EASTERN PROMISE: FJARDABYGGD
Words: Marc Boal
Fjardabyggd is Iceland's most Easterly municipality with some 4,700 inhabitants and has the largest population in East Iceland. Several mergers, from 1988 to 2006, have gradually unified the previous 13 municipalities which, today, make up Fjardabyggd. The local football team is a relatively new club, they were formed in 2001, and very much like the municipality, the small clubs in the area amalgamated to form a stronger club. The four clubs consisted of Valur Reydarfjordur, Throttur Neskaupstadur, Austri Eskifjordur and Sulan Stodvarfjordur to form Fjardabyggd as they are known today.
Their home ground is in the picturesque fishing town of Eskifjordur which has a population of just over 1,000. Fjardabyggd have had some degree of success in their short history; they have picked up the 2nd division title on two occasions, 2006 and 2014, and won a solitary 3rd division title in 2013, they also got their hands on the B Division League Cup in 2014 after defeating Leiknir Faskrudsfjordur 4-1 in the final goals from Fannar Arnason, Andri Jonasson, Brynar Jonasson and an own goal sealing their victory. Fjardabyggd also have a small team of hard working coaches who will improve the young kids development and they were recognised for their work in the community when they won the prestigious grassroots award in 2009 - presented by the Icelandic Football Association.
I met midfielder Hakon Ivar Olafsson at Reykjavik Airport (when I flew out to Egilsstadir); the club will actually fly players in from the capital to play games (early season) as most of them will still be studying in Reykjavik during the first 7 - 8 games of the season; they will train with one of the copious amount of clubs in Reykjavik, then move to Eskifjordur during the summer months, when the colleges are closed, to join the rest of the squad. Fjardabyggd have to rely on foreign imports to bolster the team, and, like many smaller clubs over the country, this can cause problems as many fans and sponsors want a home club of local players playing in the first team every week, but this is simply not a viable option, as I have found out, as there is just not enough players in some of the more sparsely populated villages and towns across the country.
I was welcomed to the club by General Manager, Bjarni Olafur Birkisson, Coach, Dragan Stojkovic, and two of the players, by the reception offices at the geothermal swimming pool which overlooks the quaint Eskjuvollur. The facilities at the swimming pool also double up as the Fjardabyggd changing rooms for training and matchday; this is a million miles away from the glitz and glamour of the top leagues around Europe. Every club has a story, and for me, I always like to hear the trials and tribulations of the minnows and how they manage to cope with the hardships of running a football club in isolated communities. Bjarni and Dragan gave me more of an insight about the club and the perils they have to endure over a season.
There are another 3 clubs in the Eastern area of Iceland, Hottur, Huginn and Leiknir Faskrudsfjordur. Bjarni explained, “Fjardabyggd Football Club has a budget of around £300,000 per season, out of that budget we currently spend over £100,000 just travelling to matches, however, we are lucky in a way, this year, as all 4 Eastern clubs are in the same division, so this will cut down on travel costs and we can use the money saved within other areas of the club's structure. The KSI (Icelandic Football Association) are negotiating with the Government to introduce the 'Scottish Scheme' reduced airfare costs for people in distant and rural areas, this would be a godsend to our club, but also benefit the community as a whole.”
As the interview went on it became apparent that having 4 major teams in the East of Iceland was financial suicide, for the clubs, as all of these teams have to fly for away matches, the vast distances rule out the cheaper option of travelling by bus, so the 4 clubs are shelling out something in the region of £500,000 per annum on flights. It would only make sense for the likes of Hottur/Huginn to amalgamate and a similar scenario with Fjardabyggd and Leiknir. Having 2 strong teams in the area would make sense, with the possibility of maybe forming a smaller club with squad overspill in the 4th Division. Bjarni puffs his chest out and shakes his head, "We have approached Leiknir Faskrudsfjordur on 3 occasions with a proposal for them amalgamating with Fjardabyggd, it only makes sense given both clubs don't have a huge pool of players, and if this was to go ahead a unified club would easily be able to compete in the Inkasso (First Division) and we could then push for promotion to the Urvalsdeild.
We have learned lessons over the past 10 years that playing in the Inkasso brings its own problems as we are playing clubs who have much bigger budgets than us and we find it very difficult to compete against clubs who can afford to buy better players." Trying to produce top quality players from such a small catchment area is also another demanding aspect the club has to deal with, Bjarni explains, “More and more of the youth players, that we put through their development from an early age, hit 16 and they then move to Reykjavik to go to college or university, this has been even more prevalent over the past few years, and we really do struggle at times to fill the void.” There are plenty of football agencies, these days, that clubs can get players from; Bjarni went on to say “Yes, we have used agencies in the past, we have to pay the agencies a fee to get players, but we are a very small club and we have to be extremely careful with money as every pound has to be used wisely. We will often use family connections from players, past and present, around the country to convince players to sign for us, our Coach, Dragan, also has good contacts and connections in his homeland of Serbia which is also very helpful.”
Fjardabyggd will arrange part-time jobs, for their contingent of foreign players, to coincide with training and matches. Bjarni went on to explain, “Some of the players are employed part-time by the club; they will cut the grass and line the pitc and will be required to do any general maintenance at the ground. We will also get other players jobs working for the Fjardabyggd council, while they are under contract with the club, the jobs will be menial like looking after park gardens around the town, or being a stand in apprentice for skilled workers.” One thing I noticed after arriving is that Eskifjordur is a closely knit town and the friendly locals will go out of their way to help you in any way they can. On my first night, of my 3 day stay, I ventured down to the delightful, one and only, pub in the town (Kaffihusid) for a refreshing Gull beer. I explaine to the owners, Sigga and Volli, I was here to write a feature story about their local football club and this proceeded to start a long conversation about their love of the town and the football team, Sigga told me, “We all want to see the youngsters at the club do well; and our foreign players too - when they leave to go back home we want them to have happy memories of our beautiful town.” Like all the remote communities I have visited, most business' will always give support to the clubs in any way they can. Sigga and Volli will provide the foreign players with an appetizing meal, once a day, in their restaurant. At closing time they gave me a lift back to my accommodation and a can of Gull beer! Versatile defender Johan Ragnar Benediktsson, who had spells at Grindavik and Keflavik, has spent 12 seasons at Fjardabyggd and is now in his second year on the club's board. He shares the same sentiment as Bjarni, "It's vital that the clubs in the East amalgamate to make stronger teams, many oppose the idea, but it's the only way forward for clubs as we can produce a squad of mainly Icelandic talent and bring in only 2-3 foreign players to give us more depth." I ask Johann what has been the highlight of his career at the club. "When we won promotion to the Inkasso is high on the list, we finished in our highest ever position in the Inkasso in 2009 (4th position) I was playing in midfield at the time and bagged 10 goals that season."
Regulations on ground stadia, set by the KSI, state that teams playing in the top two divisions in Iceland require a minimum capacity of fixed seating. Eskjuvollur now has a 320 uncovered seating area at their ground, the costs of the stadia construction were split three ways between the KSI, Fjardabyggd Council and the club. Work on the stadium facilities was completed in early 2017. A home match at Eskjuvollur will attract around 200-250 fans, almost quarter of the towns population, however, if its a match of significant importance the attendance will swell to around 400. The ground is perched at the bottom of the sprawling Mount Holmatindur which soars over 3,200 feet into the skyline, there is almost a feeling that Mt. Holmatindur has the appearance of a huge troll that sits and watches over the town. The panoramic views which this ground has to offer are simply stunning, it is surrounded by mountainous, undulating plains of rock, there is even a waterfall mid-way up the mountain ravine behind the main stand. Large netting was scattered all over the pitch to allow the grass to grow quicker, in areas that needed it most, after the savage beating the pitch had taken during one of the worst winters that Iceland had endured in the past couple of decades. My plan was to get the cover photo for this year's magazine in Eskifjordur, but one thing I hadn't taken into consideration was the low lying fog that seemed to blanket the town for almost the three days I was visiting. There were some intermittent breaks on my last night so I got the camera out to try and get the shot I was looking for, and when the fog began to disperse, Mt. Holmatindur took on the look like it was some apocalyptic smouldering masse from a Hollywood Sci-fi blockbuster.
Coach Dragan Stojanovic, is only one of a handful of coaches in the country that has a UEFA Pro licence badge. He has managed at Thor Akureyri, KF and Volsungur over his 20 year career in Iceland. He is in the process of trying to build a strong squad and make a push for promotion in the next year or two. Dragan is a very intelligent coach and knows how to get the best out of his squad. "We have a very young team but we must also work on the physical aspects of the game, I also prefer to work with the diamond formation which is easy for the players to adapt to given the way we play our game. I'm here for the foreseeable future and my primary aim, this year, is to get the club moving up the league table, I would be happy with 4th or 5th position given how strong the other teams are."
Fresh faced youngster, midfielder, Nikola Kristinn Stojanovic had a weeks trial with Partizan Belgrade and also had training sessions with the Iceland Under 17's and 18's groups. He made his debut for Fjardabyggd last season against league champions Njardvik, he told me, “I was thrown in at the deep end as we took a bit of a beating in that particular match, but on the other hand it was great to finally breakthrough into the first team; my ambition is to sign for a club in the Pepsideild or go and play abroad.” I spoke to Nikola on a few occasions during my visit, the lad has a deep love for football in general and was bursting with enthusiasm, he has all the attributes to further his career and fulfill his dreams. Serbian goalkeeper, Milos Peric, is now in his second season at the club and has raised a few eyebrows with some excellent displays between the sticks. He was playing in the Premier League in Serbia, and received a call from Dragan about the prospect of rekindling his career in Iceland. Milos went on to say “It was a no brainer for me, I was delighted to come and play in Iceland, it's a much better lifestyle over here and everything is so laid back. My contract runs from April to September, so it's also nice to go back home during the winter so I can see my family and friends.”
Dragan also went on to tell me about his relationship with Bjarni, and the other board members, "Its an absolute pleasure to be working alongside Bjarni, if there is anything that I require for the team, from buying new equipment to signing players, Bjarni will always listen to what I have to say and on every occasion he delivers the goods, which I appreciate very much as I know we are working on a very tight budget."
There has been a few players from the town that have went on to have professional careers abroad; midfielder Eggert Jonsson spent 6 years at Scottish club Hearts making 134 appearances, scoring 8 goals, before embarking on spells in Portugal, Denmark and England. Eggert won 19 caps for his country. Defensive midfielder Stefan Gislason played for a host of Scandinavian clubs including Brondby. Stefan also represented his country on 26 occasions between 2002-2009. He moved into a managerial role at 1st Division side Haukar in 2017. His older brother Valur Gislason had a short spell in England with Arsenal, Brighton and Leeds but failed to make the breakthrough into 1st team football; he played for Norwegian side Stromsgodset before returning back to his homeland to play for Reykjavik side Fylkir where he made 148 appearances for the club scoring 15 goals. Valur also won an Icelandic Cup medal in 2002 with Fylkir, he bagged the first goal of the final as they dismantled the much fancied Fram at the National stadium Laugardalsvollur 3-1. Scottish defender David Hannah, who made his name at Dundee United and Celtic, went on to finish his career in Iceland, had spells with Grindavik and Fylkir before spending a short period at Fjardabyggd in a player/manager role in 2008.
After my interviews with the officials, I had some free time to take a look around the rugged wonders of Eskifjordur, but the weather was closing in... Bjarni kindly invited me to join the players for their pre-match meal at the town hall, Valholl, which is located in the heart of Eskifjordur. I had a good chat with the ever smiling, assistant coach, Thordur Vilberg Gudmundsson, about the club's progression over the years, as we tucked into a plate of steaming hot carbonara and fresh bread, it was obvious after speaking to him that Fjardabyggd are aiming high, but they are under no illusions whatsoever about how difficult a task it's going to be as there are some very good teams in the 2nd division. I would be taking in the local Derby match against rivals Leiknir Faskrudsfjordur to see who would come out on top and have the bragging rights until the clubs met again in the second half of the season. Pitches all over Iceland have been brutalised by heavy snowfalls, and wind, during winter and spring. There was even snow storms, across the country, the week before I had arrived - in May! The pitch in Eskifjordur wouldn't be playable for another few weeks so it was looking that the match would be played indoors at the home ground of Leiknir, who would have the majority of spectators cheering them on, however, Fjardabyggd decided to switch the match to the artificial surface at the most Easterly town in the country (Neskaupstadur) in order to not to give Leiknir any advantage. A dense plumage of mist started to roll up the fjord and immersed itself over Eskifjordur, giving the town an eerie appearance as we set off for the match. We would be travelling through the Nordfjardargong tunnel that connects Eskifjordur to Neskaupstadur: the 5 mile tunnel is cut through the basalt rock mountainside.
We made our way to the clubhouse which gives fantastic panoramic views around the fjord. The General Manager's work is never done, even on a matchday, in this part of the world - Bjarni was off as soon as we arrived to get coffee and milk from the local store for the officials. I went down to the pitch to get some photos before the teams came out to warm up, a 5 year old kid was busy blasting a ball into the empty goal from a few yards out, he had a huge smile on his face when I showed him a photo I took of him scoring a goal, "I'm "Messi" was his reply.
I ventured back up the steep, zig-zag, path embankment which leads from the pitch to the clubhouse (for a coffee to warm my bones as the temperature started to plummet) and by this point Bjarni and one of the officials were setting up tannoy speakers on to tripods - 5 minutes later the music started to echo around the snow capped fjord. The unique surroundings epitomised the true nature of Icelandic football: the brightly coloured rooftops which are prevalent all over Iceland; massive avalanche constructions, that protect the townsfolk from dangers lurking high above them, were situated a few hundred yards from the pitch; enormous chiselled mountains (that resemble the teeth of, Pogues front man, Shane MacGowan!) The only way to describe this setting is 'Football Porn' and over the years I really have embraced watching the lower league games. Fans started to arrive and claim their seating positions on sections of the grassy outcrop which overlooks the pitch, many of the supporters were sharing blankets to shield them from the elements, other fans would watch the match from the warmth and comfort of their cars at the side of the road at the highest vantage point. Two of the Fjardabyggd youth players had bankcard readers in hand as they wandered around the ground collecting the 1,500 Kronur (£10) entrance fee from the small clusters of fans dotted around the grass embankment, even the fans watching from cars rolled down the windows and paid for their tickets. This is what football is all about, I would take this any day of the week rather than be ripped off from a Premiership club charging excessive ticket prices. Here you feel as if you are part of the club; officials from both teams would freely mingle with the fans, thanking them for showing their support. The game started at a frantic pace, as most derby matches do, as both clubs tried to get an early foothold in the midfield area of the pitch. Leiknir went close to scoring, on 15 minutes, after some good link-up play on the left wing put one of their forwards through on goal, but his miss-timed shot went high over the bar as Fjardabyggd goalkeeper Milos Peric narrowed the angle. Leiknir had another couple of half chances before the break that failed to trouble Peric. The match was turning into a midfield battle for dominance. Fjardabyggd were starting to turn the screw, with a succession of corners, however, the Leiknir defence controlled any aerial threats from the Fjardabyggd forwards, loose passing seemed to become the order of the day as both sides struggled to put 4-5 passes together as the match became very scrappy, the game was crying out for a creative midfielder, the referee blew for half-time, it was an uneventful 45 minutes with so much at stake; but I was still in awe of the swirls of fog that formed around the peaks of the mountains.
The teams came back out for the second half, and it was Leiknir who were the more threatening team as they pinned back Fjardabyggd deep within their own half. The resolute defending, from the Fjardabyggd rearguard, meant Leiknir were only able to have shots, from distance, at the seemingly impenetrable Peric who was marshalling his defence very well. The game started to take on a physical approach, shortly after, as Mate Coric and Unnar Ari Hansson went into the referee's book for reckless challenges. In all honesty, this match had 0-0 written all over it, and it would take something very special to win the game, Fjardabyggd coach Dragan Stojanovic looked to change the tactics and brought on Anton Bragi Jonsson, with 15 minutes remaining, to try and unlock the Leiknir defence; another flurry of 3 yellow cards in the final 10 minutes were the only talking points from a lacklustre match, however, 2 minutes into injury time, confusion prevailed in the Leiknir defence between goalkeeper Winogrodzki and Gudmundur Hjalmarsson, which led to Fjardabyggd getting a free kick, 25 yards from goal, in a very dangerous position. Aleksandar Stojkovic stepped up to take the free kick and managed to curl the ball over the wall, Winogrodzki dived to his near corner but the ball had too much pace on it as it nestled in the Leikni net. The goal sparked chaotic scenes around the ground: car horns were blasted into submission as the players went to take acclaim in front of their supporters - some of the fans even joined in the celebrations with the players on the pitch. There was still a few of minutes injury time remaining as Leiknir went on, all out attack as they laid siege to the Fjardabyggd goal - last ditch defending was the order of the day until referee Arnar Thor Stefansson blew his whistle... the ecstatic Fjardabyggd players gathered in front of their supporters as every home player joined in a full blown after match dance and chant. Back in the clubhouse, volunteers and officials prepared food and hot drinks for the players of both clubs, the home players were clearly in buoyant mood. The floodlights were shut down and losing their glow as dusk started to envelop the town of Neskaupstadur, the football wasn't great quality, however, it was an enthralling last 7 minutes, and for myself, it was a timeless memory of football in the most far-flung place I have ever watched a game, the friendliness of the townsfolk was endearing.
Eskifjordur was formally recognised in 1786, although the beginnings of trade can be traced further back. One of the charming aspects of the town is the red coloured, well preserved, fishing sheds that cling to the shoreline; most of these are Norwegian in origin and are still in full use. While the harbour has long been important to the town's fishing industry, it has now also become popular for cruise ships to berth over the summer months. Not long before the turn of the century, exploratory drilling was rewarded by enough hot water reserves to make Eskifjordur one of the few places in East Iceland to heat its homes geothermally.
Make no mistake, if you are visiting Eskifjordur, this place is off the beaten track, there are no taxis, there is a bus service to other towns and villages but they are few and far between. The remote tranquility is something that I cherish most about travelling to these secluded outposts. There is a small supermarket (Kjorbudin) where you can stock up on provisions, there is also a few shops dotted along the main road, Strandgata. The pub, Kaffihusid, will get very busy on a Saturday night - the locals will usually arrive around midnight after having a few drinks at home.
KR-IA, self service, gas station seems to be the locals gathering point: a unique place which also trebles up selling accessories for cars, part sweet shop for kids, it also has a small cafe for food - the burgers and spiced chips are excellent. The owners support KR Reykjavik and IA Akranes, there is memorabilia from both clubs hanging on the walls, the owner is also a huge Liverpool fan and when the Reds win a Champions League match he will give away free ice-cream to any of the customers who are in the cafe eating at the time.
One of the charming features of Eskifjordur are the small rivers that run through the town, there are 5 in total, all with names – Bleiksa, Grjota, Lambeyrara, Ljosa and Hlidarendaa, you never seem to be far from the sound of running water whatever part of town you are in. These small rivers will swell in size from May to June as they carry pristine melt waters of thawing snow from the mountains high above the town. One of Iceland's best skiing areas, Oddsskard, is only a 10 minute drive from the centre of Eskifjordur.
The town's economy is very fragile, the fish processing industry plays a big role creating employment in the area as does the Alcoa Aluminium smelter plant at the nearby town of Reydarfjordur which is one of the biggest export plants in the country and produces 940 tons of aluminium per day: it is estimated about 100-150 workers at the plant are from Eskifjordur. Alcoa Aluminium are also the main sponsors of Fjardabyggd FC. Tourism also brings much needed cash to the shops and hoteliers during the summer season. The winter months can be desolate in this part of the world, the old mountain road which connects to the nearby town, Neskaupstadur, would close frequently due to snow storms but the new Nordfjardargong tunnel will prevent this.