The collapse of Iceland’s banking system has had a profound effect on the country’s football landscape.
By Rab Christie
As the country emerges from the worst winter in its financial history, the start of the new season will be greeted with a mixture of relief and anticipation by players, supporters and football authorities alike.
The landscape into which the clubs emerge this spring is vastly different from that of only a year ago. The virtual collapse of Iceland’s banking system and its major financial institutions, and the effects of that on the economy as a whole, has had profound implications for sport in general – and football in particular.
The most immediate effect of the resulting fallout has been the loss of sponsorship for the top division and a series of belt-tightening measures at club level which have seen reductions in squad sizes, wages and the number of foreign players plying their trade in the country.
Far from bringing doom and gloom, however, this may actually prove to be of some long-term benefit to the national game as it creates fresh opportunities for home-based talent.
After the usual round of regional tournaments and the indoor League Cup during the last few months of what is surely the longest pre-season in the world (from October to May), the return to grass and the great outdoors comes as a welcome change to all involved.
And in true fairy-tale fashion, the fixture list sees the opening round of the championship begin in style, with a meeting between last year’s runners-up, Keflavik, and FH, the team that snatched the title from their grasp on the final day of the season.
While Keflavik start the campaign with a squad showing several changes from last year, FH from Hafnarfjordur begin their quest for a fifth title in six seasons with a virtually unchanged squad that includes the likes of highly-rated young defender Bjorn Sverrisson.
To the north in the capital of Reykjavik, Fram – who are one of most distinguished names in Icelandic football – will be looking to use last year’s third-place finish as a springboard towards drawing a line under their patchy form of previous seasons as they attempt to finally re-establishing themselves as a major top-flight force.
Across the city, KR, the country’s oldest club, celebrate 110 years in business knowing that nothing less than a 25th title – to add to last year‘s Icelandic Cup – will satisfy their demanding fans.
While the return of on-loan midfielder Viktor Bjarki Arnarsson to Norwegian club Lillestrom, and the departures of midfielder Gudmundur Gunnarsson and striker Gudjon Baldvinsson to Swedish outfit GAIS, many have left some gaps in the side, the arrival of Dutch striker Prince Rajcomar from Breidablik gives veteran coach Logi Olafsson some fresh options up front.
Elsewhere in the city, Valur will be looking to bounce back from the disappointment of having surrendered their 2007 championship title with barely a whimper last year. With one of the country’s most experience coaches, Willum Thor Thorsson, at the helm and several new arrivals – including defenders Gudmundur Mete (Keflavik) and Reynir Leosson (Fram), and midfielder Ian Jeffs (Fylkir) – the club will be looking to launch a title challenge.
Having won many friends with their entertaining brand of open, attacking football, not to mention securing a well-deserved sixth-place finish on their top-flight debut, Fjolnir will be anxious to put the disappointment of being the losing Cup finalists for the past two seasons behind them as they try to establish a lasting presence.
Outside the capital, Grindavik and Breidablik will be looking to improve on their seventh and eighth-place finishes of last year, while the two remaining Reykjavik clubs, Fylkir and Throttur, could both face a tricky time, having escaped relegation last season by the same four-point margin. Fylkir begin the campaign without Danish duo Allan Dyring and Peter Gravesen, although the return of experienced forward Theodor Oskarsson, following spells at HK and Fram, brings a familiar face back to the club. Like their city rivals, Throttur will also be looking to stabilise their top-flight status.
Two teams facing the new season with heightened anticipation are Westman Islands club IBV and Gardabaer side Stjarnan. Promoted to the Premier Division after an absence of two and eight seasons respectively, both clubs will be looking to emulate the performance of Fjolnir – and a few other promoted teams in recent seasons – by making an immediate impact on the top flight.
While the domestic season promises excitement aplenty, attention in August will switch to the international stage as Iceland’s ladies will become the country’s first football team ever to compete in the finals of a major international tournament when they take their place in the Women’s European Championship.