“But we said to the team, ‘Now this week we are going to behave like we are Real Madrid: we are going to have two or three meetings, it’ll be more focused.’ And I think the players have responded. For me, even though we’re playing against Inter Club, you still hear the anthem before the kick-off – it’s special. And for a team like us, that’s important. You want more of that adventure.”
It’s just a few hours before kick-off against Inter Club and we’re chatting in Gunnlaugsson’s office, which is just across the corridor from where the players’ shirts are hanging on the pegs in the home changing room. The clubhouse, where Víkingur’s league and cup trophies are proudly displayed on a wall giving on to the handball court, is opposite the Víkingsvöllur stadium. It boasts one stand of just over 1,000 seats straddling the halfway line. A group of children, fresh from the morning’s activities, are playing outside, enjoying the freedom of their summer holiday.
At midday, anticipation for the match was already building. There is so much at stake – and not just for Víkingur. Their victory boosted Iceland’s UEFA coefficient and potentially helped to ease the path of its clubs in the years ahead. Then there is the financial aspect: just reaching the preliminary round earned the club €610,000 in prize money. Winning the mini-tournament meant guaranteed revenue for taking part jumped to €910,000 – a boost of 50 per cent to the club’s annual budget.
The new Europa Conference League, meanwhile, has made a prolonged European campaign a realistic ambition for champions of smaller nations, who drop into the qualifying rounds of that competition once eliminated from the Champions League.
“It makes a huge difference,” says Gunnlaugsson. “The money gets invested in infrastructure, players, bonuses for the players. It’s not millions, but it is good money for a club like ours. It’s important both financially and for the respect of Icelandic football. When the national team was doing well in 2016, we started to gain respect for our football, especially as a small nation. The league teams haven’t really followed that up, we’ve had some poor performances in European competitions. Obviously, it’s difficult for us to beat teams like Porto, Malmö or Rosenborg. But in my view we need to at least give them a game, at least give a good showing of ourselves.”
Víkingur’s win means a lucrative tie with Swedish champions (and 1979 European Cup finalists) Malmö in the first qualifying round. Extra spice was provided by the presence of former Víkingur coach Miloš Milojević, who was at this game on a scouting mission – he’s Malmö boss now. By kick-off the cold wind had dropped, the temperature had risen and the sky was a clear blue. You had to shield your eyes to follow the action and it was clear this could go either way. Only when Ingason broke the deadlock did fans begin to relax.
“Relief is a great word,” Gunlaugsson says. “We didn’t put on our best performance but it doesn’t matter – we are through. It was tense but we got there in the end. It shows that anything is possible in football. We now go to Sweden as underdogs and our adventure continues. We have to be happy with that. Going to play a top European game there is a privilege. You want that adventure of playing against teams like Malmö. To play there, to hear the anthem before the kick-off – that’s probably a similar feeling for our players as it was for Liverpool players against Real Madrid. This is our final.”
So it begins. Mission accomplished. We won’t see Víkingur in Istanbul come May, but it will be fascinating to see where this European adventure takes them.