The State of Icelandic Club Football
May 22, 2019
Most Championships: Valur, 22
Last 5 Winners: Valur (18, 17), FH (16, 15), Stjarnan (14)
UEFA Ranking: 39th
Highest Ranked Club: FH, 191st
Interview with Icelandic football write Tryggvi Kristjánsson
As a minnow of European club football, what do Icelandic fans and teams expect from their European campaigns and what would qualify as a success?
Icelandic clubs are growing increasingly dependent on European football. There was a study from a few years back that found out that over 80% of chairmen in the Pepsi-Max league consider it somewhat or very important to qualify for a European campaign in terms of the financial health of the club. And you can see that, with clubs taking more risks with their finances, and there are even clubs now being accused of being late in the wage payments to players.
As I see it, the main challenge in the league is that clubs are selling kids abroad (15-19) as soon as they show any hint of a promise, and this leaves a huge gap in the squads of teams. Larger teams, are starting to fill these spots with players coming back from abroad, either in terms of veterans looking to come home and younger players who maybe didn’t quite make it yet/first time abroad.
The smaller teams are also going for these players, and do sometimes get them, but they are often forced to fill up their squads with foreign players, which inevitably cost a bit more, and they do not always perform to the high levels that are expected. One of the main driving forces for these short-term bets are: 1) the success stories are often huge wins and 2) the tightness of the league. You can very realistically get a good run going late on in the season and get into Europe (which means money, either in terms of games or player sales) and you can look to what KR did last season to see what clubs are aiming to do.
So, in my opinion, it is harder for clubs to “settle” for being mid-table when they know that a few more wins can throw them into Scrooge McDuck territory (Icelandic scale). But clearly not everyone can get into Europe, which leads to the problems. It’s a short league campaign, so a bad start could derail a season, just as a lucky late run can get you from relegation candidates to European hopefuls.
What would be seen as a successful year in Europe for Icelandic fans?
It depends on the club at this point. If its one of the bigger clubs, it is seen as a matter of time before one of the qualifies for the group stages of a European competition, so all of those clubs are expected to make it to the latter stages of the qualifying campaign, and any elimination should come against a European powerhouse. It is essentially a race to the top, as if anyone were to get into the group stages, that club would have a massive financial advantage over the other clubs.
As for the other clubs, it is, as I explained above, a huge advantage to get through the first few rounds, as they don’t qualify too often, so they need to squeeze as much money out of the tournament as possible; hopefully so that they can build on their success, but realistically so that they can maintain their current level.
How much do the fans and teams look forward to European competition?
It’s huge! Apart from finances, it is always great to be able to test yourself against the rest of Europe. Iceland’s campaign starts very early with a few indoor tournaments, the league cup, and then the league starts in late April, so by the time Europe comes around, the teams have played each other a few times already, so just seeing a new face is welcome. And with the recent (relative) success of some of the teams in recent years, as well as the national team conquering the world, there is some newfound belief that the clubs might actually pull it off this time.
Is a Champions League / Europa League game involving Icelandic side watched by most of the nation?
No, not really. Unless there are some big name visitors (like Internazionale a few years ago) there is limited interest. This is also very much down to the fact that smaller countries are getting more and more grouped together in qualifying. You can imagine that there would not be too much interest in watching your rivals take on FC Lahti, Hapoel Haifa or FC Sheriff. Even when FC København or Rosenborg come to town, there is little interest outside of the clubs’ fanbase.
Do most of the country get behind the Iceland sides playing in Europe or is there a lot of tribalism still apparent?
There is certainly some tribalism, but nothing too extreme. I think there would be a high level of pride if a team were to qualify for the main stages of a European tournament, or even just beat a big team. We are very much an underdog still, so for one of us to upset the odds, especially against one of our Nordic brethren, is always sweet.
But the “European arms race” also only really has one winner, and there is some recognition of that fact. If one of the big teams, who many are already starting to pull ahead of the rest of the league, gets more European money, they would be uncatchable, and it would create a Rosenborg situation in the league.
How is the EL viewed in general by Iceland football fans?
For Icelandic clubs, its very interesting, and our most realistic goal in terms of qualifying for a tournament. In that way, it’s a great environment for our clubs to compete.
How do you think the Europa League 2 will affect Icelandic EL performances and what has been the reaction to the formation of the competition in Iceland?
Having said that, diluting it any further would certainly have a big effect on our impression on it, and that is certainly one view of the EL2. It is definitely being sold as the 3rd division of European competitions, but I think it is realistic to see it as a way to separate the minnows from the big boys, and with the talk of a European Super League, this kind of talk is slightly worrisome. But lets wait and see. Given the fact that there will be limited interest in this competition, the financial rewards should thereby be significantly reduced, so it could be great way for Icelandic clubs to compete with European clubs on a more substantial level, but without tilting the league too much.
I, personally, always get very annoyed by the bigger nations when they complain about having to bother with the minnows, and that “wouldn’t it be much better for them to have a pre-qualifying stage”! It creates a further barrier for clubs and countries, and I fully believe that the wonder years with the Icelandic national team would not have happened if we had been forced to climb several barriers before even starting to qualify for the Euros and/or WC.
Do you think UEFA are doing enough to help the minnows of European football and what can they do to further help them?
Yes and no (see rant above). I think that the extension of the Euros was great, and anyone who says otherwise clearly just wants to see a Super League between France, Germany, England and Italy every year. But there has been significant backlash against it, so I am worried that they will bow to the pressures from the bigger countries and clubs and start separating the minnows from them even further. I think that its all about granting further access, not limiting it. The cream will always rise to the top, but sometimes a Holland will be eliminated because the smaller teams were given the chance to take them on, 11 v 11. Take that away and we start getting to dangerous levels of power congregation, and moving towards an MLS system.
Give us a chance!
Interview with Icelandic football write Tryggvi Kristjánsson
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Author: Tom Mortimer
Tom is the editor at Betting Circle and has been creating online content for over 10 years. Tom mainly writes about sport and gambling, but every now and then also delves into fleshier subjects like politics and psychology. When he was 18 he created HungarianFootball.com and over the last few years he's written on a freelance basis for ESPN, WorldSoccer, Goal.com, among many others.