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Icelandic football far from crisis

With a population smaller than Leicester, one can acknowledge with respect why Iceland have never featured in a major international tournament.

Since their first official international match in 1946 against Denmark (a 3-0 victory), the minnows have reached a high of 37 in the FIFA world rankings in 1994 and have produced some impressive players over the years.

With the Úrvalsdeild, or Icelandic Premier League as it is known to us, only attracting an average of 1,205 players during the regular season, which runs over the spring and summer months due to the harsh Icelandic winters, the tiny Scandinavian island is hardly a European heavyweight.

With the majority of players in the domestic league being home-grown, the Icelandic league will continue whilst Euro 2012 takes place.

Despite the issues with domestic football in this small corner of the world, Icelandic born players have certainly made an impact throughout Europe.

For up-and-coming pros in Iceland, the dream is to move to the continent where opportunities are rife, wages are higher, the quality of football considerably better and the support for the game is at a level unrecognised back on the island.

For some though, this dream has come true and Icelandic players are increasingly becoming key players for clubs in Europe.

Established Eidur

The obvious choice is Eidur Gudjohnsen. The striker who started his career at Valur, a side in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik, has reached astronomical heights over his 18-year professional career.

Playing in three of Europe’s top leagues, the Premier League, Ligue 1 and La Liga, he has become a regular on European score sheets and become a cult hero, particularly at Bolton Wanderers and Chelsea.

After also having stints at Fulham, Stoke City and Tottenham Hotspur, the Icelandic national top goalscorer has amassed a total of 76 goals in the English Premier League and stands as an inspiration for young players back at home.

After his well-documented spells at Bolton and Chelsea, Gudjohnsen would go onto feature 108 times for Spanish giants Barcelona over a three year period.

In Spain he would add to his two Premier League titles, two Community Shields and one League Cup which he won with Chelsea, by helping Barcelona lift the La Liga trophy in 2008-2009, along with the UEFA Champions League and Copa del Ray in the same season.

Gudjohnsen had helped Pep Guardiola win Barcelona the treble in his first year of managing the Catalan side, which was also the first time this was ever achieved by a Spanish club.

In the summer of 2009, Gudjohnsen moved onto AS Monaco and now plays for AEK Athens in Greece. Gudjohnsen is clearly a highly decorated player but as his career is on the decline he has pathed the way for a new wave of Icelandic footballers to entertain crowds in European stadiums.

Gylfi and Gunnarsson with the world at their feet

Among the new breed picked for the recent internationals against France and Sweden is the highly regarded Gylfi Sigurdsson (pictured).

The 22-year-old midfielder only began to make his name after joining newly promoted Swansea City on loan from Hoffenheim in January of this year.

He made an immediate impact after joining the Welsh side, scoring seven times and creating four goals in his 18 appearances, which has prompted Swansea to make an offer of £7.2 million to acquire his services on a permanent basis.

With the creative midfielder poised to complete his move subject to a medical in the coming days, it would appear another Icelandic footballer has made the cut in arguably Europe’s top league.

Another of the young guns is Aron Gunnarsson, who was crucial in Cardiff City’s challenge for promotion to the Premier League. In 50 appearances for the Bluebirds last season, his central midfield performances helped the Welsh side get to the playoff semi-finals, before losing to eventual winners West Ham United.

It is not only England that has been graced by Icelandic players. FC Copenhagen’s central defensive partnership is comprised of Iceland’s Solvi Ottesen and Ragnar Sigurdsson, both of whom featured in the Danish side’s Europa League starting line-ups.

Similarly in Holland, Johann Gudmundsson who was on the youth books of Chelsea and Fulham is now a regular in AZ Alkmaar’s strongest side. He helped the Dutch side reach the Europa League quarter-finals last season.

Experienced heads Helguson and Hreidarsson

Although not in the most recent international squads, there are plenty of other Icelandic players who have made their mark on Europe.

Experienced striker Heidar Helguson has been plying his trade in England since joining Watford in 1999.

After spells at Fulham, Bolton, Queens Park Rangers and Watford again, he has appeared 342 times in England’s top two divisions, scoring 106 goals in the process. He has gained a reputation across the English leagues for his powerful approach to the game and his devastating ability of using his head.

Iceland has produced a strong set of defensive players over the years, with second in the national side for all-time caps being Hermann Hreidarsson.

With a career spanning 15 years in English football, the left-back has performed across both the Premier League and Championship for various clubs. Most credible are his spells at Charlton Athletic and Portsmouth, where he became a consistent Premier League player.

During his career in England which is still in full swing at Coventry City, Hreidarsson has appeared 440 times which surely makes him one of the pioneers of Icelandic football players in the English game.

Another experienced head is Gretar Steinsson who although being released by Bolton following their recent relegation from the Premier League, proved an important player over his four-year spell at the Reebok Stadium.

With his ruthless ability at the back, he accumulated 126 starts for Bolton during his career in the North West and is likely to attract a number of suitors in the summer transfer window.

Honourable mentions

While there are still plenty of Icelandic players playing on European pitches in 2012, there are others who have bowed out of the game that still deserve notable mentions.

Gudni Bergsson, now retired, had two extensive spells at Tottenham and Bolton, appearing in a combined total of 342 games across three decades. He became famous for scoring from defence and became an icon in England, especially with the Trotters.

Similarly impressive is the career of Brynjar Gunnarsson who at the age of 36 has a glittering career coming to a close.

Since 1999 Gunnarsson has appeared in the red of Stoke and Nottingham Forest, as well as for Watford and Reading, with a combined English appearance total of 322 games.

It is clear that Iceland has a proud footballing history and despite missing out on Euro 2012 and all other major tournaments before, they have had and still do have players who are doing their country proud on the continent.

Chances for 2014

With a fresh batch of youngsters coming through the ranks and impressing in England, one could argue that with the right leadership, Iceland could potentially launch a serious campaign for qualification to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

With a group comprising of Norway, Slovenia, Switzerland, Albania and Cyprus, the North Atlantic Islanders have arguably the most favourable group for their chance of qualification.

What is needed however is development of the domestic game but with Icelandic players proving to continually impress abroad it is increasing the profile of the sport back at home which should in turn help increase funding to bolster the Icelandic league.

With things on the up in Iceland it could be worth labelling them one to watch in the qualifying stages for the World Cup.

Although the financial global crisis has surrounded Iceland in recent years, it is fair to say their football is certainly far from crisis but rather, in rude health.

David Harrison - follow me on Twitter: @DaveHarrison43

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