Iceland is a land of fire and ice in the Arctic region of Northern Europe and is home to 355,000 people and many successful Premier League stars past and present. Icelandic footballers have become something of a revelation in recent years following the nation’s international success in the European Championships in 2016 and its World Cup campaign of 2018.
The headliner Icelandic names to date in the English game are Gylfi Sigurðsson and of course, ex-Chelsea star Eiður Guðjohnsen. The likes of Guðni Bergsson, Joey Guðjónsson, Brynjar Gunnarsson, Heiðar Helguson, and Hermann Hreiðarsson have also plied their trade in the English top-flight in the past. Current players who are making a name for themselves include Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson for Burnley and Aron Gunnarsson for Cardiff City – the captain of the national team. The northern European country is about the size of Kentucky in the USA, so how can a country so small produce such talent?
The country’s main platform of success has come from a long line of powerful men, physical attributes that have created a stereotypical view of how the footballers of Iceland are perceived to operate. Football fans will know that although they do undoubtedly often possess strength and height, the modern Icelandic footballer is technically talented too.
Iceland’s unique relationship with the English game started with the transfer of Guðni Bergsson from top domestic club Valur to Tottenham back in 1988 (that would not be the last sale made by Valur to England). Bergsson was a solid central defender who saw his chances limited with manager Terry Venables preferring Gary Mabbutt and Neil Ruddock over the Nordic player. His spell at Tottenham lasted six years and he made fewer than 100 appearances in that time.
This would make him reconsider his career as a footballer, however in 1995 the Bolton Wanderers manager Bruce Rioch became intrigued by the Icelandic international as a player who had plenty of professional experience at international level. Rioch took a gamble on Bergsson and he went on to become a legend during his eventful eight-year spell with the Lancashire club. In his first game for Bolton, he came on as a substitute in the Football League Cup final against Liverpool at Wembley Stadium in April of 1995. His heroic assist in the second half gave Wanderers a glimmer of hope, but ultimately his new club lost the game 2-1.
That same season Bolton secured promotion to the Premier League via the First Division play-off final in May. The 1995-96 campaign was not a good season for Bolton bringing only immediate relegation back to the First Division, but Bergsson showed consistent performances and even chipped in with four goals. The following year saw them return to the top flight as champions and Bergsson was a part of an impressive Wanderers side that only lost four league games all season.
Bergsson’s impact at the club played a part in Bolton making another Icelandic signing, Arnar Gunnlaugsson joined the club in time for the 1997-98 season back in the Premier League. Despite Bergsson’s best efforts, Bolton once again had to confront the drop in a turbulent few years for the club as they moved into the Reebok Stadium. The eventual turning point was the 2000-01 season. Led by Sam Allardyce, Bolton returned to the Premier League with Bergsson at the centre of their efforts. He made 47 appearances that season and appeared on the losing side just seven times.
A consistent performer week in and week, Bergsson epitomized a true Sam Allardyce defender. In the final game of the 2002-03 season, they beat Middlesbrough to avoid relegation, and Bergsson was crucial to that victory, putting in one of his finest displays. Despite his manager’s best efforts at preventing him from retiring, Bergsson returned to his native Iceland to work as a lawyer and is currently the President of the Iceland Football Association.
Eiður Guðjohnsen will be remembered for the stylish attacking play that made him Icelandic’s finest footballer. His elegant technical ability and his goalscoring prowess represent just a small snippet of the player he really was. While Bergsson was a pioneering figure for aspiring Icelandic footballers, Guðjohnsen was the dream all youngsters chased.
His career, like Bergsson, started at Valur where at the tender age of 16 he showed great composure for such an inexperienced player. This led to a move to Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven and his time in the Netherlands was more of a learning experience than a breakthrough one as injury issues and competition with the great Ronaldo limited his time on the pitch. Following in Bergsson’s footsteps, he made the move to Bolton in 1998 and big things were expected of the youngster to bring a similar identity to Bergsson. He certainly lived up to expectations as, in his second season in a Bolton shirt, he hit an impressive 21 goals which led to Wanderers reaching the Division One play-offs.
He earned his big move when Chelsea came calling in the summer of 2000, paying £4.5 million for his services. At Stamford Bridge, he would form a daunting partnership with the explosive Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. Guðjohnsen was used as a bit-part player in his first season with Hasselbaink and Gianfranco Zola the preferred pairing, but this did not phase the Icelander: despite his lack of playing time, he himself managed an impressive 13 goals.
The following season saw something special as Chelsea witnessed the more regular inclusion of Guðjohnsen. Manager Claudio Ranieri demonstrated great faith in the Icelander as he, Hasselbaink, and Zola terrorised defenders. Guðjohnsen hit 23 goals in all competitions this time. The 2002-03 season saw Guðjohnsen remain a consistent figure in the Chelsea side and one game that displayed his class was the fixture against Leeds United at Stamford Bridge where his acrobatic goal from a Frank Lampard pass was a moment of beauty.
The next year brought a major Chelsea transformation as Roman Abramovich took ownership of the club. Ranieri was still in charge but now the pressure to win silverware ramped up significantly. The Chelsea team saw much change with numerous big signings arrive at Stamford Bridge like Damien Duff, Scott Parker, Geremi and Hernan Crespo.
With all the money spent, it seemed as though Guðjohnsen’s Chelsea stint might have run its course. However, his gritty attitude would prove otherwise, as he remained a frequent name on the team sheet and rewarded the faith put in him with goals. Chelsea finished second that season, behind Arsenal’s invincibles and would also reach the semi-final of the Champions League, but that would not be enough to save Ranieri’s job. In came José Mourinho.
With more heavy spending in the transfer market, there was yet more competition for places but once again this did not deter Guðjohnsen. He would go on to become the first Icelandic player to win the Premier League and the English League Cup and his performances were crucial in one of the greatest title successes in English football history.
Guðjohnsen was the pride of Iceland – undoubtedly their greatest player – and was having an influential role in London as well. After another successful title-winning season, his career took a dynamic shift as he made his move to La Liga big guns Barcelona to rub shoulders with some of the greatest players to ever play the game.
Guðjohnsen’s impact in the Premier League encouraged plenty of Icelanders to follow in his footsteps. Gylfi Sigurðsson is one such Icelandic star to enjoy the English top flight. Sigurðsson’s career followed a slightly different path to Bergsson and Gudjohnsen as he started in Reading’s youth academy before working his way up to the first team, where he impressed.
This was enough for German side Hoffenheim to sign the Icelandic youngster, where, in his short spell in Germany, he earned the club’s Player of the Year award for his consistent displays. From there, he made a loan move to Welsh club Swansea City in 2011 where he made an immediate impact in the Swans’ first-ever Premier League campaign. During that season he managed seven goals in 17 games and became the first Icelandic player to win a Premier League Player of the Month award.
Technically gifted, a keen dribbler and wonderful on set-pieces; his talent was noted by Tottenham Hotspur, who signed him up after his debut Premier League campaign. At the still-young age of 22, his time at White Hart Lane wasn’t as fruitful as his failure to adapt to André Villas-Boas’ methods meant that he departed without making a mark after two years.
He returned to the place where he made his name. Swansea City was more than happy to bring him back and he picked up where he had left off, scoring the winner on the opening day of the season to upset Manchester United and claim the Swans’ first-ever league win at Old Trafford. His next three seasons were just as strong and led to him making a record £40 million move to Everton.
At Goodison Park, he would form a partnership with the returning Wayne Rooney and they would be formidable in front of goal. His debut, however, was one to remember and a 50-yard stunner in the Europa League against Hajduk Split was one of the best goals of the 2017-18 season. He remains a vital player for the Merseyside club.
Iceland may be a small country with only a small number of their players coming to the Premier League, but they have certainly made an impact in the league that belies the country’s modest size. The way the game is progressing in the country, there seems to be little doubt that there will be more players incoming in the years to come.