Iceland has never been a football powerhouse. A few victories against big national teams have been there now and then, but the team never came close to reaching a big tournament. Club football has never been of any major importance neither. Icelandic clubs grasp a victory in the qualifiers for the Champions League and Europa League now and then, but never proceeded to the actual tournaments. The Nordic island, closer to Greenland than to the rest of Europe, may have a surface of 103,000 km2 but the inland is totally desolate (not even roads ! Just really "nothing") and the few scattered settlements along the coast only host approx 320000 people. Not exactly what you need to become a football powerhouse. Almost 120000 live in the capital, Reykjavik, known for its nightlife and vibrant city life. Include surrounding towns and over 202000 people live in or near the capital, which indicates how few people live elsewhere on the island. Not really total emptiness but some towns of just 2000 or 3000 people still count as regional centers because of the lack of places with more citizens nearby. A good example is Vík í Mýrdal which is the southernmost village on mainland Iceland ; it hosts not even 300 citizens but is the regional center for an area as far as 70 km away of the town.
Football in Iceland thus is dominated too by teams from the area of Reykjavik, with several top flight teams in the capital (Fram, Fylkir, KR, Valur, …) or near the capital. Hafnarfjörður, with 26000 inhabitants a "big town" for Icelandic standards, has one team in the top flight, and then we have some teams from less expected locations such as IBV from Vestmannaeyjar (an archipelago off coast to the south of Iceland) and IA from Akranes by the west coast of the island (their stadium Akranesvollur is known to be literally at the shore, with balls kicked high over the stand falling into the chilly sea). The north of Iceland is rarely presented in the highest level of football.
This made the European campaign of Akureyri’s Thor the more remarkable. Akureyri is in the very north of Iceland, the only town/city of reasonable size along the north coast. It is the second largest urban area of the country (after Reykjavik) but the town itself is only the 4th largest in the nation after Reykjavik, Hafnarfjördur and Kópavogur. Just below 18000 souls live in this city, nicknamed the "Capital of North Iceland" or, more poetic, the "Capital of the Bright North". The Arctic Circle is only a 100 km further north even though the climate is mild and the port is ice-free all year. The town is remote to say the least. Football teams from the city rarely have been succesful. Until two weeks ago suddenly Íþróttafélagið Þór (for the sake of making things easy, let’s call them Thor Akureyri from now on) caused a shock in Europe.
Thor is not a big club in Iceland. It is an omnisports club with football just being one of the sports played. To my knowledge (but my lack of Icelandic language knowledge doesn’t help when visiting their website) the club never really achieved anything big. The club has spent most of the recent millennium in the second division of Icelandic football, the 1.deild. In 2010 the club promoted as runners-up to champions Vùikingur Reykjavik, reaching the top division (Úrvalsdeild) for the first time since 2002. The adventure in the Úrvalsdeild didn’t last longer than 1 season: the club finished second from bottom and relegated again. Still, the club qualified for European football due to reaching the final of the Icelandic Cup. In that final, KR from the capital Reykjavik was too strong: 2-0. As KR was already champions of Iceland, Thor Akureyri still qualified for the qualifiers for the Europa League 2012-2013.
Drawn against Bohemian FC from Dublin, Ireland, few gave the north Icelandic amateurs (now playing in second division again) any chance. Bohemian was already focussed on the next round even though, as usual, a warning to not underestimate the opponent, was probably spoken. 5th July 2012 Thor travelled to the Irish capital and grasped a 0-0 draw to take home to northern Iceland. Some players celebrated this draw quite enthousiastically, which caused upset by some Bohemian fans. Those were however still confident that their team would finish it off against the second division amateurs from Iceland, and a few tens of Bohs fans made the very long trip to the far north of Iceland for the second leg.
12th July then witnessed a huge shock. Even although at first, nothing indicated this shock would occur. Bohemian, backed by a few tens of fans who made the long journey to north Iceland, faced the Dubliners in the return leg in their own Thorsvöllur stadium in Akureyri. Capacity maximum 1000, probably just below. I wonder if this was the same stadium where in 1999 Anderlecht played Leiftur from the even further northern village of Ólafsfjörður. Their ground did not meet the criteria to host the game (an idyllic fjord can be seen from their ground but it would in Belgium be good enough maximum for 5th or 6th level) so the game was played in Akureyri. I still remember vaguely the small stand and the cars passing by in the background. It was really really small. If that was the same Thorsvöllur where Thor faced Bohemian or if it was another Akureyri based ground is unknown to me. But anyway, two weeks ago Bohemian FC from Dublin played Thor Akureyri in the Europa League qualifiers, there in Thorsvöllur in northern Iceland. When halfway the first half Scully made it 0-1 to the Irishmen, it seemed the minutes of fame for Thor were over. However, by half time the Dubliners defense gave away 2 goals and the Icelandic second division team, all amateur players, were leading 2-1. Was a surprise in the making? Yes, it was.
Bohemian, one of the bigger teams with the longest history in the football of the Republic of Ireland, showed a very shaky defense and the Icelandic audience could not believe their eyes when the home team marked 3 more goals. After 90 minutes, the unbelievable result was on the scoreboard: Thor Akureyri 5 – Bohemian FC 1. Aggregate score: 5-1 to the second division team from the northern Icelandic city. A huge humiliation for the visitors, a surreal result for the home team. Goal scorers for Thor Akureyri were Hjaltalin, Kristjùansson (3 times !) and Bohs added an own goal by Feely to the tally.
In Ireland, football fans hoping the coefficient of Irish football would rise again this season, reacted furiously. Bohs were humiliated and were laughed at by the fans of almost all other teams. There was anger too because of the consequences for the UEFA coefficient of the League of Ireland. How on earth could a well established team like Bohemian lose 5-1 against a bunch of amateurs playing in the second division in Iceland?! Some Bohs fans admitted this was embarrasing, some tried to seek excused but failed to find any. To make matters worse for the Irish football, St Patrick’s Athletic lost as well to an Icelandic side. In the extreme other outpost of Iceland, the Vestmannaeyjar islands south of the south coast, local islands IBV won 2-1 after extra time, with the sole consolidation for Irish football that St Pats still proceeded due to having won the first leg in Dublin 1-0. But what was talked about most was the 5-1 in northern Iceland.
To show how huge this performance was is not hard to do. First of all, it rarely happens Icelandic teams book wins in Europe, and big wins such as a 5-1 are very rare. Secondly, teams not playing in the premier division of their country’s league rarely book wins in Europe. Combine these two facts, and realise an Icelandic second division amateur outfit won a European game 5-1, is almost surreal. The result may be unnoticed by the big audience, but Thor Akureyri deserve praise for this. Lots of praise. This achievement was stunning.
On 19th July 2012 the second qualifying round brought Thor Akureyri the very long travel to the Czech team of Mladá Boleslav. Two goals by Magera gave the locals a 2-0 lead at half-time and at the end the result was 3-0 as Šćuk scored another one for the home side. To proceed to the next stage, Thor would need another big win, for example another 5-1 victory, in the second leg. I wish them the best of luck.
Of course it would take a miracle for Thor to qualify. But I also doubt anyone in Akureyri cares. The 5-1 victory versus Bohemian was a bit of Icelandic football history, so their campaign is already a success, no matter what the result this week will be. Thor can be very very proud of what they achieved. Northern Iceland is on the football map again. No matter what happens when the club faces Mladá Boleslav again this week. Congrats to Thor Akureyri and, dare I say?, best of luck!