The sight of Sif Atladóttir cannoning long throws at one end before racing to halt the opposition at the other for Iceland in Euro 2017 would easily convince most that she had enjoyed years of uninterrupted top-level competition. In reality, the unflinching, athletic defender had completed an arduous climb to even be there this summer, though the rhythm driving the mother-of-one and eternal locker-room hotstepper is only gathering pace now.
One slick Dagný Brynjarsdóttir pass wrapped around the Swiss backline and a bobbling, goal-bound left-footer from Fanndís Friðriksdóttir had spelled lift-off for Iceland’s Euros campaign in July. Game two of the group would turn quickly in Doetinchem, though, as Switzerland struck either side of the half, leaving those in blue scrambling to save their life in the tournament.
Even with the minutes ebbing away, hope continued to beat around the home of Dutch second-tier side De Graafschap, with the De Vijverberg stands streaming with Icelandic colours and entire families from the island dressed in unison for the occasion. Iceland’s number two, Sif Atladóttir, continued to rush upfield to fire her long throw-ins, kissing the ball for luck each time as if it were perhaps more like a spot kick.
An attempt trickled excruciatingly wide, a seemingly sure-fire penalty for handball was never given, and neither a soaring header nor a lucky deflection found its way over the line, no matter how hard the vociferous Nordic hordes amongst the 5,647 wished for it. If ever there was a time to fall into the comforting arms of the bigger picture, however, this was it.
Perhaps appreciating her country’s exceptional support that little bit more than an unmistakeably grateful and proud bunch of players beside her, if that was at all possible, was Sif. She had seen game time at the tournament as a youngster in 2009 and was altogether more integral as they sailed the uncharted waters of the knockout round in 2013, but between that quarter-final showing in Sweden and tournament number three this year in the Netherlands, the player who once used to sting opposing defences as a forward had become a bona fide nurturer.
Together with her husband, Björn Sigurbjörnsson, assistant coach at her club team Kristianstad in Sweden, she welcomed her firstborn daughter, Sólveig, in April 2015. With that untouchably golden experience safely sealed away, Sif explains the circumstances surrounding her subsequent comeback quest, with an unsteady bridge that would thankfully take her all the way back to competing on the field.
“I had in the back of my mind that I wanted to play after I gave birth to her. I ended up having to have a c-section after 40 hours of labour; everything went well and she was doing really good through it all.
“Because I had a c-section, I wasn’t allowed to do anything more than walking the first eight weeks after birth, so after eight weeks I started working out again. I had Sólveig in April and I played my first game at the end of August, when I came in against FC Rosengård; I think I played 15 minutes and was so tired after.
“The biggest challenge was not being able to do stuff that was so easy before I was pregnant, like sprinting and quick movement, but luckily, I got my own personal trainer, Kristín Hólm, who was interning at our club and working under my coach, Beta (Elísabet Gunnarsdóttir), and our fitness trainer Orri (Sigurðsson). She helped me find my confidence back in the gym; I think she will do great things in the world of sports one day.”
While her return to marshalling the rearguard at top-tier Kristianstad was managed within an extremely admirable four-month timeframe, Sif went from a June 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying draw in Denmark to a home Euro qualifying win over Macedonia in June 2016 without seeing action for the national team.
That returning appearance was in an 8-0 success at the national stadium, Laugardalsvöllur, and she played the whole match as the ‘dóttirs’ took another step toward qualification. Sif’s strong running ability, which has been a major attribute since she first began playing, was cranked to its absolute maximum as Iceland went all out for an equaliser in that aforementioned Swiss clash in the Netherlands two months ago.
It is something she has become known for amongst those who’ve played with her, although it felt more a case of ‘trying to get out of the garage’ than ‘firing on all cylinders’ for a good while after her comeback began.
“It took me almost a year to gain my explosiveness back and that was a difficult time; it took a lot of hard work. Before I gave birth, I was injured in my pelvis and hip, but I think the pregnancy and how I built up my body after the birth has just made me stronger.
“The body got the rest that it needed when I was pregnant and then I could build it back up again when I was ready. So I think I just feel stronger and more confident in my body today.”
The Icelandic team is led by an intense competitor in midfield captain Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir but there are role models all around the group, especially with the likes of striker and mother-of-two, Harpa Þorsteinsdóttir, and Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir, the team’s all-time top scorer who had the Euros taken from her via ACL agony. Then there is Sif, with whom there are no half measures and no opportunities to be lax, which was abundantly clear to see with her superb fitness levels on the field this summer.
Currently undertaking Public Health studies, she gives a vivid insight into her personal intensity and the support system that helps her to push for better in all areas of her life.
“I try to always be in a good physical shape; I’m not the best technical player so I’m really focused when it comes to my physical shape. I don’t have to be the best technically but I want to be the best physically.
“In the gym and in practice, I really try to push myself to be better than I was the day before, or in the last practice I did similar fitness. When I train, I train like I’m playing a game; I give 100 percent in to every practice and sometimes that is a fault.
“When we qualified for the Euros, I wasn’t a starter for the national team and I knew I had to work twice as hard as anyone else to be able to earn my spot; the team had done really well and the defence had been solid. I put up a goal in my head in the off-season and worked towards the January camp; we were going to be physically tested and I wanted to come out on top.
“I did pretty good in the test but I knew that I had to have something extra I could bring to earn my spot. My coaches in Kristianstad are good at their job and I knew I would be in top form for Damallsvenskan and that my performance would help me with the national team.
“When I train, I do it 100 percent because I don’t have time to half-ass it. I’m a mom to a two-year-old, I’m a full-time student and I sometimes work as a personal trainer, so when I train, I do it to the fullest.
“If I say that I sacrificed anything, I have to say time with my family. I’m so lucky that I’m able to work with my husband, so we are pretty much on the same schedule, but it takes a lot of planning and teamwork.
“We work well together and we support each other to the fullest, so it works pretty well. I definitely won the jackpot when it comes to finding a partner in life.
“Being an athlete is hard, it is a 24/7 job; you need to think about yourself all the time, when and what you eat, sleep, rest and so on. Every practice I try to push myself to be better; if I ran on a specific time last week I can do a second better next week.
“I will be able with that second to run back on the 94th minute of a game. If I get that bar up with just 0.5kg more, I am able to jump higher on the pitch.
“Everything you do is hard, it’s just how you are going to use it that’s going to push you to do better. That is how I see it, at least.”
Despite not quite repeating the feat of 2013 this time around, Iceland were still the ones responsible for more than their share of Euro 2017’s sights and sounds. The send-off they received from their national public at the airport as they left for the Netherlands was beamed around social media, while the tournament promo video with Icelandair similarly resonated with people from many different nations.
The shudder of that famous Viking/thunder clap – or ‘Víkinga klappið’ as it’s known in Iceland – also needs no real introduction by now. The synchronised clap between fans and team was a staple at these Euros, as it had been for the men’s tournament in 2016, memorably driving Sif and her team on as they went toe-to-toe with a French outfit who only beat them over a disputed penalty in the 86th minute.
The sheer feeling of support and belonging behind that routine and its thumping noise also picked them up again just minutes after defeat had taken the wind out of their sails. A central theme of this site and both parts to this interview with Sif is a world of sound, and music is always there when she wants to feel the warmth of a powerful connection.
“Music helps me a lot, both as an athlete and in life outside of sports. Certain songs have deeper meaning than others because I have listened to them in a specific time in my life and I have connected the songs to what I have been going through.
“I think music can express something you yourself maybe have difficulty putting into words, and by connecting with a song or album, it can help in so many ways. I use music to motivate me both for the gym and for games.
“Specific songs can always sit well before going out to play or when I’m doing Olympic weightlifting and just getting the bar up. Music can make you do something a little extra if you have the right tunes.”
The physical intensity with which Iceland competed in the Netherlands was of course down to sustained individual and collective work, dedication and sacrifice. With that in mind, seeing each of the team’s players carrying Domino’s Pizza boxes as they stopped to speak to multi-national media in the mixed zone after those games brought a certain everyday relatability back to it all!
Coming after such unsatisfying outcomes to the battles they had out on the pitch during the group phase, they served as welcome pick-me-ups to the players, as well as replenishment, although Sif wasn’t hanging around for long to check the contents!
“I think they ordered the usual favourites like ham and cheese, ham and mushroom, margherita, salami. I think I didn’t even see what was on; just grabbed a box and started eating!
“This was done so we could drive back to the hotel straight from the game, and so everyone was fed and could relax on the way. My topping on a pizza would be pineapple and ham.”
For both club and country, Sif is a hugely revered fibre within the team and its culture. She has spent the past six years at Kristianstad, who have twice finished as high as 5th in the Damallsvenskan during her time in Sweden.
Currently in 7th place after 15 games of this league season, the team from Northwestern Skåne were bolstered when American midfielder Becky Edwards, a former National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) player greatly appreciated in the game for her ability and understanding, joined them earlier this year. The 2008 FIFA Under-20 World Cup winner came out of retirement to play for the club and Sif explains how the 29-year-old has also been helping to fire the tempo up away from the midfield engine room.
“Becky and Amanda (Edgren) have been taking turns playing some tunes before practice, and then I sometimes get to push play on some great playlist I have found. I have a pretty good say in the music in the locker room, but I try to mix together songs that I know people appreciate and that gets them ready for games.
“Before practice, it depends which of the older players comes to the locker room first. I sometimes bust out some moves, otherwise I just sit and watch and enjoy the locker-room atmosphere.
“Seeing a bunch of people who have come together to play a football match is quite interesting, and how we differ in preparing for battle, but before, I would dance and get focused through that. Dancing makes me relax and release the stress, so I probably am more of a dancer than a sitter.”
Representing her hometown Hafnarfjördur, with the club FH in two spells as a teenager, Sif had a stint at Reykjavik-based KR in between (2004), before turning out for two more sides from the capital, in Throttur FC and Valur. The Icelandic influence at Kristianstad is pretty strong to say the least, with head coach Elísabet Gunnarsdóttir a former assistant with the women’s national team and a one-time boss of the Under-21s. Sif’s coach with the national team at present, Freyr Alexandersson, was actually Gunnarsdóttir’s assistant back at Valur once upon a time.
In football, it is not exactly commonplace nowadays for players to put down roots at a club and stick around for many years, so what has made Kristianstad a home for Sif and her young family?
“We like it in Kristianstad. Sólveig is in a really great pre-school, I’m studying in the university and playing, and my husband is coaching football.
“There is a lot of potential in our club. Those of us who have been in KDFF for some time have built the club up and want to see it grow from the potential it has to the great club we know it can be.
“The club is small and has a family atmosphere to it; people know one another and it has the potential to be big. Kristianstad is a small town and we like it; it’s not far from big cities, so it is easy to go somewhere if we want.”
A 23-year-old Sif had her debut on the major tournament stage as Iceland were narrowly beaten by German legend Inka Grings’ goal in the group stage of the Finnish-hosted Euro 2009. When the competition came around again, Iceland duly took their place, while Sif had become a lynchpin, partnering the veteran Katrín Jónsdóttir as they reached the quarter-finals, ultimately losing out against a buoyant host nation in Sweden.
As Sif, who practiced javelin and shot put in her track and field days, looks forward she can also reflect upon a proud decade with the national team and a very strong club career. Given the many seemingly premature retirements we have seen in the women’s game over the years and still see today, even with the game at its most widely-popular and rising, how easy or hard has it been for Sif to sustain her career over time?
“When I played in Iceland, I worked in a pre-school for two years. One year I worked as a janitor for the club I played at, and then of course worked in the football schools my clubs were having, so in Iceland I had a job.
“Now I’ve been in school and working now and then as a personal trainer, but mostly been able to focus on football. I hope the future will bring us professional women’s sport icons who will be able to focus on their sport, get paid and that they can save for the future.
“I think that is the hardest part; not being able to put money aside and build up a trust that you can fall back on if anything happens.”
Through the years, we are each handed highs, lows and situations that teach us something small or something much bigger about ourselves, others and what we can handle. There is an undoubted beauty in innocence and all of us could reminisce about a time when our hearts and minds perhaps weren’t so hardened by certain experiences, but in time we come to see it’s all just part of finding who we are and our place within this world.
If you can learn to grasp that balance between wonderment and wisdom, it can be one hell of a combination to carry with you in life. Sif, who had her birthday three days before she took to the field to take on France in July, seems to have just that, blending a drive and determination to get even better on the pitch with the curiosity to broaden her mind off it, as well as guiding her own little star each day as a mother.
If the Sif of back then could lean on the advice of the one who stands here today, what would she hear said to her?
“Be true to you and be confident in yourself. Don’t mind what others think and reach for the stars.”
What the throwback Sif and the present-day version would undoubtedly bond over is a love for some simple, fast-paced footballing fun. This has been a brilliantly enjoyable walk with a wonderful role model, a shining spirit, a devoted footballer, and we end with a chance for her to lose herself in the freedom of a fantasy 5-a-side scene.
In each interview on here for the past few years, the player has been handed this vision to conclude our conversation: a small-sided game in which they can select four of their current or former teammates to play alongside. With so many full-blooded competitors, intelligent technicians, and more so than that, significant people, to choose from, it is never an easy one to come up with an answer for.
Every player who is asked this question is told that the emphasis is not on deciding who they believe the outright best they have ever worked with to be, so this is much more about picking out a sample four who represent Sif’s favourite qualities in her peers.
Like she explained in part one, Sif loves the cultural mix that football brings to her, and so it fits perfectly that her team choice here goes from American, to German and Danish, before hitting an Icelandic-flavoured finish line.
“As a goalkeeper, I would pick Brett Maron, my current goalkeeper. She’s so good and she would let me play in goal if it means that she can play on top and score.
“As a defender, I would pick Ann-Katrin Schinkel, or ‘AnnKa’ as I call her. We played together in Saarbrücken, Germany and she’s one of the best players I have played with; she’s so much fun to be around.
“As a midfielder, I would pick Johanna Rasmussen. She’s a football genius and sees the plays before they are open.
“My forward would be Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir. A born goalscorer, and all of my picks are just fun personalities and I know we would have an awesome time together.”
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