Iceland football team

Iceland’s national football team captain, Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson, is sidelined with a thigh injury and will miss tonight’s UEFA European Championship play-off semi-final against Israel. If Iceland wins tonight’s match, the team will advance to the finals match of the playoffs, facing either Bosnia and Herzegovina or Ukraine, on Tuesday, March 26.

More serious than initially suspected

The Icelandic men’s national football team has suffered a significant setback as captain Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson is injured and will not participate in tonight’s UEFA European Championship playoff semi-final against Israel, RÚV reports.

Jóhann Berg has had limited involvement in the team’s training sessions, and it has now been confirmed that his injury is more serious than initially thought. In a press conference yesterday, Jóhann Berg revealed that he had suffered a thigh injury.

Mikael Egill Ellertsson will wear jersey number 7, usually worn by Jóhann Berg. As noted by RÚV, 23 players have been registered for Iceland’s squad by UEFA today, as opposed to the full 24 selected by coach Åge Hareide for the task, in light of Jóhann Berg’s injury.

Centre-back and vice-captain Sverrir Ingi Ingason is expected to lead the team into this crucial match against Israel tonight. If Iceland wins tonight’s match, the team will advance to the finals match of the playoffs, facing either Bosnia and Herzegovina or Ukraine, on Tuesday, March 26.

As noted on UEFA’s website, “the playoffs are all single-leg knockout matches. If ties are level at the end of normal time they go to extra time and, if required, a penalty shoot-out.” Iceland’s match against Israel tonight will take place at the Szusza Ferenc Stadium in Budapest, as UEFA has deemed it unsafe to host matches in Israel. The match is scheduled to start at 19:45 Icelandic time.

Goalkeepers:
Elías Rafn Ólafsson – CD Mafra – 6 matches
Hákon Rafn Valdimarsson – Brentford – 7 matches
Patrik Sigurður Gunnarsson – Viking FK – 4 matches

Outfielders:
Guðmundur Þórarinsson – OFI Crete – 13 matches
Kolbeinn Birgir Finnsson – Lyngby Boldklub – 9 matches
Daníel Leó Grétarsson – Sonderjyske Fodbold – 15 matches
Sverrir Ingi Ingason – FC Midtjylland – 47 matches, 3 goals
Hjörtur Hermannsson – Pisa SC – 27 matches, 1 goal
Guðlaugur Victor Pálsson – K.A.S. Eupen – 42 matches, 1 goal
Alfons Sampsted – FC Twente – 21 matches
Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson – Burnley – 90 matches, 8 goals (injured)
Ísak Bergmann Jóhannesson – Fortuna Düsseldorf – 24 matches, 3 goals
Arnór Ingvi Traustason – IFK Norrköping – 54 matches, 5 goals
Hákon Arnar Haraldsson – LOSC Lille – 15 matches, 3 goals
Kristian Nökkvi Hlynsson – AFC Ajax – 1 match
Jón Dagur Þorsteinsson – OH Leuven – 33 matches, 4 goals
Mikael Egill Ellertsson – Venezia FC – 14 matches, 1 goal
Mikael Neville Anderson – AGF – 24 matches, 2 goals
Arnór Sigurðsson – Blackburn Rovers – 20 matches, 2 goals
Willum Þór Willumsson – Go Ahead Eagles – 8 matches
Orri Steinn Óskarsson – FC Köbenhavn – 6 matches, 2 goals
Andri Lucas Guðjohnsen – Lyngby Boldklub – 20 matches, 6 goals
Alfreð Finnbogason – K.A.S. Eupen – 73 matches, 18 goals
Albert Guðmundsson – Genoa CFC – 35 matches, 6 goals

Nominations for 2023 Athlete of the Year Announced

Iceland football team

Ten athletes are nominated for the Sports Journalists Association’s Athlete of the Year 2023, Mbl.is reports. This year will see a new recipient of the award, continuing a tradition since 1956.

A tradition stretching back to 1956

Ten individuals are in contention for the Sports Journalists Association’s Athlete of the Year 2023 award, which will be announced for the 68th time on the evening of Thursday, January 4. This year, six women and four men have emerged as frontrunners in the voting, marking a significant change from last year, when eight men and three women were in the top eleven spots (with two tying for the 10th-11th position).

As noted by Mbl.is, the Sports Journalists Association has been selecting the Athlete of the Year consecutively since 1956. Olympian Vilhjálmur Einarsson was the first recipient of the award, which the winning athlete keeps for one year. Vilhjálmur notably retained it for the first three consecutive years and for five of the first six years of the award.

A new name etched on the award

As noted by Mbl.is, it is certain that a new name will be engraved on the trophy this year, as none of the top ten finalists have previously been named Athlete of the Year. Four of ten were, however, among the top seven in the 2022 voting: Glódís Perla Viggósdóttir finished second, Gísli Þorgeir Kristjánsson third, Anton Sveinn McKee fifth, and Elvar Már Friðriksson seventh. Handball player Ómar Ingi Magnússon, who was awarded the title over the past two years, has not been nominated this year.

The ten finalists, listed in alphabetical order, are:

Andrea Kolbeinsdóttir, a track and field athlete from ÍR. She became the Icelandic champion in seven running events, set two Icelandic records, and also won the national championship in cross-country skiing on the same day she broke a 29-year-old record in the indoor 5,000-metre run.

Anton Sveinn McKee, a swimmer from Sundfélag Hafnarfjarðar. He won silver in the 200 m breaststroke at the European Championships in a 25 m pool in Romania in December and finished seventh in the same event at the World Championships in a 50 m pool in Japan. Anton is currently second in the world rankings for the 200 m breaststroke in a 25 m pool.

Elvar Már Friðriksson, a basketball player with PAOK in Greece. He played major roles for his club teams in Lithuania and Greece during the year and was instrumental in the Icelandic national team, which was very close to qualifying for the World Cup for the first time. In November, Elvar became the first player in the history of the FIBA Champions League to achieve a triple-double in an away game.

Gísli Þorgeir Kristjánsson, a handball player with Magdeburg in Germany. He was named the best player in the European Champions League finals, securing the European championship title for his team. Gísli was also voted the best player in German handball for the 2022-2023 season.

Glódís Perla Viggósdóttir, a footballer with Bayern Munich in Germany. She was a key player for Bayern when the team won the German championship in the spring of 2023 and was considered one of the best players in the league. Glódís took over as captain for both Bayern and the Icelandic national team in 2023.

Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson, a footballer playing for Burnley in England. He played a significant role in the club’s dominant win in the English Championship Division and is now competing in the English Premier League in the current season.

Snæfríður Sól Jórunnardóttir, a swimmer at Aalborg Svømmeklub in Denmark. She finished 7th in the 200 m freestyle at the European Championships in a 25 m pool in Romania and 14th in the same event at the World Championships in a 50 m pool in Japan. Snæfríður set 13 Icelandic records over the year.

Sóley Margrét Jónsdóttir, a powerlifter from Breiðablik. She became the European champion in the women’s +84 kg category in equipped powerlifting. Sóley also won silver in the same event at the World Championships in Lithuania, narrowly missing the world champion title.

Sveindís Jane Jónsdóttir, a footballer at Wolfsburg in Germany. She became the German Cup champion with her team and was the second Icelandic woman to play in the UEFA Women’s Champions League final, where Wolfsburg lost to Barcelona, playing the entire match.

Thelma Aðalsteinsdóttir, a gymnast from Gerpla. She became the Nordic champion on uneven bars, reached the vault finals at a World Cup event in Hungary, and was close to securing an Olympic spot at the World Championships. Thelma won the Icelandic championship in all-around and uneven bars and became the cup champion with Gerpla.

Six of these ten have previously been among the top finalists in the selection.

Football Captain Raises Pitch Concerns with Prime Minister

Football team

At a press conference yesterday, Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson – captain of Iceland’s men’s national football team – told reporters that he had raised concerns about Iceland’s inadequate pitch conditions during a meeting with Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Vísir reports. The team will face off against Luxembourg tonight in a 2024 UEFA Euro 2024 qualifier.

“We’re not asking for much”

Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson, set to captain Iceland’s men’s national football team in tonight’s UEFA Euro 2024 qualifier against Luxembourg, addressed media queries at a press conference yesterday, fielding several questions concerning Iceland’s subpar pitch conditions.

Jóhann told reporters that he had met Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and raised an informal concern regarding the unacceptable state of Iceland’s football pitches. Katrín is currently in Luxembourg for talks with Prime Minister Xavier Bettel.

As noted by RÚV, local football club Breiðablik – having secured a spot in the Europa Conference League’s group stage – now faces the challenge of hosting home games at Laugardalsvöllur, Iceland’s sole sanctioned football pitch. The pitch lacks undersoil heating, raising concerns about the prospect of maintaining its quality until Breiðablik’s final home match in November.

The Icelandic men’s team is also likely to compete in a playoff for a berth in the UEFA Euro 2024 finals next March, intensifying the urgency to upgrade Laugardalsvöllur’s playing conditions.

Jóhann expressed envy for Luxembourg’s national stadium, the venue for tonight’s match between the two countries. “I told Katrín during breakfast this morning that Iceland needs a comparable facility. We’re not asking for much – just one quality pitch for crucial matches, especially when Laugardalsvöllur’s readiness is in doubt,” Jóhann stated.

He further noted that the issue has languished in committees for nearly a decade. “Perhaps it’s time to explore alternatives to endless committee discussions,” Jóhann suggested.

The match between Iceland and Luxembourg kicks off at 6:45 p.m. tonight.

Iceland Wins Euro Qualifier Against Albania, 1-0

Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson

The Icelandic National Men’s football team won its Euro 2020 qualifying match against Albania on Saturday, with a final score of 1-0, mbl.is reports. Iceland earned three points as a result of the win.

Although Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson, who scored the winning goal during the 22’ minute, admitted to Vísir that the game “wasn’t pretty,” he and his teammates were thrilled with the result, which brought Iceland up to six points in the group. Albanian coach Edoardo Reja didn’t mince words when asked about the final score, however, saying that Iceland’s win was “undeserved,” and that it was the kind of match in which the team that scored first was likely to come out the victor.

“As I’ve said many times, Icelanders are very strong physically – particularly in the air – and as such, Albania kept the ball mostly on its own half of the pitch and tried to find a hole in Iceland’s defense. That would have been possible if the game had evolved differently. But then we made terrible mistakes in our defense, such that three players were like bowling pins – just stood there and did nothing but make horrible mistakes. It was that kind of game – where the team that scored first was more likely to come out victorious.”

The match was a scrappy one, with Iceland on the receiving end of more fouls than Albania. When asked if his team had played a rough game, Reja replied that it was “…a hard game, but football is a hard game” and moreover that he thought that Iceland’s players had a tendency to dive rather easily.

Regardless of how elegant the match was (or wasn’t), Johann Berg reiterated that it was an important one for Iceland to win, both in terms of the points earned and the expectations it sets for Iceland in the long term.

“Everyone’s been saying that we’re old, tired, and the game wasn’t sold out, which is unusual for us. We were determined to win the match.”

Iceland is currently in third place in their qualifying group, on six points. Turkey is in first place with nine and France is in second with six. The team’s next match will be against Turkey on June 11.

To Russia With Love (the short version)

Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson

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.”

Facing superstars

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.”

Heimir Hallgrímsson

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.