As Iceland swept the watching football world away with them in a haze of Viking valour and volume two years ago, Kári Árnason was a lynchpin. Believing the Euro 2016 darlings are embarking upon their debut World Cup shortly with added strings to their bow, the vastly-experienced defender wants his side to show that Nordic thunder can rumble in Russia.
In the first half of this interview, Kári shed light on the comically arduous route he had to take into English football, as he arrived for his trial at Plymouth Argyle in 2009. Granted there was no Paddington station opening of the heavens or devilishly dingy motel this time around, but Iceland coach Heimir Hallgrímsson placing his bag on the wrong bus as the team set out for the airport meant police had to intervene to retrieve it.
Hallgrímsson found the funny side and his players most definitely did. While qualifying for successive tournaments is euphoric vindication of the years of work and the faith in the footballing methods implemented within Iceland, such lighter moments will be remembered for just as long by all concerned.
This contemporary Viking tale owes to various factors, with those at the heart of it believing their relatively miniscule size is their strength. It stands to reason that homogenising and harnessing a small island’s footballing culture will present far fewer roadblocks than in a nation so vast and diverse, but Iceland’s rise from 131st in the world rankings in 2012 to 18th this year remains truly remarkable, no matter how many times it is referenced.
The success of the European Championship quarter-finalists has been marked in a multitude of ways, with the post-game synchronised ‘víkingaklappið’ between the team and supporters already carving out its own space in international football folklore. Just like his side’s spectacular stadium exploits in France in 2016, Kári Árnason’s own winding path, inside and outside of the game, has been illuminated by a powerful rhythm.
Beyond the now-universally-recognised Viking clap, have Iceland’s historic wins over England, the Netherlands, Austria and others come with speaker-blaring scenes for the players to enjoy away from all the on-field cameras?
“Yeah, definitely,” Aberdeen and Rotherham United fan favourite Kári confirmed. “The music always comes on when we win games and everyone’s jumping.”
“I can’t put my music taste in front of the group, but it’s all about the celebrations so it doesn’t really matter for me.”
What the Reykjavík-raised competitor references there is, as he explained in part one, an ear for music that has always felt somewhat off-piste to him in amongst footballing changing rooms where mainstream dance, r&b and suchlike largely dominate. As Ari Freyr Skúlason, Iceland’s starting left-back throughout their Euro 2016 run, said on here last year, Burnley wideman Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson has been a regular at the playlist helm for the national team.
The World Cup squad has five players who are 24 or under, with the likes of Bristol City defender Hörður Magnússon and Reading striker Jón Daði Böðvarsson not too much older, and despite his place at the forefront on the pitch, Kári is content to take a backseat when it comes to this particular corner of team matters.
“Normally, it’s the younger players that do it, but in my younger years I was into like Rage Against the Machine and Pearl Jam, so I’m pretty far off the norm when it comes to music in the football scene. I just let the young boys take control of it and try to stay away from it as much as I can.
“Not that I don’t enjoy what they’re playing at all, but I just let them get on with it.”
Skippering the side in the recent absence of Aron Gunnarsson, former Malmö man Kári is set to surpass 70 caps during the group phase of this World Cup, as Argentina, Nigeria and Croatia await. Despite the sprinklings of Hollywood to the national team’s achievements over the past couple of years, that was not how it used to be, by any stretch of the imagination.
Rather than big-scale blockbuster, it was more of an arthouse effort – just without too much of the art, it seemed.
“To be honest, I’ve played for the national team for 14 years or something, and the change is massive. When we got together a few years ago, it was just (pauses and exhales)…you always enjoyed coming back home and seeing your mates and the boys you played with and all that, but it’s changed so dramatically.”
Only Udinese’s former Barnsley midfielder Emil Hallfreðsson in the current squad has an international career stretching back as far as Kári and these weeks on the loftiest of platforms in Russia this summer are indeed reward most spectacular for a player who has not often had a bed of roses to sprawl upon in his career. Just as pivotal as highs like the last Euros and leading Malmö in the UEFA Champions League were tribulations like the seven months without full pay at Plymouth Argyle before his release by club administrators in 2011, while even last year’s Cypriot stint at Omonia was a situation he had to grapple hard to get out of.
For someone who readily admits that he has been routinely written off because of his age in recent years, getting to take the field before astronomical worldwide audiences in this World Cup must bring especially sweet satisfaction. All the more so when you factor in his exile from the national team picture in his mid-to-late-20s after a disagreement with previous coach Ólafur Jóhannesson.
The arrival of Lars Lagerbäck as coach in 2011 (with current number one Heimir Hallgrímsson his assistant and then co-manager) signalled a new dawn for Kári, as he was restored to selection, getting on board as Icelandic football was hauled into new standards of professionalism. Since the team’s success, international media have learned of the introduction of chartered flights for the team (at Lagerbäck’s insistence), as well as how there are now 150 outdoor fields with underground heating and several indoor football halls around Iceland, with every coach who works with players, no matter how young, required to have top-level qualifications.
Iceland’s players have said themselves that the hike in standards gave them a huge boost, which recent history shows they have yet to come down from. We all saw the resplendent wedge of Nordic wonderland served up when their anthem filled the Euro 2016 scene, and the resulting fascination with the team and indeed the country in general has been far-reaching to say the least.
With the praise, and the media references to volcanic eruptions, Viking warriors and more still flowing two years later, it remains staggering to Kári and his compatriots at just how emphatically fortunes have changed. Hallgrímsson gave his blessing for the team to play golf as they prepared for their huge clash away to Turkey back in October. The result of that decision? Three rounds in five days…oh, and a 3-0 win in Eskişehir.
Kári illustrates how structure and rules from management have been balanced perfectly with trust and flexibility in recent times.
“It’s become very professional, but at the same time there’s freedom here that I don’t think a lot of national teams get. We’re allowed to roam the city as we please between set times within our schedule.
“Like for example now, I’m allowed to go and do whatever I want until 6:30 when we’ve got dinner, but you have to make sure that you get here for 6:30. So it’s relaxed enough for everyone to just enjoy it and be relaxed, whereas back in the day, you were just locked in a hotel and it wasn’t as enjoyable as it is now.
“At the same time, it’s become more professional; professionalism isn’t about locking yourself in a hotel and trying to focus on a game for a week. I don’t think any club team would do that.
“We try to keep it as relaxed as possible, but at the same time, when we’re working we do it properly. The day before a game, we normally just stay in the hotel and play cards and focus on the game.”
That seems to encapsulate why it has all ended up working so fluidly for Iceland and undoubtedly too why so many now admire them – the foundations make perfect sense, but they do things in a way that nobody else could authentically replicate. Like that record store you loved growing up, they serve their purpose whilst managing to capture the camaraderie and community lost in so many parts of modern football (and so too in music-buying’s digital age).
The players bring articulate conversation, but refreshingly devoid of the heavily-diluted nature of interviews that fill so much of the space today. Although understandable that clubs and federations want to protect their brand image, for fans and media alike, it can mean the beauty of delving into the game’s characters is somewhat lost. Head coach Hallgrímsson’s ritual of meeting Iceland supporters in a bar to announce his team and tactics before a game – information which, to this day, apparently never gets leaked – is a reminder that there are coves of cool in a present-day football world seemingly floating ever further downstream from its core values.
The record store 12 Tonar, in Reykjavík, would regularly bring renowned Icelandic artists like Sigur Ros and Björk together, and also doubled as a record label for homegrown talent. There are some examples of bona fide musical ability in football, though singing initiations when players join a new team might not always showcase it!
As Kári said in the first half of the interview, Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’ is his go-to song of choice when the spotlight falls on him. Thinking back over the performances he has had a watching brief for, have any teammates stood out at all?
“Yeah, there’s a boy for Iceland, Jón Daði Böðvarsson – he’s a shy boy and he was incredibly bad! Another one, Viðar Örn Kjartansson – plays for Maccabi Tel Aviv – when he first came he thought he was the bollocks!
“He can sing, but he thought he was a little bit better than he was.”
Iceland are the consummate example of a team being greater than the sum of its parts, though they undoubtedly possess an ace in the pack. Continuing on the record store theme, Gylfi Sigurðsson is that rare jazz record that will cost you a fair bit more, as Everton found last summer.
Kári highlighted the wand-footed midfielder without even having to name him, as he put further meat on the bones of what makes it so enjoyable and workable to be around the national team nowadays.
“I think the difference here is you feel like everyone’s best mates with everyone. We’ve all played together for a long time, and we’re very open for the young boys coming in to just go straight into the group and don’t feel like outsiders.
“There’s no ‘big time’ like you get at some clubs, and I can only imagine for international teams. We all know who the big star is, but he doesn’t act big time at all, and he’s just a part of the group.
“Everyone makes fun of him, like everyone else. He’s just a normal guy who we’ve known for a long time and he doesn’t get any special treatment.
“I think that’s a big reason why we play well together and enjoy each other’s company.”
Their coach points out that Iceland as a nation are ‘too few to have an army’ and so the team is their army. Many of the current crop were together in the Under-21 side that contested the 2011 European Championship in Denmark and the players going on holiday together would appear to suggest it really is quite the bond they share.
After a Euro 2016 qualifying campaign which included a double over the Netherlands on their way to second place in the group, they topped an arguably even more unforgiving section to make their second major tournament. Kári had a helping hand in the first of their dramatic victories, rising to head home the first equaliser as Finland were ultimately put away 3-2 at Laugardalsvöllur in Reykjavík courtesy of two goals in stoppage time.
As well as the Finns and Kosovo, Iceland finished above Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey, with Kári claiming the third away to the latter in their penultimate match to set the table for an unforgettable home clincher with Kosovo. Having faced them and agonisingly lost to them in their 2014 World Cup play-off, Croatia will be familiar foes in the Rostov Arena in game three this month. Zlatko Dalić’s team are strong on set-pieces and physically imposing, but they can play – sound familiar?!
Following their earth-shaker of a debut, this is effectively the Icelandic lot’s follow-up album. Second albums tend to bring a unique pressure, but Kári has seen more than enough encouraging evolution since the departure of Lars Lagerbäck.
“Yeah, I mean with Heimir taking over, Lars and Heimir were together before and they put the foundation in place and did amazing with the team. Now, we’ve become a little bit more flexible, I would say; we can play more than one system and we can adapt to different teams that we play.
“I think we’ve built on the foundation and tried to evolve as a team, so I’d say that is the key difference in what we’ve done after Lars left.”
Set to take his club football home after 17 years to play for former club Víkingur in the Icelandic capital after the World Cup, Kári said in part one how he will maintain an open mind on what else may be waiting around the corner. Recently leaving Aberdeen after a second stint with the Scots, all attention is now on Russia.
Calm confidence is what we have come to associate with his national team, though he admits there was collective edginess in the early throes of their Euro 2016 run. At 35, he intends to savour all that comes from being part of this World Cup – from match action to media commitments.
“Definitely. There was a bit of nerves playing a part in the Euros; no one wanted to be the scapegoat for Iceland not doing well and I think you could see that in some of the early games in the tournament.
“So, there was a lot of nerves that played its part, but now it’s like we’ve gained the experience. We’re always the underdog, so no one’s expecting us to win all the games, and so we can go into the tournament with a little bit more ease and knowing how good we are on our day.
“To do that you need to be more relaxed and embrace it.”
Fleet-footed attackers aside, something he now knows to be on his guard for are eyebrow-raising sentiments accompanying his name. In the aftermath of Iceland’s last-16 win over England in Nice two years ago, he felt inclined to respond when a quote supposedly from him went viral on social media.
With so many assuming it to be genuine, Kári set the record straight, but as an adopted Brit himself, he admits he did find it amusing.
“Yeah, well you can get absolutely caned for stuff like that on Twitter, so I thought I’d just make it clear that I never said that. It was funny, though, just to rub it in a bit!
“I thought I’d just make it clear that they didn’t act like that, and if they would have, it would have been remarkable, I’d say.”
More of the same from their tournament debut would not go amiss this time, though. Arnór Ingvi Traustason’s 94th-minute breakaway goal to sink Austria in the group finale, with 68,714 at the Stade de France – well, the vibrations can still be felt from that one they say.
As for Kári, he classes reaching this World Cup as his biggest achievement, and he took a moment to reflect on all it has taken to lead him here.
“Well, it’s taught me a lot about myself. How you deal with disappointment, and also when you’re high-flying, try to keep your feet on the ground.
“I mean we’ve been praised a lot in Iceland, and it’s easy to get ahead of yourself. I think the disappointment parts, and not getting recognised for what you think are your strong attributes, and being the underdog all the time, being underrated, it teaches you a lot about yourself and how you deal with just everything in life.
“I think going to England has taught me most of all to not take yourself seriously, in any shape or form. Just get on with things; don’t moan about little shitty stuff that doesn’t matter at all.
“Just try to enjoy it and have a bit of banter. If it’s an absolute shambles you can always just joke about it and that’s a lot better than moaning about it all the time.”
There was a certain irony in the fact that the man who outjumped Wayne Rooney with ease in Nice to set up Ragnar Sigurðsson’s equaliser had been both down and back up the English pyramid with Plymouth and Rotherham in years previous. It was the same number 14 who came up with impeccable timing to take a chance off Jamie Vardy’s head as minutes ebbed away from England on the most famous of Nordic nights.
Like Kári’s league and cup titles in Sweden (at Djurgården and Malmö), his Wembley play-off euphoria for Rotherham, the U.S. college years, Denmark, an occasional thunderbolt of a strike, and more, his part in a golden time for his country will live forever. It doesn’t matter how often it gets said, it’s a fairytale built on first-class foundations. A cunning combination of humility and huge self-belief, managing to thrive in a cynical footballing kingdom.
History was made from the hillside headquarters of Annecy in 2016 and it is Gelndzhik, a seaside resort by the Black Sea, for the sequel. After his assists and crucial defending, Kári just needs a goal of his own this time!
But of course, it always comes back to the team, and in this case at least, we can be sure that is more than merely a handy soundbite. So that is where this one ends, as Kári gets thrown the regular final question of which four teammates from his career he would probably pick to be on his team for a quick 5-a-side clash.
There is no emphasis on all-out ability, so it is down to the interviewee as to why they choose each player. Over to Kári to close this one out.
“I would have to put Lee Molyneux (full-back/winger and Plymouth teammate) and Ben Pringle (midfielder and Rotherham teammate) in there for the banter…and for drinks after. I’m gonna have to put my partner in the Icelandic defence (Ragnar Sigurðsson) in there for a bit of stability, and for the same reason again, for the banter.
“The fourth one, I’ll go for another defender, Sölvi Geir Ottesen. He used to play for Iceland; he now plays for Víkingur.
“Actually, I’ll change that for Matt Derbyshire – I need a striker in there.”
To catch each of these interviews, you can follow me: @chris_brookes
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