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Football on Top of the World: Greenland's Improbable Quest for Relevance

Tekle Ghebrelul
Tekle GhebrelulSteve Menary
Steve MenarySpecial to Bleacher ReportSeptember 9, 2015

Isolated at the top of the world and ignored by the game's governing body, FIFA, Greenland faces football challenges like no place in the world. Playing on the Arctic island is difficult, expensive and dangerous, but somehow football remains Greenland's most popular sport.

Tekle Ghebrelul is an Ethiopian who emigrated to Denmark, where he trained to be a teacher and a football coach, until he read a newspaper article about Greenland that would change his life. “I thought, I have to see this place just once,” he told Bleacher Report. "So I applied for a job here and have been here for 11 years now."

Ghebrelul grew up in Africa playing in bare feet, but he was still not prepared for the conditions that footballers in Greenland must tackle in their all-too-brief season. He took over as their head coach before the 2015 Island Games.

"Sometimes we have to wait 14 days after Easter to go outside to play," he explained. "In north Greenland, they never go outside until the end of May as there’s so much snow and it’s so cold.

"The season continues to the end of August; then it’s too cold to play outside and the pitch gets too rough to play as it's rock and sand."

In southern Greenland, conditions are less extreme and playing on grass is possible—but only a handful of farmers live there. In major settlements, like the capital, Nuuk, the pitches are so harsh that leggings are essential to avoid burns.

Steve Menary

Steve Menary

"The pitches are terrible. We have far too many injuries," said Ghebrelul. "If you want to keep the development of football, you need a surface that is protective of the players. The pitches are so poor that a pair of football boots, which cost around £160 in Greenland, only last a single three-month season."

Even though appetite for the game is stronger than ever, driven by regular English Premier League games on television, football in Greenland simply cannot develop like in the rest of the world.

For example, other popular sports in Greenland, such as handball, charge an entry fee at matches. That is impossible for football, as there are no stadiums.

"What will we say to people, 'It costs 100 dollars to sit on this large rock but 25 dollars to sit on that smaller rock?'" Nike Lyberth-Berthelsen, the phlegmatic general secretary of the Gronlands Boldspil-Union (GBU), told Bleacher Report.

Indoor stadia transformed Iceland from also-rans to Euro 2016 qualifiers, but while Greenland have qualified for three World Handball Championships, the GBU cannot join FIFA until Greenland—politically an autonomous territory of Denmark—secures full independence.

Nike Lyberth-Berthelsen
Nike Lyberth-BerthelsenSteve Menary

The neighbouring Faroe Islands have the same political status with Denmark but were first allowed into UEFA and then FIFA before the entry criteria changed. Now all UEFA members must be recognised as a country by the United Nations.

For now, that is beyond Greenland, and the GBU’s plan for a €10 million indoor arena in Nuuk is little more than a dream.

Ghebrelul’s ambitions for a full-size, covered artificial pitch in a major population centre such as Nuuk are more realistic but no more achievable.

While all FIFA members get a minimum annual grant of $250,000 a year from the world body, the unaffiliated GBU’s annual income gets by on half that amount, and even sending Ghebrelul’s team abroad is a luxury.

The only regular travel links are with Denmark, but taking 18-20 players and two coaches on a trip to Copenhagen costs around £20,000.

There is some contact with the Faroese, and Ghebrelul gleefully points out that his team recently beat their neighbours at Futsal, but Greenland’s only regular 11-a-side outing is the football tournament at the Island Games every two years. Getting ready for this year’s tournament in Jersey was not easy.

"We had a rough preparation," admitted Ghebrelul. "There was cold all over Greenland and snow on the ground until we left in June; most of the time we were in the gym."

Those gym sessions were restricted to the players from Nuuk, where there are five clubs. In every other settlement there is only one, but there are no roads in Greenland. All travel is via air or sea, and getting around is expensive and can be dangerous.

In August 2004, after playing a game of football in Qegertarsuag, Karl Olsen, Martin Larsen and Kristian Davidsen set off by boat across Disko Bay heading for home in Aasiaat—but they never arrived.

Steve Menary

A massive search and rescue operation was launched, but there was no sign of the footballers. The following June, Olsen, Larsen and Davidsen were found on Hareoe Island—all dead.

With travel so problematic, Greenland’s clubs only play each other once a year at the national championships. For the Island Games preparation, players from isolated settlements train alone, but even national selection is a major issue.

As the tournament is usually played on grass, the GBU stage a training camp in Denmark to acclimatise before setting off for the Games. That means 21 days away. Some players, like Frederick Funch, a nursery worker in Nuuk, were allowed time off. Others were not and lost their jobs.

Ghebrelul explained: "Two years ago, a lot of our players did not have a job when they came back. This time, we talked to the employers. They said it was OK to go away for 14 days but not 21 days. They would have to find someone else to do the job. So some players did not have jobs again this time when they went back."

Greenland were unbeaten in the group stage with the impressive Funch scoring in every match, but only the winners went into the semi-finals. Greenland lost out to Menorca, but they finished the tournament ranked fifth and the only team apart from eventual winners Guernsey to be unbeaten.

Steve Menary

Steve Menary

The ambitious Ghebrelul now wants more competitions. "We want to get some kind of membership somewhere like FIFA so we can have other tournaments. Not the European Championships or the World Cup, but football at our level," he said.

Right now, Greenland do not even know what their level is.

 

Steve Menary is a freelance football writer based in England. All quotes were gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. Photos taken at Greenland vs. Aland match, 2015 Island Games in Jersey. Greenland won 2-0.

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