Icelandic football has come an awfully long way since the national team contested its first official fixture in 1946. For a couple of decades after that 3-0 defeat in Reykjavik against Denmark, Iceland were beyond ordinary. So much so that Fifa refused to let them even attempt to qualify for the 1954 World Cup. When they were finally allowed a go, four years later, they shipped eight goals in France, then another eight three days later in Belgium. In a 1967 friendly in Copenhagen, their old foes the Danes beat them 14-2.
(Some good has come of this. A brewery in Reykjavik produces a commemorative white stout called 2-14. Aromas of anise, vanilla and coffee; 6.5% ABV; drink to forget.)
Then something changed, and now Iceland are going to Euro 2016. The next surprise champions after Denmark and Greece? Hey, there’s little point in watching football if you don’t dare to dream. But whatever happens this summer, there is no denying Iceland’s glorious transformation, astonishing given a population slightly smaller than Coventry’s. Many factors have been cited to explain this dramatic change in fortune: new indoor courts which allow year-round improvement in an otherwise harsh climate; a comprehensive and highly regarded youth coaching policy; local sports clubs run for the greater good as opposed to profit; increased chances for top talent to learn their trade at big clubs in the modern global village.
Bjarni Felixson rarely gets a mention, yet he has made arguably the most influential contribution of all. “Bjarni Fel” has long been an Icelandic national institution; now retired, it’s fair to say his status has blossomed into full-blown national treasure. With his boots on, he was storied enough, playing in Iceland’s first-ever European Cup match – more of that anon – but it’s as a television presenter and commentator that he really made his name.
For four decades he was – thanks in part to luxurious eyebrows that would have put Denis Healey to shame – the instantly recognisable face of English football on the Icelandic state broadcaster RUV. He brought first-class football into the nation’s front rooms for the very first time; in doing so, he influenced and educated generations of fans and future players. “Bjarni Fel is a larger-than-life legend,” explains Stefan Palsson, a Reykjavik-based football historian. “He’s well-loved and respected. His sports programme was on national television every Saturday. Bjarni narrated; everyone was interested. We all grew up with Bjarni.”
Bjarni, of course, could not grow up with Bjarni. When the man himself was young, there wasn’t quite so much information available. The 12-year-old Felixson had followed the career of Iceland’s first professional footballer, the inside-right Albert Gudmundsson, on his travels abroad with Arsenal, Racing Club de Paris and Milan. (Gudmundsson would later run for president; everyone in Iceland seems to have at least a couple of careers on the go.) But it was a labour of love. “There wasn’t much opportunity to keep up with the news,” Felixson recalls now. “We could listen to the BBC World Service on shortwave. The Sunday papers arrived in Reykjavik and were sold in bookshops on Tuesdays. Then we read about the matches. It was a very small bunch of strange fellows who followed football in those days. But that all changed when the Icelandic television came in.”
Bjarni grew up to become a no-nonsense defender for KR of Reykjavik and Iceland, for whom he won six caps. His heyday came in 1964 when KR, having bagged the Icelandic title, drew Liverpool in the European Cup. The first leg, which the English champions won 5-0, was staged in the Icelandic capital. “Bill Shankly was a very good fellow, very joyful. He was like a father to his players. He was very pleased to be in Reykjavik, because in those days beer was not legal, so he could let his team out into the city at night and not worry about a thing.”
KR were an amateur concern, so to raise money for the return trip to England, the club printed the very first match programme in Icelandic history. “We sold out the stadium. We had so much money, we could take our wives with us. We hired a plane so we were in Liverpool from Saturday until Wednesday morning. We saw a match at Everton on Saturday, and travelled to Anfield for our game by bus. Doing that made us very popular, we were made to feel very welcome by the fans.”
Liverpool won the second leg 6-1, with KR’s consolation scored by Felixson’s brother Gunnar. (“A very good player with a very good shot,” says Bjarni, ever the analyst, matter of factly, although it’s not hard to detect genuine sibling pride.) “After the match, the two teams spent some time together. It’s not like now: you just go back home and don’t speak to the other team. But we did. Ron Yeats recently came over to meet the Liverpool Icelandic fan club. It’s a very big club.”
English football had, by this point, been growing in popularity in Iceland for some time, its presence bolstered by newsreels shown before films in cinemas. Television arrived in 1966, and televised football came along a couple of years later. Felixson joined RUV having spent his playing years poring over English newspapers and books to bone up on the club scene. “I listened to the BBC every Saturday. That was my study for my later occupation.” KR, incidentally, won nothing for 27 years after he left.
Felixson moved to land the rights for English football in cooperation with stations from Denmark and Norway, countries where large numbers had also started to obsess over the First Division. (Just as well, as only by clubbing together with other Nordic broadcasters could RUV afford the action.) That was just the start of the hard work.
“There were no satellites, we were too far away to get transmission, we were isolated. We had to wait at first for films, then for videotapes. We had to wait for the plane to arrive. We took the film of Match of the Day, and had to show it a week later. We started with the English commentary, because we couldn’t take it out of the film soundtrack. But once we got tapes, it had a clean track and I commentated. It became very popular.”
As did many of the English teams, thanks in no small part to Felixson’s knowledge and relentless passion. Some clubs became bigger than others. “When you’re small, you pick the team who wins the championship,” Felixson says.
Liverpool swept up a lot of fans during the early years of Icelandic transmission, while Manchester United’s flame was kept alive during their barren years by the legend of George Best. (“He was very popular here. He was fun to watch.”) As in England, the pair remain the best supported clubs, having struck big during television’s infancy. For this reason, Derby County and Leeds United are well represented in Iceland. Chelsea and Manchester City fans are also products of their time. It all bodes well for Leicester City.
Not that every fan in Iceland is seduced by glory. Palsson, for example, fell in love with Luton Town during their 1980s heyday. “They visited Iceland in the 1980s, when they were quite successful. As a result, there are probably a dozen Luton fans in Iceland. Most league clubs have a couple of Icelandic supporters: Grimsby, Huddersfield, Wycombe, you name it. After what happened to me and Luton, I worry for any young kid who picks Leicester right now.”
(Palsson, in addition to being a historian, is also an author, and former singer in a punk band. Which we mention partly to further illustrate the polymathic tendencies of Icelanders, but mainly to flag up the name of the aforementioned beat combo: Tony Blair. “Yes, it’s a really great name. It’s only too bad we were not good enough.”)
Iceland’s first live satellite broadcast was the 1982 League Cup final between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur. Spurs fans would not be the only folk who rued the late Ronnie Whelan goal that denied Keith Burkinshaw’s side victory. RUV had booked the satellite for only the regulation 90 minutes. As extra time began, the signal was lost. Icelandic viewers had to wait a full week to see the goals. But momentum was unlikely to be stalled by a few teething troubles, and Bjarni Fel’s broadcasts went on to influence a generation. “Icelandic footballers learned a lot from English football,” he says. “The youth strived to be like the professionals they saw on television. From a very young age, seven or eight, they said: ‘I am going to be like David Beckham’. That was the aim in life.”
Felixson had other strings to his bow. As a member of the Icelandic FA, he was instrumental in Iceland becoming the first European league to introduce red and yellow cards after the 1970 World Cup. As a broadcaster, he regularly covered chess, bringing in grand masters to explain the tactical intricacies of another national obsession. But his efforts in popularising English football, and in turn influencing the development of the Icelandic game, will always define him. Imagine a parallel universe without Bjarni Fel, then wonder where the likes of Siggi Jonsson, Eidur Gudjohnsen or this year’s Euro 2016 squad would have ended up.
“As a player, winning titles for KR, I was hated around the country. But I was always popular on television, because I was commentating on English soccer.” A typically modest appraisal, and one which seriously underplays his ongoing popularity. The most popular sports bar in downtown Reykjavik has been named in his honour. “When the owners named it Bjarni Fel, I said: ‘They are crazy’. But my daughter told me: ‘Why can’t they name it after you? Nearby, there is the restaurant Einar Ben. He is one of the country’s greatest poets. Why can’t you be next door to that?’” For his role in helping Iceland to Euro 2016, few would deny Bjarni Fel the acclaim.