Featured in Glory Magazine, a new football journal documenting football, culture and travel across the globe.
“He’s good, but can he do it on a wet Wednesday night in Stoke?” English football’s acid test of foreign fancy-Dannery has become one of the sport’s greatest clichés – particularly since the meat-and-potatoes style of the Tony Pulis era gave way to Mark Hughes’ current Eurocentric football paella. Stoke’s Britannia Stadium remains a ground where the elements supply the 12th man as often as the crowd – as in November 2013, when an obliging gust of wind carried Asmir Begovic’s clearance a record 91.9 metres into the back of the Southampton net. However, those in search of a new staple proving ground for world football’s most cosseted stars need look no further than the Faroe Islands.
Faroe Islanders refer to their homeland as “the playground of the weather gods”, and with good reason. This remote island community is buffeted by strong winds and lashed with rain throughout the year, but the climate is both unpredictable and highly changeable. Hold out both hands in the capital of Tórshavn and you might feel snow falling on one palm and rain soaking the other. Squalls roll in off the Norwegian Sea only to blow away again just as quickly, giving way to bright and startling sunshine. High winds whip up and die down, swirl around the islands’ peaks and change direction seemingly at random. The country’s FA realised that artificial pitches were the only way to guarantee a consistent playing surface in such capricious conditions, and spearheaded a switch from grass to Astroturf in the 1980s. Those complaining about the conditions at the Britannia, quite frankly, don’t know they’re born.
The Faroe Islands largely escaped the notice of humanity until the Vikings landed here in the 9th century. Then as now, the islands resembled a handful of rocks scattered haphazardly in the ocean between Scotland and Iceland. Long before the first human settlers arrived, the Faroes were home to vast colonies of seabirds and hardy sheep scratching out a living on the islands’ craggy hills and sheer cliffs. Today, wildlife continues to play an important role in the lives of many islanders. Puffin and whale meat occasionally make an appearance at the dinner table, and the Faroes’ sometimes controversial relationship with whaling is well documented. The islanders are mostly descendants of Irish and Scandinavian settlers, and primarily use their own language, Faroese, which is influenced by Danish and Icelandic. The population is spread between a series of small towns and villages dotted around the coast.
Tórshavn is the largest of these, and the islands’ capital. A harbour town on the largest island of Streymoy, Tórshavn is a beautiful warren of rough, varicoloured Scandinavian homes and narrow streets, often dusted with snow during the winter months. Three of the Faroes’ most successful clubs are based here: B36, HB Tórshavn and Argja Bóltfelag – as is the national team’s 6,000-seater Tórsvøllur stadium. The likes of Mesut Özil, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Filippo Inzaghi and Thierry Henry have all played – and scored – here.
The Faroes’ permanent population is fewer than 50,000 people, and yet they maintain a four-tier league pyramid populated by some 40 clubs. There are also two women’s leagues, two veterans’ leagues and five youth leagues. It seems as though every able-bodied islander between the ages of five and 95 plays some kind of football. There has been a Faroe Islands football league since 1942, and a Faroe Islands national team since 1979. The archipelago’s oldest club – Tvøroyrar Bóltfelag – was founded in 1892, and today the island nation has no fewer than five football schools to its name. To say that the beautiful game is important to Faroe Islanders would be a gross understatement.
As well as their dramatic climate, the 18 islands of the Faroe archipelago are renowned for their spectacular natural beauty. Volcanic action has thrust the Faroes skywards in a series of snowcapped peaks, craggy outcrops and sheer cliffs. Waterfalls tumble to the windwhipped ocean below, and lonely roads snake through deserted mountain passes. It’s an impossibly romantic landscape, with an edge-of-the-world feel familiar to any visitor of far-flung lands. The islands’ geography is an inescapable part of Faroese football, too. Put a little too much mustard on a cross at EB’s old Eiði stadium (see left) and the ballboy might have to retrieve the match ball from the Norwegian Sea. Elsewhere, matches are played in the shadow of great cliffs, or in reach of salt spray blown in off the frigid ocean. Many grounds lack seats – let alone terraces and awnings – so fans brave the elements on their feet. Older Faroe Islanders can remember a time when matches were played on sand, rather than artificial turf.
It takes something of the frontier spirit to even visit this remote European outpost, let alone live here. 200 miles separate the Faroes from Great Britain, and 280 from Iceland. Denmark – the archipelago’s sovereign state – is 620 miles distant. And yet the Faroe Island Premier League (currently the Effodeildin) continues to attract nomadic players from all over the world. Last year, 25 foreigners turned out to represent Faroese clubs. Some of these are journeymen in search of regular minutes, others unproven youngsters looking for a way into a bigger league. A surprising number, however, are veterans who came to the Faroe Islands as much younger men and simply decided to stay.
The Effodeildin may not offer the salaries and global prestige of the Premier League and La Liga, but there are no shortage of reasons why foreign footballers choose to live and play in Europe’s remotest league. Some of the younger players see it as a footballing equivalent of a gap year. While their friends are Interrailing around Europe and backpacking in Southeast Asia, they’re experiencing life in a nation few ever get the chance to visit. There are student-style digs in Tórshavn and Eiði home to groups of young players from all over the world.
“I had a great time there, both on and off the field” says Ghanaian footballer David Asare of his time at FC Suðuroy. “The people loved me. They showed love to anyone who comes there to play. I still have a great relationship with the club”. Those who decide to stay are charmed by the Faroes’ pace of life, natural beauty and low crime rate. They talk about the peace and quiet, and leaving their doors unlocked when they leave the house. They gesture to the landscape, as if it speaks for itself. It does.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that a nation as small as the Faroe Islands would be a San Marino-esque international football whipping boy. Seeing the islands’ football resources first hand only helps to cement that opinion. There have, of course, been a few nights to forget over the years – 7-0 and 8-1 defeats to Yugoslavia in the early ‘90s, back-to-back 6-0 maulings by Georgia and Scotland in 2006 and a defeat by Austria to the same scoreline in 2013, to name but a few – but the cricket scores are growing less frequent. The Faroes are now able to restrict their opponents to fewer goals, and increasingly often, score one or two of their own. In 2014 the national team put four past lowly Gibraltar to record a resounding away victory, and last year they chalked up unprecedented home and away wins over former European champions Greece. These heroic achievements have earned the Faroes their highest ever FIFA ranking of 94th in the world, ahead of such comparative heavyweights as Thailand, Cuba and Kenya. Faroe Island football is riding an exciting upward curve.
Visitors are drawn here by the Faroes’ unique bird life, their excellent hiking and the chance for a taste of remote, selfsufficient island life. Whale watching trips are available from the picturesque harbour towns, as are fly fishing expeditions to the islands’ stunning lakes and rivers. There’s a burgeoning arts movement, and even an LGBT festival every summer.
The Faroe Islands, however, face a problem familiar to isolated communities all over the world. Islanders are increasingly being lured away by the promise of the mainland, where jobs and opportunities are greater than they can find back home. The same is true of the islands’ most talented footballers. Gunnar Nielsen, the closest the Faroes have to a household name, played for Manchester City and Motherwell over the course of a nomadic career that eventually took him to Icelandic side Stjarnan. Of the 11 players who started the Faroes’ last match (a 3-0 home defeat against Romania), only three play league football in their homeland. Most play in Denmark, where the clubs are richer and the crowds larger.
It’s safe to say, however, that the Faroe Islands will never be found wanting for players or fans of the beautiful game. Here football is as much a part of everyday life as the wind and the waves, with goalposts painted on the sides of houses and a full-size pitch in almost every town. Premier League teams let local children and other amateurs use their pitches between games, while the players themselves – whether exotic foreign imports or homegrown local boys – are essential members of the community with day jobs as carpenters, bakers, fishermen and shop workers. The isolated Faroe Islands are home to one of the world’s most unique and ingrained football cultures, and long may they remain so.