The Historic Rise and Fast Fall in Icelandic Football

When you think of footballing nations, you think of England, Portugal, and Argentina. Not many people would think of this nation with a population half the size of Dorset but a nation that was able to overcome all odds and made a world cup. This Nation is Iceland, but underneath its rise was a dark past of misogyny and assault.

Located North of the Atlantic Ocean, Iceland is famous for its scenery, from the Blue Lagoon to, Northern Lights and volcanos. Apart from being the odd player in the English Premier League Iceland wasn’t known for its football, this was shown most in 2012 when during the European Championship Iceland drop to 131 in the world rankings, this being the lowest the country has ever been. Iceland would qualify for the next euros in 2016, but how?

Iceland’s weather was a problem for them as they could not play football in the winter, and they couldn’t develop their players as much as they would want. So in 2000, they built training centres across the country which the Icelandic people call soccer houses. Iceland now has over 150 outdoor pitches with underground heating and 7 soccer houses with massive indoor facilities, which were all publicly funded. I spoke to Dean Martin, manager of Icelandic second-division side Selfoss FC, who said, “The facilities have improved immensely over the years. There are a lot more indoor football houses than there were 27 years ago when I first arrived in Iceland, it was just a gravel pitch and now you got full-size outdoor pitches and indoor pitches which are now for the younger generation who train all year round”. Next was funding into staff after introducing a rule where if you are coaching in Iceland, even if is at the youth level you need a coaching qualification. This means that there is one qualified coach to around 600 people in Iceland compared to England which is 1 coach per 4300 people. Players needed to gain experience, so it wasn’t unusual to see Icelandic players travel around Europe to forward their football careers. “If they’re ready for the step, their ambition going out to work and improve their trade.  15-16 years old out to Europe, there under better coaches and playing with better players daily” Dean said.

In 2013 there was a change for the national team as part-time dentist Heimir Hallgrímsson became the head coach. After two years as assistant to Lars Lagerbäck who saw his side lose 2-0 to Croatia in the 2014 World Cup playoff, he joined the Swede as co-managers. Iceland became a tough team to beat, but their never give up Viking attitude made them work so well. Their hard work would pay off as two years later, they would qualify for Iceland’s first international men’s tournament, qualifying ahead of strong nations such as Turkey and the Netherlands. 

Iceland’s historic campaign started with a 1-1 draw against the eventual winners Portugal. Iceland remained unbeaten in the group with another 1-1 to Hungry and an Arnór Traustason goal in the 94th minute gave Iceland their first-ever European Championship win against Austria. Lagerbäck and Hallgrímsson, set their team up in a defensive-minded 4-4-2 intending to push their opposition to attack wide. This is where they will try and push the opposition player to the sideline forcing a turnover or sitting back looking to stop forward balls. This uses this team’s strengths as they are not technically strong as their opponents but physically stronger. After finishing second in the group Iceland played England in the round of 16. With this being the most important match in the history of the country, the Icelandic people travelled down as eight percent of the total country’s population at the time travelled to the game, with 99.8% of TV viewers in Iceland watching the match. This introduced Icelandic fans to the world with the most famous being the Thunderclap celebration. The Thunderclap celebration is when a group of fans shouts while clapping simultaneously, with the gap between each clap being shorter each time. An early penalty from Wayne Rooney would give England the lead, but two minutes later Ragnar Sigurðsson would make it level. Kolbeinn Sigþórsson would score just before the 20 minutes to give Iceland the lead, which they were able to hold on to and beat England. The quarterfinal would be against the host France, but a 5-2 defeat put an end to the Island’s euro run.

With a successful Euro campaign, next on the agender is the world cup. Hallgrímsson would be all alone as Lagerbäck left to manage Norway. This didn’t seem to stop them as Iceland topped their group above nations such as Turkey, Ukraine, and eventual finalist Croatia. Iceland would become the smallest team to qualify for a world cup final. Iceland would start the World Cup with a 1-1 draw to Argentina but that would be the only point that they would score during the tournament as they went on to lose to both Nigeria then Croatia, finishing bottom of the group. This was still seen as a positive in Iceland as the hope and belief were still there.

Hallgrímsson left Iceland after the world cup, to manage Al-Arabi SC in Qatar. This left a position open as Iceland hopes to reach back-to-back European championships. They chose Erik Hamrén, as the former Sweden manager has a history of managing national teams. After finishing third in Group H, Iceland would make the playoffs. A semi-final wins against Romania but after conceding two late goals, Iceland was beaten by Hungry and would fail to make Euro 2020. After Relegation in the nations league, Iceland Sacked Hamrén and brought in Arnar Viðarsson. They would start the world cup qualification run with big losses to Germany then Armenia, without scoring a goal, then followed by a big 4-1 win away at Liechtenstein, they hoped that they could continue this momentum into the next fixtures in September. The Icelandic people think that Viðarsson is out of his depts, as he had a very small amount of experience managing first-team football. Eiður Guðjohnsen was appointed as his assistant manager, but that wouldn’t last long. The former Chelsea and Barcelona player would leave his post, reportedly after drinking heavily, with his staff and players after a match against North Macedonia.


In July 2021, Greater Manchester Police arrest a 31-year-old footballer on child sexual abuse charges. Everton then announced that they have suspended a first-team player following a police investigation. With papers in Iceland reporting that the player was Gylfi Sigurðsson. Sigurðsson was the most known Icelandic player in the current squad. He has not made an appearance for club or country since.

On August 13th, 2021, Hanna Björg Vilhjálmsdóttir posted an article on Visir, about the KSI (Icelandic Football Association) history with Misogyny. The biggest talking point from it all was a story about an Iceland national team player’s history of physically and sexually abusing women, and a story from 2010 where a woman was gang raped by two players, who joked about it the next day. She was strongly advised not to file a complaint as it was overpowering. She went on to say that this woman isn’t the only one who has experienced this and the KSI has silenced any accusations. The KSI was quick to reply, as the present Guðni Bergsson, saying the KSI had never tried to silence any cases or assaults. After getting pressure from the media Bergsson, made a television interview where he said he hasn’t received any formal complaints for either Abuse or Violence. The next day an interview with a woman called Þórhildur Gyða Arnarsdóttir contradicted the statement made by Bergsson, as she told a story about an Icelandic national team player sexually assaulting her in a bar in 2017 and how her dad told the KSI about the incident after that player was called up to the Iceland squad. Bergsson would comment by saying that he made a mistake in his interview, as he thought the crime was violent and not sexual. The backlash to this caused Bergsson to step down from his job as president.

Within five days of the Arnarsdóttir interview, footballer Sigþórsson issued a stamen denying the assault but saying that he has an out-of-court settlement with Arnarsdóttir and her friend. This would be both women receiving 1,500,000 Kr as well as the same amount to Stiqamot an Icelandic charity that provides counseling to women that have survived sexual assault. After hoping that going public with the donation would clear his name, Sigþórsson would be released at the end of his contract after not playing with an injury. He has not found a new club and has not played for the Iceland national team since. The other man who scored against England Ragnar Sigurðsson’s house was raided in 2016, where Sigurðsson had ran away leaving a damaged apartment. His wife at the time left a police report accusing him of threatening her, which he denied and nothing more was done. He was also reported to the KSI, where no action was taken.

Long-time Iceland national team captain Aron Gunnarsson was accused of being one of the two men in the assault told in the Vilhjálmsdóttir article. He would not get picked for the fixtures after the article came out and blamed it on cancel culture. After the police investigation was dropped, he made his return to the squad and back to the starting lineup on 22nd September 2022 just over a year after the acritical was first launched.

With a lot of the more established players no longer in the Icelandic national team, it makes the turnover of new talent more difficult. With Viðarsson having to find new stars and going through a new rebuilding stage they only managed to win one more of their World Cup qualifying games, as they have been in a rapid decline back down the rankings, where they were once as high as 18th and now sit 62nd.

This rebuild will be hard for Iceland. If you compare them to England, who have seven players in their world cup squad who was in squad that lost to Iceland in 2016. This means that the older players, like, Kane, Sterling, and Henderson can lead and give advice to the younger players like Bellingham, Foden, and Saka. In Iceland’s most recent match, the average age of the squad is 24.85 with 3 over the age of 30 and the oldest player in the starting 11 was 28. When speaking to Dean about development in the Icelandic national team he had this to say “The younger generation get their chance to come in. We haven’t had the same group now coming through the ranks to make their debuts, they are now all making their debuts at the same time, instead of mixing players in with the older players, that hasn’t been possible”.

This doesn’t mean that Icelandic football is finished. This young group of players coming through can only be a good thing, in the long run. Even if they fail to make it to another international tournament, they can help develop the younger generation. The Icelandic Women’s team is still going strong as they have made the European Championship in the previous four tournaments. The KSI also seems to be moving in the right direction after the board stepped down, they now have their first women president in Vanda Sigurgeirsdóttir, who wants to make both men’s and women’s football equal, not just in Iceland but Europe as well. With only 2700 of the 9800 seats filled at the last home game and the Thunderclap temporarily retired, there’s hope that the belief in Icelandic football and trust in the KSI and its players can return one day.


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