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Sunday, September 6, 2015


Thursday 3/9/15 was a red-letter day in the annals of Icelandic football, when they defeated The Netherlands 1:0 in Amsterdam. It was possibly the day when men's football in the country truly came of age. A record number of Icelandic supporters, estimated at some 3000, made the journey from their homeland (and across Europe) to the Amsterdam ArenA to cheer on their side and, like their team, left an outstanding impression, not least on your correspondent.

Hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand, of them, congregated in the bars around Amsterdam's Dam square where the Tólfan supporters' club had made their base. Dutch supporters were also in evidence, but the away fans had turned that part of Amsterdam blue, much to the bemusement of many a tourist hell-bent on sampling some of the Dutch city's other delights.

IN GOOD SPIRITS: Iceland fans from all arts and parts gather on the Dam square in Amsterdam

Many of the supporters, although, hopeful, were also looking towards the game with some apprehension. Geir Þórhallsson, a KR supporter and physiotherapist living in Brussels, said that it was going to be a hard game for Iceland "as the Dutch team are looking for a win for their new coach, but if we get a draw, that would be like a big win for Iceland. I can't wait for it and I hope we get a good result."

The final three games, he continued, were winnable, but that the last three games "were still going to be tricky, because when Iceland need to win, they don't do so well; they underestimate the other team. I'm hoping that the experience [the team were garnering] will change our history." 

Geir named Gylfi Sigurðsson and goalkeeper Hannes Haldórsson as the two best Icelandic players during the campaign thus far, and was upbeat about Icelandic football, domestically speaking. "It's now at its peak [it has never beeen so good] from its very beginning]. We started building indoor pitches twenty years ago, so now it's booming. The kids have been playing football indoors for twenty years, professionals are playing in Europe, I'm pretty optimistic about the future and I'm glad to be an Icelandic supporter today!"

 FLAG DAY: Icelandic fans at the Dam square, Amsterdam

Víkingur supporter Árni Birgisson was the only Icelander in a group of four accosted by yours truly, and he was hoping for "a boring 0:0 draw, a point for Iceland would be like a victory for us. But, to be realistic, Holland will win 2:0, even 3:0. I will hope for the best, and [should they lose against Holland but beat both Kazakhstan and Latvia at home] will probably be the top third-placed team. If Holland or the Czech Republic lose just one point somewhere, Iceland will be in France next year. One point for Iceland tonight would be fantastic."

"Gýlfi Sigurðsson is our most important player, but also Kolbeinn Sigþórsson, who was playing in Holland [for AZ and Ajax] for quite a while. I mean, he is a natural scorer, he only needs one chance to score. They are the two most important players, but the goalkeeper and the whole defence will need to be on form as Holland will be creating opportunities."

As far as football back home was concerned, he was of the opinion that the domestic league was ranked "50th in Europe, although Stjarnan almost made it through the [2014-15] Europa League qualifiers for the first time ever for Iceland. But this year, all the Icelandic teams lost quite badly. There are actually two or three clubs in Iceland who are trying to turn 100% professional, but it will be very hard in Iceland. If you are going to have a professional team, you will have to play regularly in Europe. The population of Iceland is as big as the population of the city of Coventry in England, so if you consider that, and consider that Iceland will most likely be heading to France next year, it's just amazing."

 BLUE IS THE COLOUR: Around a thousand Icelandic fans congregated at the Dam square in Amsterdam before their match against the Netherlands

The other three in the gathering were Harry from England, who hoped for an "amazing game" and was of the opinion that Holland would win 1:0, and two Dutch natives, one of whom, Maartje, cheerfully admitted her lack of footballing knowledge and hoped for an entertaining evening but feared that Oranje would lose. The other was Koen, an acquaintance of mine (talk about an unexpected meeting! - he was just as surprised to see me as I was to see him) who, like just about everyone else standing in the Dam, was wearing his Tólfan shirt with pride; all four would be among the Icelandic contingent at the ArenA. 

Koen hoped that "Iceland would play well, as they have done very well in recent matches. I hope that Iceland qualify for Euro 2016, but it would be disappointing if Holland were to fail; I think we have to win. The [next game] away to Turkey will be very difficult, and if we are to qualify, we'll have to get something tonight against Iceland. That would be a good start."

Hjörtur Hjartarson, former ÍA star and who, apart from playing for fourth division Augnablik, currently works for Icelandic radio and television, was as articulate with his views on the forthcoming match as he was immaculately dressed. Speaking inside Tólfan's unofficial HQ, the Europub, Hjartarson said: "The current team is the best that Iceland has ever had, and [outstrips every previous] team by miles. It has to be said that the chances the team has tonight are fairly slim. We will be up against one of the best footballing countries in Europe, and although we've being doing well for the last two years or thereabouts, we have to realise we're playing Holland away. Iceland is still Iceland, and Holland don't often lose at home, whether they play against Germany, England or Iceland. So, I have to predict that our chances of winning are fairly slim."

He was more than happy with the way the group had panned out so far for Iceland. "It's beyond all our wildest dreams how the group has gone, I mean, with four games left in the group, we have a five-point cushion on Holland. We are top of the group, we've scored the most goals in the group and conceded the fewest, so obviously - at this point in time - Iceland are the best team in the group. With that said, we have to win at home against Kazakhstan and Latvia, and get a point away to Turkey, and we're in France. 

"It may even be enough for us to win our last two home games, so the chance is there and we just have to take it. We cannot slip up in our last two home games; we have to stay focused, win those two matches and go to Turkey without the need of a win."

Hjörtur was frank about who might make the difference at the ArenA: "I think the two midfielders, Gylfi (Sigurðsson) and Aron (Gudmundsson), the captain, if they can stay in shape and be as good defensively as they have been throughout this competition, as well as being aggressive when they attack, that will be key. The four backs will do their jobs as always, but these are the two key players that we need, both defensively and in attack. If they have an off-day, it will be a very difficult game."

 GETTING ALL DOLLED UP FOR A BIG NIGHT OUT: Icelandic face-painters assist a fellow supporter

Reykjavík club Víkingur director Harald Haraldsson was amazed by the level of support which had accompanied the team to Amsterdam, but was cautious about the match against Holland."It's just fantastic to see all the Icelandic supporters here. It's the biggest support for an Iceland away match; it's fantastic. I'm surprised by the amount of fans, but the team has been doing very well, and you can see the result of that. 

"The match is going to be very difficult for us. I know that the coaches will be setting up the game very defensively, but hopefully we'll get a draw. Anything else would be the biggest surprise ever. If you look at the bigger picture, this match [against Holland] is not the biggest match for us, but the next match against Kazakhstan at home; that's the biggest one. We then play Latvia at home, and that's six points we will have to get to qualify, that's for sure. 

Harald concluded by saying: "I'm not sure [we'll qualify if we win them] as we have to look at other games as well, but of course it wil help us a lot. We need to win them, that's for sure. But tonight, hopefully Kolbeinn Sigþórsson, who grew up playing for Víkingur, will make a difference."

Interviewing done, it was off for a quick sample or two of the local brew (€6.00 for a 400 ml glass of Bavaria in the Europub, and a whopping €8.70 for the same in the neighbouring Majestic) and a quick chat with a few stragglers before heading in the direction of the Amsterdam ArenA and the match which would, should the result go their way, bring the Icelandic football team one step closer to the promised land of qualification for Euro 2016.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Many thanks to all of the above good people for their time (and patience), to Kristinn from Tólfan and to everyone who assisted in any way. Thanks to those, too, from both camps who were full of good humour and chat and who helped make the afternoon just that bit more pleasant. More from both Harald Haraldsson and Hjörtur Hjartarsson in due course.

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