February 2018, Randers, Denmark
It has been a long, tough winter in Randers. Snow is on the ground at the BioNutria Park, and the temperature is hovering around zero. But that isn't abnormal for this time of year in northern Denmark. The gloom had come, instead, from the city's football team. At the winter break last December, Randers FC was at the bottom of the Danish Superliga.
"Yeah, it has been a tough time," says Randers' goalkeeper, Hannes Halldorsson, as he sits down on a blue sofa in the vast, industrial-style foyer of the club's stadium. The club sacked their highly strung Dutch coach Ricardo Moniz a few weeks ago, and Randers' stuttering season is about to resume with a game against FC Copenhagen.
Yet as bad a season as Randers is having, in a few months the club's No. 1 'keeper will realise a dream that, 14 years ago, was as realistic as Randers winning this season's Danish title. Hannes will be Iceland's first-choice goalkeeper at the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia.
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You might be aware of some of Iceland's incredible story. How a nation of 345,000 people, about the same population as Coventry or Honolulu, put together a team that beat England in the 2016 European Championship. How a team of well-drilled journeymen, without any standout stars aside from perhaps Everton's Gylfi Sigurdsson, went on become the smallest country to ever qualify for a World Cup finals. How their coach, Heimir Hallgrimsson, was a practising dentist until recently. How Iceland's supporters group popularised the now iconic Icelandic thunderclap, replicated on terraces across the world.
But of all the underdog stories that surround Iceland, there is none greater than Hannes Halldorsson.
We first met in 2013 when Iceland almost made it to Brazil 2014. With Swedish coach Lars Lagerback in charge—and Heimir as his assistant—they reached the play-off stage against Croatia. Hannes was the only player who still played at home. Iceland miraculously wrings every last drop out of its talent by shipping any unearthed gems off to more established European leagues at a young age. The Icelandic league is semi-pro, which means footballers have to work elsewhere to make a living.
Hannes made his by making films. As a part-time director and editor, his biggest international hit was Iceland's 2012 Eurovision Song Contest entry, "Never Forget," performed by Greta Salome and Jonsi.
That World Cup qualifying campaign ended in a 2-0 defeat at the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb. Outside the stadium afterwards, Iceland's players were stunned and bewildered. The former Chelsea and Barcelona striker Eidur Gudjohnsen was crying nearby, tearfully announcing his retirement on Icelandic TV. "We all thought we would definitely get through," Hannes had told me. No one thought they would get that close again.
"After Zagreb, I thought: 'That was it. My last chance gone,'" Hannes recalls back in Randers' stadium. But Lagerback stayed and made Heimir joint coach, and the rest was history: Euro 2016, the win over England and finally qualification for Russia 2018, with Hannes as No. 1.
"Did we ever talk about how I started my career, back in the days?" he asks.
We hadn't except to explore his part in Eurovision history.
"Because that is a whole different story."
Hannes grew up in Breidholt, a suburb in the southeast of the country's capital, Reykjavik. Iceland is a rich country, but Breidholt was not. It was a solidly working-class suburb that had its problems like any other. His father was a goalkeeper but gave up at 19, so he encouraged his son not to stop, like he had.
From the age of six, Hannes began training with Iceland's biggest team, KR. He was good and had dreams of playing professionally. But when he was 14, he dislocated his shoulder whilst snowboarding. It popped every time he tried to return to training, five times over the next few years. "That destroyed my dreams of playing football, and I got operated on when I was 19," he says. "This is the time, 14 to 19, all the guys at my age were playing youth national teams with Iceland and all that. I had zero games for any youth team."
Instead he fell in love with filmmaking. "So I spent my youth making short films," he says. "From 16 to 20 I was all in." But at 20, with the encouragement of his father, he decided to try football again.
There was no question where he would try first. Hannes lived a few minutes' walk from Leiknir Reykjavik, his neighbourhood club. They played in the third tier of Icelandic football and invited Hannes to pre-season. As a child he would spend hours practising by kicking a ball against the wall behind the club's single concrete stand. "I was really rusty, chubby," he says of starting again. He was up against another goalkeeper for the first-team jersey, but the start of the season coincided with Hannes' graduation from college. Instead of staying to battle for his spot on the team, he went on a graduation trip to the United States and spent two weeks drinking.
The coach's decision was made. Hannes started his first season as a footballer, in Iceland's third tier, sitting on the bench as a backup.
"I was really frustrated the whole year," he says. "We were doing fantastic; it was my neighbourhood club. But still I had this stinging feeling of disappointment." Indeed, Leiknir was having a momentous season. They were top of the league with two games left. Then his rival for the starting spot was sent off in the penultimate game. Hannes had his chance. His first competitive start at any level would be on September 5, 2004, against third-placed Vikingur Olafsvik. It was essentially a cup final: Whoever won would be promoted.
"I thought, 'This is meant to be,'" he recalls of the excitement and nerves leading up that game. "I'll play this game, we are going to win the league. And this is how I'll experience the season and be part of it." He called every TV station he could. "I described every moment to them," he recalls. "I said: 'This is what's going to happen. And this is Leiknir, they will win and the neighbourhood will be upside down. Wouldn't it be nice if you sent a camera?'" He wasn't sure it had worked until game day. Even though it was raining hard, two TV crews turned up. "For the first time I felt really pro. I thought, 'This is a huge moment in my life.'"
March 2018, Breidholt, Reykjavik
There have been a few changes to the Leiknisvollur since Arni Gunnarsson used to stand on a grass mound to watch his neighbourhood team as a kid. There's a new clubhouse, modern in design. "There is grass now, of course," adds Arni as we stand next to the light brown pitch which looks like it has only just survived the winter. "Before this pitch we played on gravel." Until the country's famed investment in all-weather pitches and indoor football halls from 2000 onwards—probably the single biggest factor in Iceland's incredible rise—grass pitches were a rarity. Fine black, volcanic gravel pitches had to do.
One thing hasn't changed: The club still plays "In the Ghetto" by Elvis Presley as the team's entrance music, alluding to Breidholt's rough and ready reputation. Arni has lived in Breidholt all his life. He isn't a footballer. He works in a hardware shop but lives for the game. He's one of the longest-serving members of the Tolfan ("Twelfth Man" in Icelandic), the national team's supporters' group that numbers perhaps 800 and has followed them over land and sea.
I'd met Arni before, in Oslo after Iceland qualified for the Brazil 2014 playoff against Croatia by drawing 1-1 with Norway. Arni was a big man with a thick beard. He wore a Superman onesie and a horned helmet. The only way he could have looked more like a Viking was if he carried an axe in one hand and the severed head of a Saxon in the other.
"We're two games from the f--king World Cup. HOW DO YOU THINK I F--KING FEEL?! I'm from little Iceland! Do you hear my f--king voice? I'd give it ALL for this f--king country."
He was being held up off the floor by two men of equally mountainous build.
"Do you hear my voice? I'd give it ALL. I'd give it ALL for this country. … I'm so f--king proud. … We can stand tall! AGAINST WHOEVER!"
He broke down in tears, sobbing into my arms.
The interview was also filmed, with the swearing edited out, and made Arni something of a social media star. "I got phone calls for interviews from all over the world. Japan. France," he later told me. "At the European Championships I had to start saying no. It was getting too much."
But, above all else, Arni was a Leiknir fan. He points to what has now been christened the "Hannes Wall," the back of the now disused old stand where Hannes spent hours kicking a ball as a kid. Like everyone in Leiknir, he had also never forgotten Hannes' home debut and his team's most memorable game in its 45-year history: the title decider, on September 5, 2004. "There were a lot of people here, maybe 700 people or more," he says, looking out onto the pitch. It is overcast, threatening snow. "We just needed a draw," he says ruefully.
Valur Gunnarsson (no relation, at least not directly) remembers the heavy rain. He was also a spectator that day, although he wasn't supposed to be. Valur was Leiknir's first-choice goalkeeper. "This was the best season of my career by far," he says. "I think I was a better keeper then, but Hannes had a higher ceiling." Still, it was Valur's sending-off in the previous game that had opened the door for Hannes. Valur still disputes whether it was a sending-off or not. Hannes borrowed Valur's gloves and saw out the last 10 minutes, and then the focus shifted to the last game of the season in Leiknir, against Vikingur Olafsvik.
Even when Vikingur scored first, there wasn't panic, Valur recalls. But as the minutes ticked down, the action became more frantic. "Hannes wasn't good with his feet at that time," he says. Vikingur had noticed and placed a man nearby to take advantage of any such mistake. Then, in the 88th minute, the mistake came. Hannes scuffed a goal kick. It dribbled a few metres to Vikingur's striker. "It's two against one, he scores the goal and it's obviously over," says Valur.
At the final whistle Vikingur's coach instructed his players not to celebrate their unexpected promotion. "I remember I went to the clubhouse and they all sat there silently," Valur says. "I went to Hannes and patted him on the back. Guys were crying. It was hard to take. He was devastated. Twenty years old. He gets his big break, the TV was here. It was on the news that evening." Goalkeeper, we agree, is the loneliest position on the pitch.
Watching the game from Leiknir's one functioning stand, Arni was devastated too. "To lose it like that was horrible," he recalls, especially as he had planned to get beers and go to the victory party. "It ended with me sitting alone listening to heartbroken love songs all night."
Valur became the first choice for Leiknir after that game, and he had a good few years at the club. But his father died in 2009, and he retired at 27. He now teaches graphic design at the local college whilst training Iceland's under-17 goalkeepers. He is happy and proud that he played with Hannes. "In hindsight I think maybe that was the game that helped him the most," Valur says about that day 14 years ago. "He didn't want to make this mistake again."
Still, no one foresaw that the rookie goalkeeper who fluffed his kick on the final day of the 2003/04 season would one day go to a World Cup finals. "If somebody told me in 2004, 'Valur, this is the highlight of your career, keeping Hannes on the bench in the C division,'" Valur says, laughing, "I wouldn't know whether to laugh or cry."
Hannes Halldorsson physically acts out the run up to that kick as if it was yesterday.
"I hit the ground," he says, banging his hand on the table to mimic its impact.
He makes a sound similar to blowing a raspberry.
"And I f--k up the game."
The whole incident was amplified further by the fact that the TV cameras were there. It was the only part of the match they showed on national TV. The headline read out, according to Hannes: "Leiknir Screwed Up the Possibility of Going Up a League, and Here Is the Goalkeeper of Leiknir Doing a Horrible Mistake." Hannes dealt with it by going to his parents' apartment, sitting in the basement and listening to music with the lights off. "This is all I was remembered for in my neighbourhood for the next couple of years," he says. "Everyone remembers the goal kick. It is like a thing. It couldn't have blown up worse in my face."
Hannes went back to making films. He was making a name for himself in Icelandic pop and, a few weeks after the game, had storyboarded an idea for the new video from Iceland's biggest all-girl band, Nylon. He was scouting for a location when he dropped the counterweight of a boom barrier on his left hand. It almost severed his finger. He shows me a huge scar. "I could just watch my bone and tendons and everything. I could see everything move."
In the emergency room Hannes told his parents he was quitting football. But his father persuaded him to think about it. "He is a stubborn bastard, and I inherited his mentality," he says. The next day, Hannes went back to work, his arm in a sling, and finished the video. Nylon's "5 a Richter" was a hit.
When the season returned, he decided to give football one final try and set a goal to play in Iceland's top division within three seasons. Going back to Leiknir wasn't an option. So he looked up the league table and phoned every club to see if anyone needed a goalkeeper. He found the only coach, of third-division side Afturelding, who hadn't heard of the "Hannes kick." Driven by the desire never to make such a huge mistake again, he ended up having a great season and was signed by one of Iceland's biggest teams, Stjarnan. He was paid £200 a month, the first time he'd been paid to play football, whilst working at a film company.
Still, that day at Leiknir never left him. "Every day, at lunch time, I would grab a net of balls. Warm up. And then I took the balls to the middle of the pitch and tried to hit the crossbar for an hour," he says. "Then I'd shower, come back to work, and after come and train at 5 p.m. Every day."
The hard work began to pay off. After impressing at Stjarnan, he was picked up by Iceland's biggest team, KR. In just six years he was the goalkeeper in the country's best team. There was only one Icelandic goalkeeper playing abroad in 2011, so it seemed like a logical choice when then-national team coach Olafur Johannesson called Hannes up. "His story is amazing because he was not a good player when he was younger," Olafur says when I ask him about Hannes. "It shows that everyone, even though you're not good when you are young, you can be if you keep on training."
Hannes made his debut for Iceland against Cyprus in qualification for Euro 2012 on September 6, 2011, seven years and one day since his dramatic home debut for Leiknir. Iceland won 1-0 and he kept a clean sheet. But the campaign, in Hannes's words, "went s--t." Olafur was fired, Lars Lagerback was hired and the next chapter in Iceland's football revolution had begun. When qualification for Brazil 2014 began, Lagerback took a close look at his goalkeeping options and chose Hannes, who would turn up for international duty with his laptop and work on his films in between training.
After the disappointment in Zagreb, Iceland qualified with ease for Euro 2016 and shocked Portugal in the group stage by holding them to a 1-1 draw. The England game, however, was the high point of Icelandic football. Hannes remembers the media circus that surrounds the England team. "All of a sudden there was paparazzi around our hotel trying to get pictures of us, going through our garbage," he remembers. "There is no mercy. No one feels sorry for them whatsoever."
Hannes brought down Raheem Sterling four minutes in, and England took the lead from the penalty spot. But Iceland hit back when defender Ragnar Sigurdsson equalised two minutes later. That, says Hannes, was "the key to the game. In all the build-up England talked about Iceland's only chance was to keep the zero." Twelve minutes later Kolbeinn Sigthorsson scored, and Iceland never lost their lead.
Arni was in the crowd when the full-time whistle blew at the Allianz Riviera in Nice. "My body went full numb and I was looking around at everyone going nuts, battling not to fall down because my knees were like rubber," he says. "It was kind of like the opening for the movie Saving Private Ryan where Tom Hanks looks around the beach and there is this calmness and craziness at the same time."
Iceland met hosts France next, but they lost 5-2. "Everybody had a s--t feeling in our stomach," says Hannes. "We thought maybe being at the Euros was good enough."
Hannes' performances for Iceland brought him to the attention of foreign clubs. At 29, he finally signed his first pro contract for Sandnes Ulf in Norway before moving to Holland and then arriving at Randers. "It felt like a holiday at first, one training a day!" he says. The filmmaking company where he used to work promised him his job back if he ever chose to return.
It is 3 a.m. and a few dozen members of the Tolfan have decided to stay up all night to watch Iceland play a warm-up game against Mexico in Santa Clara, California. The time difference means the Tolfan's usual, American-themed biker bar can't accommodate them. So the clubhouse for a local team stepped in. The game is being projected onto a big screen. One member is here with his drum. At the edges of the room, the paraphernalia for a young girl's christening due to be held the next day has been carefully laid out.
The Tolfan began life in 2007. Before then there wasn't really any fan culture surrounding the national team. "I was actually shushed down and the guy said: 'I'm trying to watch the game. Can you sit down and be a little bit quiet?'" Arni recalls from watching Iceland play Germany in 2004. But the group grew and became a regular fixture at home and away games, building a unique relationship with the national team. To this day, the coach announces the team to a special gathering of fans. Such is the bond, the team has never been leaked to the press.
The size of the country also plays a factor. The population is so small that everyone is connected to each other in some way—so much so that a dating app was invented to make sure you didn't accidentally hook up with a close relative. "The connection is so short in so many ways," Hannes told me when I asked about the close relationship between team and fans. "I know a lot of people in the stands. And a lot of people in the stands know me. It is more personal than with a country of many millions."
The Tolfan became world-famous at Euro 2016 when they popularized the Icelandic thunderclap. After the game, the players would stand in front of the supporters and join them. But the roots of the thunderclap are not in Iceland, but Scotland. "Stjarnan played a European game against Motherwell," says Arni. "And the Motherwell supporters did this clapping thing." Stjarnan took the clap back to Iceland with them. "The Tolfan, we're like, 'OK, this is cool, we'll try this on national games.'"
The few dozen Tolfan here stand and give the thunderclap, even as Mexico take a two-goal lead. Coach Heimir Hallgrimsson, who is now in charge of the team on his own after Lagerback left, has given some game time to second-choice goalkeeper Runar Runarsson. In the last minute, Mexico score a third when he's lobbed by a swerving, dipping shot. But there are no recriminations or angry shouts at the screen. "Well, Hannes will definitely be No. 1 then," is all Arni says as we leave. Dawn is breaking, and the Tolfan go home, leaving the room spotless for the christening taking place in a few hours.
In the end, Randers survived. Their form improved in the second half of the season, and the club managed to win their relegation play-off. There was no surprise when Hannes Halldorsson's name was announced in Iceland's World Cup squad, wearing the No. 1 jersey, before the players headed to Reykjavik for two final warm-up games. But Hannes' other life, as a filmmaker, wasn't far away either. Arni and the Tolfan gathered at Iceland's national stadium, the Laugardalsvollur, to be extras in a Coca-Cola advert that Hannes directed. "I walked over and high-fived him," says Arni.
Iceland are no longer underdogs in the traditional sense. They can, as Hannes believes, "beat any team in the world." They'll get a chance to prove that right away, against Argentina and Messi no less in their opening game. And this time, they won't be happy just being there. If they get through the group, there's a potential match against Denmark, a country that once ruled Iceland and a team they have never beaten. "Finally," says Hannes with good humour, "we might beat the goddamn Danes!"
But why stop there? This World Cup is wide open, ripe for an unheralded team to go far.
At the start of qualification, Hannes pinned a picture of the Russia 2018 logo onto his wall. "It was the first thing I saw when I woke up and the last thing I saw when I went to bed," he says. After everything—coming back from the "Hannes kick," almost severing his finger and making an improbable rise from the bottom of Icelandic football to the World Cup—it was time to put a new picture on the wall. "Of the trophy itself," Hannes offers. "Now we are there. Now it's the next goal. Maybe," he says before he goes back to training in the snow, "maybe it will work."