Gone to Iceland

I WAS in a café in central Reykjavik yesterday lunchtime when I saw a woman I had bumped into the previous evening at an Icelandic Premier League match between Fram Reykjavik and FH Hafnarfjordur.

It’s difficult to have a conversation with anyone from Iceland these days without discussing the economy, so that’s where we ended up going. “When you go back to England,” she said, “you can tell people that Alistair Darling is a fucking asshole.”

You probably know the basics of Iceland’s financial meltdown; the collapse of internet banking company Icesave last October, and the subsequent nationalisation of the country’s banking system. When Darling failed to get immediate assurances from Iceland’s then Finance Minister Arni Matthiesen that the deposits of UK savers were safe, our government responded by freezing the UK assets of Landsbanki, Icesave’s parent company. Bizarrely, they did so by invoking the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001.

That’s right. The UK government used anti-terrorism legislation to tackle a financial crisis. You may wish to stop for a moment to consider at which point the word ‘terrorism’ effectively came to be defined in law as ‘anything that leaves a cabinet minister feeling a bit wobbly’.

Why stop there? Perhaps, in future, anti-terrorism legislation can also be used to arrest any panellist on Have I Got News For You, Question Time’s audience members and anyone associated with a Richard Curtis rom-com which has an insufficiently happy ending. (You certainly might want to think twice about taking out an unauthorised overdraft in future.)

I don’t know how ill-conceived or poorly worded a piece of anti-terrorism legislation has to be for it to be used to freeze another country’s assets in this manner. But it is tempting to wonder if such legislation was drawn up by a four-year-old using fridge magnets.

The UK government’s action led to the formation of a protest group in Iceland called InDefense (slogan: “We are not terrorists.”) And the crisis was only resolved when rulers in Reykjavik agreed that Britain would be repaid £2.3billion over 15 years, at a rate of interest which could conceivably make Iceland bankrupt. It’s a fair bet that Darling won’t be holidaying in Reykjavik any time soon.

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Laugardalsvollur’s main stand, pre-match

It’s a strange time to visit Iceland. On the surface, Reykjavik is still a city of beautiful people going out of their way to have a good time. But looking good and partying hard cost money. You only need to talk to locals for a few minutes to get a sense of how worried they are. As the woman in the café said to me: “The party’s over.”

She had been surprised to discover an Englishman sitting next to her at the Laugardalsvollur – Iceland’s national stadium – the previous evening. (She had initially tried to start talking to me in Icelandic about how bad the referee was. Slagging off the officials at a football match is a good conversation starter in any language.)

No wonder it threw her a bit; English people aren’t expected to show up at Icelandic Premier League games. They’re supposed to be too busy going on coach trips to the Golden Circle or the Blue Lagoon. (I’d already done that.)

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Fram Reykjavik v FH Hafnarfjordur in progress

Iceland’s top flight – the Urvalsdeild – doesn’t feature in any of the guide books; but then tourist guides generally seem to have a blind spot when it comes to sport.

The Urvalsdeild is, according to UEFA, the 37th best league in Europe. I’m not sure how this was calculated. Perhaps there is a complex mathematical formula, which factors in domestic performance, attendances, perceived entertainment value and success in European competition. Or perhaps UEFA just ask Jamie Redknapp.

UEFA: Jamie, how would you rank the various European leagues in order of merit?
Redknapp: Well, you’ve got your Premier League, which is the best league in the world?
UEFA: Really? Even though the Champions League winners are a Spanish club and the UEFA Cup was won by a team from Ukraine?
Redknapp: Yeah, but your UEFA Cup’s a joke tournament, isn’t it? My old man would have won that if he’d been able to put his best team out.
UEFA: Hmm.
Redknapp: And Barca only got to the Champions League final ‘cos that useless ref from Norway or somewhere did for our Frank.
UEFA: Well, that chap Iniesta scoring in the last minute might have…
Redknapp: Anyway, who’s the world champions?
UEFA: Italy.
Redknapp: No, I meant the World Club champions. That’s Man U, isn’t it?
UEFA: Ah yes, we’d forgotten about that tournament.
Redknapp: So, your Premier League is the best in the world. And your Europe is part of the world, so that means your Premier League is the best in Europe as well. Then you’ve got your La Liga, your Serie A, your Bundesliga…
UEFA: Let’s cut to the chase, Jamie. This is going on longer than the World Cup draw. Where would you rank the Urvalsdeild?
Redknapp: You what?
UEFA: The Icelandic Premier League. Where would you rank it?
Redknapp: Oh, I don’t know. Stick them 38th.
UEFA: You’ve already got the League Of Wales in 38th, Jamie.
Redknapp: Oh. What about 37th, then?

If there’s one team in the Urvalsdeild you are likely to have heard of, it’s FH of Hafnarfjordur, who were beaten fairly straightforwardly by Aston Villa in last season’s UEFA Cup, despite getting a draw at Villa Park.

There are 12 teams in Iceland’s top flight – six of which are based in Reykjavik, with the others all based fairly nearby in the south-west corner of the island, where practically the entire population lives. (Much of the rest of Iceland is too mountainous or too remote to support the large populations needed to sustain a football team.)

FH have won the league title in four out of the last five seasons, and will probably win it again this time, too. Thursday night’s comfortable 2-0 win over Fram has put them five points clear at the top, much to the delight of the small but noisy band of fans who made the half-an-hour drive up the coast from Hafnarfjordur.

It was a strange atmosphere. Fram generally attract crowds of a few hundred, but the Laugardalsvollur has a capacity of almost 10,000. Even though most of the 903 fans present packed together in the front seats near the halfway line, it still seemed as if our chants and shouts were disappearing into the air – a feeling exacerbated by the athletics track separating the stands from the pitch.

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Bloody hell, that’s a big running track

A press box big enough to seat 50 reporters was occupied by one middle-aged chap in a flat cap who took copious notes in the first half, but failed to appear for the second, and a line of four teenage girls resting their feet on the barriers in front and adopting expressions of bored indifference that could, with practice, serve them until well into their 30s.

Both sets of fans had their own drummer (and a couple of FH supporters brought along horns too) as they engaged in plenty of light-hearted banter during one of the most one-sided first halves I have ever seen. Had it not been for Fram’s heroic goalkeeper Hannes Por Halldorsson, FH would have been about 6-0 up by the break.

By my count, Halldorsson made at least five superb saves during the opening 45 minutes, while FH striker Atli Vidar Bjornsson – who looked seriously short of confidence – fired wide from 10 yards with the goal at his mercy, and midfielder Asgier Gunnar Asgiersson hit the bar with a long-range effort.

As the players came off at half-time, with the score somehow goalless, a crew from Icelandic TV – who were showing the game live – moved pitchside to conduct an interview with Halldorsson on the running track. I would imagine the gist of the chat was: “How the hell is it still 0-0?”

Halldorsson couldn’t keep FH out for much longer, though. Three minutes after the break, Tryggvi Gudmundsson – on as an early sub for an injured team-mate – scrambled in a cross at the far post. Two minutes later, he scored an almost identical goal from Matthias Wilhjalmsson’s low ball in, and that was effectively it.

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Somewhere in the distance, Tryggvi Gudmundsson celebrates his second goal

Should I mention that Gudmundsson once had a brief and unsuccessful spell with Stoke City? I ask because we British journalists sometimes get criticised for our habit of mentioning every link any player has to our domestic game, no matter tenuous. So in the interests of international balance, I’ll had that the 34-year-old Iceland international striker has also had very successful spells in Norway (with Staebak and Tromso) and Sweden (with Orgryte). Satisfied?

Fram, who are struggling in the lower half of the table, showed little attacking threat, despite the occasional break down the left by their Scottish left-sided midfielder Paul McShane, a former Rangers trainee. I wasn’t the only Brit at the ground, then.

Not even the only Englishman. Fram had Sam Tillen, a one-time Chelsea youngster who had three seasons at Brentford, playing at left-back, and his younger brother Joe –once on MK Dons’ books – came on in midfield for the last 15 minutes. Their most dangerous player, though, was another sub: Ivar Bjornsson came on after an hour, looked lively up front and their one decent chance, hitting a shot against FH keeper Dadi Larusson’s legs.

Fram will be hoping for better when they travel to Wales next Thursday to face The New Saints in the first qualifying round of the Europa League. On the evidence of Thursday night, though, they will do well to still be in the competition when their domestic season ends in September.

FH, though, might just have greater ambitions. Their Champions League campaign starts in a fortnight against FK Atobe, the champions of Kazakhstan. If they win, they will go through to the third qualifying round – a match which gives the losers a crack at getting into the Europa League.

And while it would be glib to suggest that football could provide a welcome temporary escape for Iceland from its economic woes, a decent European run might just encourage the rest of the continent to see the country as something other than a financial failure.

The woman in the café told me just how worried she and her fellow Icelanders are right now, with jobs disappearing, the national debt mounting and the value of their currency plummeting. It was hard to envy her as she said goodbye and walked out of the café, into an uncertain future.

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