Great adventure

Just 24 days after Real Madrid lifted the trophy in Paris, the 2022/23 Champions League season kicked off in Iceland. Editor Michael Harrold was in Reykjavík to witness curtain-up in person

PHOTOGRAPHY Hulda Margrét

Cities
It’s a quarter to ten in the evening and the sun is still burning bright in the sky. They say that in Iceland you get all four seasons in 24 hours, and this is today’s peak summer. It’s shining brightest on Icelandic champions Víkingur, who have just beaten Andorra’s Inter Club d’Escalades 1-0 to reach the first qualifying round of the Champions League. Less than a month since the final whistle blew on Real Madrid’s triumph over Liverpool in Paris, already the road to Istanbul 2023 has begun.

Víkingur are the hosts of the four-team preliminary round tournament in their capital Reykjavík, vying with Estonia’s Levadia Tallinn and La Fiorita from San Marino, as well as Inter Club, for that coveted place in the first round. After beating Levadia 6-1 in their semi-final, Viking confidence was sky-high heading into the decider. 

Only it turned out to be far closer than anticipated. Inter were compact, offering few chances, then threatening on the break when they could. Relief among the 925 crowd was palpable when Kristall Máni Ingason headed home the game’s only goal on 68 minutes. 

He smiles as he stops to talk to me after the game. Kids are leaning over the fencing behind us, so the 20-year-old walks patiently down the line signing autographs. This was Ingason’s first game in the Champions League and he speaks of the thrill of walking out onto the pitch with the anthem playing. When he last heard it, he was at home with his family watching the final on television. “It was a bad day for me,” he says. “I’m a Liverpool fan!”

I ask how it feels to have scored such an important winner for his club. “It was really nice, really good to get the goal. This is a whole new level for me – it’s my first time in Europe. It’s such an experience. I wouldn’t have expected to be playing in the Champions League a year ago and to have scored is such an amazing and unbelievable thing.” 

The tournament is being played in the week of the summer solstice in Iceland. Even so, it feels more like autumn as a cold wind blows in off the ocean. Snow caps light up the dark grey outline of the mountains across Faxaflói bay. The sun disappears behind them in the early hours, but it is never dark at this time of year. A boat pulls out of the harbour, taking tourists on the short trip to the feeding grounds of the humpback and minke whales; the puffins have also arrived for their short summer sojourn. They live on the islands in the bay for four brief months to breed, before braving the winter cold out on the ocean.

This season’s Champions League kicks off here, in Iceland’s capital, close to the Artic Circle in the far north of the Atlantic Ocean. It will finish with the Cup with the Big Ears being lifted on the banks of the Bosphorus in nearly a full year’s time, a distance north to south of some 2,500 miles.

Think Icelandic football and the heroics of EURO 2016 come to mind, or perhaps Eidur Gudjohnsen lighting up Stamford Bridge and the Camp Nou. Iceland’s club sides may not have had the same impact, but they too have played their part in the great history of this competition. Gudjohnsen is the proud owner of his nation’s only winner’s medal, even if he remained on the bench for Barcelona’s 2-0 win against Manchester United in Rome in 2009. Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir has twice lifted the women’s trophy with Lyon and last season Reykjavík side Breidablik became the first Icelandic team to reach the group stage of any UEFA competition, in the Women’s Champions League.

Looking further back, Arsène Wenger’s 1988 French champions Monaco – boasting the likes of Glenn Hoddle, Jean-Luc Ettori, Patrick Battison and Manuel Amoros – were beaten here by Valur, who even kept Benfica great Eusébio off the scoresheet in a goalless draw in September 1968. And one for quiz fans: where did six-time champions Liverpool play their first ever European game? Yes, Reykjavík, Bill Shankly’s side running out 5-0 winners against KR at Laugardalsvöllur, Iceland’s national stadium, in August 1964. 

Winning the league was an amazing feeling. When we started this process in 2019, the club was in a downward spiral. We had too many foreigners, old mercenaries; the fans weren’t connected with the club.
Víkingur’s changing room

KR are the nation’s most successful club, with 27 titles, followed by Valur on 23. Víkingur have six, making last season’s first success in 30 years all the sweeter. Indeed, victory against Levadia was the club’s first in the European Champion Clubs’ Cup. It is a significant milestone for a team formed in 1908 by a group of kids who, unable to break into other local sides, banded together to raise money for their own ball. 

The first chair of the board of directors was 12 and the ball still features in the club logo. The group’s inaugural meeting was in a basement at the corner of Sudurgata and Túngata streets where the boys lived in the city centre, and this season’s Víkingur shirts bear the club’s original name, Sudurgötufélagid, on the back of the collar to mark the significance of the occasion. Founding sons rather than founding fathers.

Now 1,300 boys and girls aged six and up are members of the Víkingur club, playing a range of sports from football, handball and skiing to karate. Local authorities contribute to membership fees to encourage children to keep active, and Iceland’s clubs have become hubs of their communities. Víkingur’s catchment area is about to grow considerably too. Neighbours Fram are moving to an outlying suburb and Víkingur will take on their facilities, becoming the new focal point of the neighbouring Háaleiti og Bústaðir district as well as their own Fossvogur.

Finding then developing the next home-grown star is the goal. For Víkingur, prominent examples are EURO 2016 heroes Kári Árnason and Kolbeinn Sigþórsson, but the club have also been shrewd in the transfer market: they keep a close eye on local players who perhaps went abroad too young and give them the option to come back home. Ingason, Víkingur’s matchwinner against Inter, is a case in point. He was just 16 when he joined Copenhagen, then returned to Iceland without playing a first-team game in Denmark. His 14 goals last season were key to Víkingur winning the title and have earned him Iceland’s young player of the award, plus a pair of caps for his country.

Coach Arnar Gunnlaugsson knows what it takes to succeed at the top. He left Iceland at 19, joining Feyenoord then playing in Germany and France, before spells at Bolton, Leicester and Stoke in England; he also won 32 international caps. He was a League Cup winner with Leicester, but nothing compares to winning your first title as the man in charge. “I was playing at a high level in the Premier League, but winning as a coach is much more satisfying. You are responsible for a community, a club and the players. When you’re a player you’re more egotistical, you only think about yourself. But as a coach, it’s all on you.

“Winning the league was an amazing feeling. When we started this process in 2019, the club was in a downward spiral. We had too many foreigners, old mercenaries; the fans weren’t connected with the club. We changed that: we got local players – young players – and the fans started to identify with the team again. 

“We changed everything, so reaping the rewards is fantastic. It’s a family club; people who come here get a good feeling and we try to stick to that ethos. But it’s still a professional club. Everyone wants to win – to win titles, to play in European games. And if you’re not stepping up your game, you need to move on.”

Part of the reward that Gunnlaugsson mentions is the chance to take part in these European nights – and the frisson that comes with leading your team out to that famous anthem, which connects clubs of all levels. “Oh absolutely, there’s a different feeling; it’s a different game with different preparation. We pay salaries but some of the players are studying, some are working. You can feel the focus levels are lacking a little in Iceland. But you can’t be expected to work nine to five then be bombarded with meetings and training. It’s impossible. 

“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.  

Hot dogs, whales and water…
24 hours in Reykjavík

Fish and chips

There are a number of great food options at the Grandi food hall down by the harbour, but nothing beats the haddock and chips. Fresh and fantastic.

Whale of a time

The rare sight of three humpback whales surfacing together then diving back to the deep was worth the three-hour trip alone with Elding, whose conservation work includes monitoring Iceland’s whale populations.

Yellow lighthouses are dotted around the harbour

Full steam ahead

Wallow in the wonderful geothermal waters at the Sky Lagoon in Kópavogur looking out over Kársnes Harbour just a short taxi ride from the centre.

Top of the world

The concrete, modernist Hallgrímskirkja church is Iceland’s most recognisable building; its tower provides great views down over the city and out across the bay.  

It’s June but there is still snow on the mountains on the other side of the bay

Good taste

The hot dogs from the tiny Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hut at the corner of Pósthússtræti and Tryggvagata are a Reykjavík institution. Order “einn með öllu” – one with everything – for the fresh-and-fried onion and multiple-sauce real deal.

Cultured crawl

No trip to the capital is complete without a stroll down and around the bustling Laugavegur street. Prikid (Bankastraeti 12) and Kaffibarinn (Bergstadastraeti 1) are classic old-school bars, while the Petersen Svítan rooftop bar (Ingolfsstraeti 2a) gives another unique view over the city.

Walk this way

Iceland is a famously egalitarian society. Both the prime minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, and the Football Association of Iceland’s president, Vanda Sigurgeirsdóttir, are women, as are a third of its 25,000 registered players. And check out the traffic light walk signals – many of these also depict girls.  

Víkingur are the hosts of the four-team preliminary round tournament in their capital Reykjavík, vying with Estonia’s Levadia Tallinn and La Fiorita from San Marino, as well as Inter Club, for that coveted place in the first round. After beating Levadia 6-1 in their semi-final, Viking confidence was sky-high heading into the decider. 

Only it turned out to be far closer than anticipated. Inter were compact, offering few chances, then threatening on the break when they could. Relief among the 925 crowd was palpable when Kristall Máni Ingason headed home the game’s only goal on 68 minutes. 

He smiles as he stops to talk to me after the game. Kids are leaning over the fencing behind us, so the 20-year-old walks patiently down the line signing autographs. This was Ingason’s first game in the Champions League and he speaks of the thrill of walking out onto the pitch with the anthem playing. When he last heard it, he was at home with his family watching the final on television. “It was a bad day for me,” he says. “I’m a Liverpool fan!”

I ask how it feels to have scored such an important winner for his club. “It was really nice, really good to get the goal. This is a whole new level for me – it’s my first time in Europe. It’s such an experience. I wouldn’t have expected to be playing in the Champions League a year ago and to have scored is such an amazing and unbelievable thing.” 

The tournament is being played in the week of the summer solstice in Iceland. Even so, it feels more like autumn as a cold wind blows in off the ocean. Snow caps light up the dark grey outline of the mountains across Faxaflói bay. The sun disappears behind them in the early hours, but it is never dark at this time of year. A boat pulls out of the harbour, taking tourists on the short trip to the feeding grounds of the humpback and minke whales; the puffins have also arrived for their short summer sojourn. They live on the islands in the bay for four brief months to breed, before braving the winter cold out on the ocean.

This season’s Champions League kicks off here, in Iceland’s capital, close to the Artic Circle in the far north of the Atlantic Ocean. It will finish with the Cup with the Big Ears being lifted on the banks of the Bosphorus in nearly a full year’s time, a distance north to south of some 2,500 miles.

Think Icelandic football and the heroics of EURO 2016 come to mind, or perhaps Eidur Gudjohnsen lighting up Stamford Bridge and the Camp Nou. Iceland’s club sides may not have had the same impact, but they too have played their part in the great history of this competition. Gudjohnsen is the proud owner of his nation’s only winner’s medal, even if he remained on the bench for Barcelona’s 2-0 win against Manchester United in Rome in 2009. Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir has twice lifted the women’s trophy with Lyon and last season Reykjavík side Breidablik became the first Icelandic team to reach the group stage of any UEFA competition, in the Women’s Champions League.

Looking further back, Arsène Wenger’s 1988 French champions Monaco – boasting the likes of Glenn Hoddle, Jean-Luc Ettori, Patrick Battison and Manuel Amoros – were beaten here by Valur, who even kept Benfica great Eusébio off the scoresheet in a goalless draw in September 1968. And one for quiz fans: where did six-time champions Liverpool play their first ever European game? Yes, Reykjavík, Bill Shankly’s side running out 5-0 winners against KR at Laugardalsvöllur, Iceland’s national stadium, in August 1964. 

Read the full story
Sign up now to get access to this and every premium feature on Champions Journal. You will also get access to member-only competitions and offers. And you get all of that completely free!
Winning the league was an amazing feeling. When we started this process in 2019, the club was in a downward spiral. We had too many foreigners, old mercenaries; the fans weren’t connected with the club.
Víkingur’s changing room

KR are the nation’s most successful club, with 27 titles, followed by Valur on 23. Víkingur have six, making last season’s first success in 30 years all the sweeter. Indeed, victory against Levadia was the club’s first in the European Champion Clubs’ Cup. It is a significant milestone for a team formed in 1908 by a group of kids who, unable to break into other local sides, banded together to raise money for their own ball. 

The first chair of the board of directors was 12 and the ball still features in the club logo. The group’s inaugural meeting was in a basement at the corner of Sudurgata and Túngata streets where the boys lived in the city centre, and this season’s Víkingur shirts bear the club’s original name, Sudurgötufélagid, on the back of the collar to mark the significance of the occasion. Founding sons rather than founding fathers.

Now 1,300 boys and girls aged six and up are members of the Víkingur club, playing a range of sports from football, handball and skiing to karate. Local authorities contribute to membership fees to encourage children to keep active, and Iceland’s clubs have become hubs of their communities. Víkingur’s catchment area is about to grow considerably too. Neighbours Fram are moving to an outlying suburb and Víkingur will take on their facilities, becoming the new focal point of the neighbouring Háaleiti og Bústaðir district as well as their own Fossvogur.

Finding then developing the next home-grown star is the goal. For Víkingur, prominent examples are EURO 2016 heroes Kári Árnason and Kolbeinn Sigþórsson, but the club have also been shrewd in the transfer market: they keep a close eye on local players who perhaps went abroad too young and give them the option to come back home. Ingason, Víkingur’s matchwinner against Inter, is a case in point. He was just 16 when he joined Copenhagen, then returned to Iceland without playing a first-team game in Denmark. His 14 goals last season were key to Víkingur winning the title and have earned him Iceland’s young player of the award, plus a pair of caps for his country.

Coach Arnar Gunnlaugsson knows what it takes to succeed at the top. He left Iceland at 19, joining Feyenoord then playing in Germany and France, before spells at Bolton, Leicester and Stoke in England; he also won 32 international caps. He was a League Cup winner with Leicester, but nothing compares to winning your first title as the man in charge. “I was playing at a high level in the Premier League, but winning as a coach is much more satisfying. You are responsible for a community, a club and the players. When you’re a player you’re more egotistical, you only think about yourself. But as a coach, it’s all on you.

“Winning the league was an amazing feeling. When we started this process in 2019, the club was in a downward spiral. We had too many foreigners, old mercenaries; the fans weren’t connected with the club. We changed that: we got local players – young players – and the fans started to identify with the team again. 

“We changed everything, so reaping the rewards is fantastic. It’s a family club; people who come here get a good feeling and we try to stick to that ethos. But it’s still a professional club. Everyone wants to win – to win titles, to play in European games. And if you’re not stepping up your game, you need to move on.”

Part of the reward that Gunnlaugsson mentions is the chance to take part in these European nights – and the frisson that comes with leading your team out to that famous anthem, which connects clubs of all levels. “Oh absolutely, there’s a different feeling; it’s a different game with different preparation. We pay salaries but some of the players are studying, some are working. You can feel the focus levels are lacking a little in Iceland. But you can’t be expected to work nine to five then be bombarded with meetings and training. It’s impossible. 

“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.  

Hot dogs, whales and water…
24 hours in Reykjavík

Fish and chips

There are a number of great food options at the Grandi food hall down by the harbour, but nothing beats the haddock and chips. Fresh and fantastic.

Whale of a time

The rare sight of three humpback whales surfacing together then diving back to the deep was worth the three-hour trip alone with Elding, whose conservation work includes monitoring Iceland’s whale populations.

Yellow lighthouses are dotted around the harbour

Full steam ahead

Wallow in the wonderful geothermal waters at the Sky Lagoon in Kópavogur looking out over Kársnes Harbour just a short taxi ride from the centre.

Top of the world

The concrete, modernist Hallgrímskirkja church is Iceland’s most recognisable building; its tower provides great views down over the city and out across the bay.  

It’s June but there is still snow on the mountains on the other side of the bay

Good taste

The hot dogs from the tiny Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hut at the corner of Pósthússtræti and Tryggvagata are a Reykjavík institution. Order “einn með öllu” – one with everything – for the fresh-and-fried onion and multiple-sauce real deal.

Cultured crawl

No trip to the capital is complete without a stroll down and around the bustling Laugavegur street. Prikid (Bankastraeti 12) and Kaffibarinn (Bergstadastraeti 1) are classic old-school bars, while the Petersen Svítan rooftop bar (Ingolfsstraeti 2a) gives another unique view over the city.

Walk this way

Iceland is a famously egalitarian society. Both the prime minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, and the Football Association of Iceland’s president, Vanda Sigurgeirsdóttir, are women, as are a third of its 25,000 registered players. And check out the traffic light walk signals – many of these also depict girls.  

Víkingur are the hosts of the four-team preliminary round tournament in their capital Reykjavík, vying with Estonia’s Levadia Tallinn and La Fiorita from San Marino, as well as Inter Club, for that coveted place in the first round. After beating Levadia 6-1 in their semi-final, Viking confidence was sky-high heading into the decider. 

Only it turned out to be far closer than anticipated. Inter were compact, offering few chances, then threatening on the break when they could. Relief among the 925 crowd was palpable when Kristall Máni Ingason headed home the game’s only goal on 68 minutes. 

He smiles as he stops to talk to me after the game. Kids are leaning over the fencing behind us, so the 20-year-old walks patiently down the line signing autographs. This was Ingason’s first game in the Champions League and he speaks of the thrill of walking out onto the pitch with the anthem playing. When he last heard it, he was at home with his family watching the final on television. “It was a bad day for me,” he says. “I’m a Liverpool fan!”

I ask how it feels to have scored such an important winner for his club. “It was really nice, really good to get the goal. This is a whole new level for me – it’s my first time in Europe. It’s such an experience. I wouldn’t have expected to be playing in the Champions League a year ago and to have scored is such an amazing and unbelievable thing.” 

The tournament is being played in the week of the summer solstice in Iceland. Even so, it feels more like autumn as a cold wind blows in off the ocean. Snow caps light up the dark grey outline of the mountains across Faxaflói bay. The sun disappears behind them in the early hours, but it is never dark at this time of year. A boat pulls out of the harbour, taking tourists on the short trip to the feeding grounds of the humpback and minke whales; the puffins have also arrived for their short summer sojourn. They live on the islands in the bay for four brief months to breed, before braving the winter cold out on the ocean.

This season’s Champions League kicks off here, in Iceland’s capital, close to the Artic Circle in the far north of the Atlantic Ocean. It will finish with the Cup with the Big Ears being lifted on the banks of the Bosphorus in nearly a full year’s time, a distance north to south of some 2,500 miles.

Think Icelandic football and the heroics of EURO 2016 come to mind, or perhaps Eidur Gudjohnsen lighting up Stamford Bridge and the Camp Nou. Iceland’s club sides may not have had the same impact, but they too have played their part in the great history of this competition. Gudjohnsen is the proud owner of his nation’s only winner’s medal, even if he remained on the bench for Barcelona’s 2-0 win against Manchester United in Rome in 2009. Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir has twice lifted the women’s trophy with Lyon and last season Reykjavík side Breidablik became the first Icelandic team to reach the group stage of any UEFA competition, in the Women’s Champions League.

Looking further back, Arsène Wenger’s 1988 French champions Monaco – boasting the likes of Glenn Hoddle, Jean-Luc Ettori, Patrick Battison and Manuel Amoros – were beaten here by Valur, who even kept Benfica great Eusébio off the scoresheet in a goalless draw in September 1968. And one for quiz fans: where did six-time champions Liverpool play their first ever European game? Yes, Reykjavík, Bill Shankly’s side running out 5-0 winners against KR at Laugardalsvöllur, Iceland’s national stadium, in August 1964. 

Winning the league was an amazing feeling. When we started this process in 2019, the club was in a downward spiral. We had too many foreigners, old mercenaries; the fans weren’t connected with the club.
Víkingur’s changing room

KR are the nation’s most successful club, with 27 titles, followed by Valur on 23. Víkingur have six, making last season’s first success in 30 years all the sweeter. Indeed, victory against Levadia was the club’s first in the European Champion Clubs’ Cup. It is a significant milestone for a team formed in 1908 by a group of kids who, unable to break into other local sides, banded together to raise money for their own ball. 

The first chair of the board of directors was 12 and the ball still features in the club logo. The group’s inaugural meeting was in a basement at the corner of Sudurgata and Túngata streets where the boys lived in the city centre, and this season’s Víkingur shirts bear the club’s original name, Sudurgötufélagid, on the back of the collar to mark the significance of the occasion. Founding sons rather than founding fathers.

Now 1,300 boys and girls aged six and up are members of the Víkingur club, playing a range of sports from football, handball and skiing to karate. Local authorities contribute to membership fees to encourage children to keep active, and Iceland’s clubs have become hubs of their communities. Víkingur’s catchment area is about to grow considerably too. Neighbours Fram are moving to an outlying suburb and Víkingur will take on their facilities, becoming the new focal point of the neighbouring Háaleiti og Bústaðir district as well as their own Fossvogur.

Finding then developing the next home-grown star is the goal. For Víkingur, prominent examples are EURO 2016 heroes Kári Árnason and Kolbeinn Sigþórsson, but the club have also been shrewd in the transfer market: they keep a close eye on local players who perhaps went abroad too young and give them the option to come back home. Ingason, Víkingur’s matchwinner against Inter, is a case in point. He was just 16 when he joined Copenhagen, then returned to Iceland without playing a first-team game in Denmark. His 14 goals last season were key to Víkingur winning the title and have earned him Iceland’s young player of the award, plus a pair of caps for his country.

Coach Arnar Gunnlaugsson knows what it takes to succeed at the top. He left Iceland at 19, joining Feyenoord then playing in Germany and France, before spells at Bolton, Leicester and Stoke in England; he also won 32 international caps. He was a League Cup winner with Leicester, but nothing compares to winning your first title as the man in charge. “I was playing at a high level in the Premier League, but winning as a coach is much more satisfying. You are responsible for a community, a club and the players. When you’re a player you’re more egotistical, you only think about yourself. But as a coach, it’s all on you.

“Winning the league was an amazing feeling. When we started this process in 2019, the club was in a downward spiral. We had too many foreigners, old mercenaries; the fans weren’t connected with the club. We changed that: we got local players – young players – and the fans started to identify with the team again. 

“We changed everything, so reaping the rewards is fantastic. It’s a family club; people who come here get a good feeling and we try to stick to that ethos. But it’s still a professional club. Everyone wants to win – to win titles, to play in European games. And if you’re not stepping up your game, you need to move on.”

Part of the reward that Gunnlaugsson mentions is the chance to take part in these European nights – and the frisson that comes with leading your team out to that famous anthem, which connects clubs of all levels. “Oh absolutely, there’s a different feeling; it’s a different game with different preparation. We pay salaries but some of the players are studying, some are working. You can feel the focus levels are lacking a little in Iceland. But you can’t be expected to work nine to five then be bombarded with meetings and training. It’s impossible. 

“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.  

Hot dogs, whales and water…
24 hours in Reykjavík

Fish and chips

There are a number of great food options at the Grandi food hall down by the harbour, but nothing beats the haddock and chips. Fresh and fantastic.

Whale of a time

The rare sight of three humpback whales surfacing together then diving back to the deep was worth the three-hour trip alone with Elding, whose conservation work includes monitoring Iceland’s whale populations.

Yellow lighthouses are dotted around the harbour

Full steam ahead

Wallow in the wonderful geothermal waters at the Sky Lagoon in Kópavogur looking out over Kársnes Harbour just a short taxi ride from the centre.

Top of the world

The concrete, modernist Hallgrímskirkja church is Iceland’s most recognisable building; its tower provides great views down over the city and out across the bay.  

It’s June but there is still snow on the mountains on the other side of the bay

Good taste

The hot dogs from the tiny Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hut at the corner of Pósthússtræti and Tryggvagata are a Reykjavík institution. Order “einn með öllu” – one with everything – for the fresh-and-fried onion and multiple-sauce real deal.

Cultured crawl

No trip to the capital is complete without a stroll down and around the bustling Laugavegur street. Prikid (Bankastraeti 12) and Kaffibarinn (Bergstadastraeti 1) are classic old-school bars, while the Petersen Svítan rooftop bar (Ingolfsstraeti 2a) gives another unique view over the city.

Walk this way

Iceland is a famously egalitarian society. Both the prime minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, and the Football Association of Iceland’s president, Vanda Sigurgeirsdóttir, are women, as are a third of its 25,000 registered players. And check out the traffic light walk signals – many of these also depict girls.  

To access this article, as well as all CJ+ content and competitions, you will need a subscription to Champions Journal.
Already a subscriber? Sign in
close
Special Offers
christmas offer
Christmas CHEER
Up to 40% off
Start shopping
50% off
game night flash sale!!!
Don't miss out
00
Hours
:
00
minutes
:
00
Seconds
Valid on selected products only. subscriptions not included
close