When you think of international football’s greatest overachievers, you probably think of countries like Iceland or Uruguay. But what if I told you that a country with a minute population of just 51,000, the 22nd smallest in the world, had a football team currently ranked 98th in the world? (Above the likes of Kenya, New Zealand and Philippines to name but a few).
You may think I was crazy, but thanks to the ascension of our very own Faroe Islands men’s football team, this feat is now a reality. The monumental effort of their story is really put into perspective when you look at the background, and the hardship the fearless island group has endured.
Due to weather constraints, real pitches can rarely be used on the islands, and up until the late 1980s the majority of pitches were sand. These adverse conditions made it extremely difficult for players to hone their skills. The introduction of artificial turf in the 1980s is seen by many as the nation’s most effective move, as it increased both the standard of facilities, and the popularity of football as a participation sport.
With sports being self-funded, the remote islands have always had their work cut out for them when competing against substantially more established, funded, and populated European competitors. Granted FIFA membership in 1990, the North Atlantic archipelago is relatively young in terms of international recognition, making their current achievements even more remarkable. Back then there were zero professional footballers, and the team was entirely made up of part-timers. Until recently, they were the proverbial whipping boys, and did not break the top 100 world rankings until 2014, with a record high ranking of 83rd achieved in 2016.
The steady progression of the side since its inception has culminated in several landmark victories in recent years, such as back to back wins against European 2004 champions Greece in 2014 and 2015 respectively, and a credible draw against footballing giants Hungary (a country with an astounding 192 times the population of the diminutive Faroese) in 2016.
Of the English Premier League’s current 20 stadiums, there are no fewer than 7 that could accommodate the whole island’s entire population of just 51,000 (the 3rd lowest in Europe).
Due to limited research, the best statistic to put this monumental feat into perspective is that there are currently 14,000 males from the Faroe Islands aged between 15-49. The average footballer’s age is between 18-36. If we cut the 14,000-male statistic in half (to 7000) to get a more accurate reading of potential active footballers age group, this equates to a professional footballer for every 350 of the male population. Applying the same logic to the UK’s population, there would be roughly 28,700 professionals currently in the UK. Interestingly, according to the ‘Professional Footballers Association’, the actual figure is only 4000, which is a staggering 86% lower than the Faroe Islands. This really highlights the over-performance of the current Island’s crop of stars.
The incredible outsourcing of current Faroese players to various countries has contributed to a huge improvement in the standards and ability within the squad, as moving abroad means playing in a professional league (The Faroese league is semi-professional) with high quality of standards, facilities, and tactical knowledge. The chance to play with and against superior players also aids progression, and various players are reaping the rewards. Midfielder Hallur Hansson (AC Horsens) is currently having his best ever season to date; Viljormur Davidsen (Vejle) has consistently shown his credentials for numerous years; Jakup Thomsen (FC Midtjylland) just returned from a successful loan spell in Iceland; and Teit Jacobsen (SønderjyskE) is working his way back after a serious injury. They all ply their trade in the highest Danish league, the ‘Superliga’, whilst the experienced Heini Vatnsdal (Fremad Amager) and prolific goal scorer Finnur Justinussen (Næstved) are working their way up in the league below.
The towering and cultured Sonni Ragnar Nattestad (Molde), and the multi-talented Gilli Rólantsson Sørensen (Brann), are employed at two of the biggest clubs in the Norwegian top-flight league ‘Eliteserien’. Meinhard Olsen (Kristiansund) also recently joined the ‘Eliteserien’, and there is huge confidence that he can prosper after recent showings in the ‘Faroe Islands Premier League’. Hidden gem Ári Mohr Jónsson (Sandnes Ulf) is currently battling in the league below, and one below that is hardworking utility man Rógvi Baldvinsson (Bryne FK).
In the Icelandic Premier League, also known as ‘Úrvalsdeild karla’, Gunnar Nielsen (FH), the country’s undisputed number 1; René Shaki Joensen (Grindavik) our UEFA nations league top goal scorer; Brandur Hendriksson Olsen (FH) the influential playmaker; and the eccentrically skilful Kaj Leo í Bartalsstovu (Valur) are all star-players.
The first ever player in the German second division is talismanic icon Jóan Símun Edmundsson (Arminia Bielefeld). His brother Andrias is also on the books of English giants Sunderland at the moment, and is touted to be a future Faroese great.
The next generation of players also looks bright with Lukas Giessing and Hanus Sørensen (FC Midtjylland) working their way up the youth set up, and Magnus Jacobsen (FC Paços de Ferreira) recently becoming the first ever Faroese player signed to a Portuguese club.
This really highlights the heavy representation of Faroese players amongst some of Europe’s top leagues. Incorporating these overseas stars with home-based players such as inspirational captain Atli Gregersen, and the consistent Sølvi Vatnhamar, has forged the most successful Faroe Islands team of all time. This is in huge part down to the experienced manager Lars Olsen, who has brought with him a distinctive playing style, and experienced tactical intelligence.
The island’s self-determination combined with its Nordic bravery has created a real sense of euphoria and pride in recent years. Through huge adversity, such as harsh weather conditions, poor facilities, funding compared to rival nations, and a microscopic population compared to its competitors, has risen a golden age of Faroese football. A team that has already accomplished above and beyond what it is assumed capable of, which can hopefully one day fulfill the dream of reaching a major tournament! And after what it has achieved so far, I ask why not?
I will conclude this article with a quote from a Farose proverb ‘Altíð bagir illum barni okkurt’ (A bad workman blames his tools). A beautiful saying which truly encapsulate the ‘Men’s Faroe Islands national football teams’ rise against adversity.
Image credits: Fótbóltssamband Føroya (FSF)