Iceland are arguably the most likeable sides in international football today. Since their remarkable run that took them to the 2016 European Championships, followed up by their entry to their first ever World Cup appearance this summer, they have truly captured the hearts of the world. Iceland is a tiny island nation based in the icy North Atlantic Ocean, hundreds of miles adrift of mainland Europe, and for long enough were considered European whipping boys in qualification groups. Over the past two decades they have developed systems and academies to see the progression of young football loving children into hardened football professionals. Their fans helped grow the Iceland brand of football with their endearing Skol Clap, the thunderous slow clap that builds in speed and intensity, completed by a roaring cheer. Iceland are undoubtedly flavour of the month after their performances over the past two Euro-involved international tournaments, and rightly so. Yet one of the most pivotal men in the story of Iceland’s rise to the big-boy table of international football is sadly one who has been as much a fan of the team as the thousands of Icelanders who made the journey to France and Russia over the last few years. Eiður Smári Guðjohnsen.
Can all the success that Iceland have procured over the past couple of years be attributed to Eiður Guðjohnsen? He retired just after Iceland suffered defeat to France in the 2016 Euros and barely played for the team in that campaign. He once endured a six-year spell where he didn’t score for the national team and hasn’t played his club football in his homeland since he was a teen, so why can he be considered such an influence? Why can this honour be bestowed upon him when it was the Icelandic Football Association who put the wheels in motion to prioritise football at grassroots level all those years ago. The answer is simple. He put Iceland on the football map. He endured a remarkable career that saw him play for PSV Eindhoven, Chelsea and Barcelona, to name but a few teams. He won leagues and a Champions League, yet he was always happy to come back and play for his nation when international duty called. He got a generation of kids in Iceland excited about football. Would Aron Gunnarsson, Bibkir Bjarnason or Jón Daði Böðvarsson be the players they are today without the iconic Eiður Guðjohnsen to inspire them?
Guðjohnsen is very much “Mr Iceland.” In a career where he starred for the national side when they were a poor outfit, he never shirked his country. Guðjohnsen has always been a popular figure in his homeland, partially due to the bizarreness with which his international career began. He was growing in reputation, having spent a couple of years playing in the Netherlands with PSV, and on April 24th 1996, he came off the substitute bench for Arnór Guðjohnsen – Eiður’s father. This was a huge moment for the Guðjohnsen family, although both father and son allegedly expressed unhappiness at not being able to play together. The logic was that this was an away game Estonia. They had a home match scheduled six weeks later, but sadly an injury for Eiður ruled him out of this game. Arnor was in the later stages of his career and sadly, between age and injuries, father and son never got to play simultaneously at international level.
For Iceland, Eiður Guðjohnsen is the all time record goal scorer with 26 goals in a career that spanned two decades. Naturally he was a first choice striker internationally during his time with PSV, Chelsea and Barcelona, but his legacy meant he was virtually irreplaceable in the squad for 20 years. Despite this, he did go through some barren spells. Injury and playing at a low level saw Guðjohnsen once go two years without an Iceland cap and an incredible six years without a goal, but in Iceland the adoration for him rarely wavered. Some fans may jeer breaking a dry streak like this and treat it with sarcasm, but in Iceland it was celebrated like it had won them the World Cup. In 2015 he had scored the goal for Iceland that snapped the most unwanted of streaks, scored a last minute equaliser for Bolton (during his second spell at the club) and became a father for the fourth time. Not a bad week all things considered!
The career path of Eiður Guðjohnsen is certainly a bizarre one. After impressing for Valur in his native Iceland (7 goals in 17 games) he was signed to PSV in the Dutch top flight. He joined at a similar time to Ronaldo. There were two years between the strikers, with Guðjohnsen the younger at 17. He claimed in an interview years later that despite there being only two years between them, the quality was otherworldly. A nasty knee injury cut short his time at PSV, making only 15 appearances for the club. He went back to play in Iceland for a couple of months to recuperate, before signing for Bolton Wanderers in the English lower leagues.
Over the next two years he had established an impressive reputation at Bolton due to his fearless way of leading the line. He amassed 26 goals in 73 games over two years as the Trotters reached the league playoffs, as well as the semi finals of both the League Cup and FA Cup. In two years Guðjohnsen had gone from playing with Ronaldo to playing for Sam Allardyce, but he wasn’t fazed. He was playing regularly and enjoying his football. Little did he know that he was very close to playing at the top level once again…
In the summer of 2000, Eiður signed for Chelsea, along with Dutch striker Jimmy Floyd Hasslelbaink. Despite their different styles, which Guðjohnsen referred to as “fire and ice“, the two formed a lethal partnership up front for Claudio Ranieri’s Chelsea. His six years at Stamford Bridge were mixed. On the pitch he was highly successful. While questions were initially raised over the £4.5 million transfer fee, he proved his worth, playing a key role in Chelsea morphing from ambitious to all conquering. While his influence at Chelsea wasn’t quite as it was with the Iceland set up, he was still an important cog in the machine. Under Ranieri he was an all firing striker.
When Jose Mourinho came in, Guðjohnsen feared that he would be phased out, dropped for more reputable player. He was dropped, not from the team, but rather dropped deeper into the attacking midfield position. Eiður Guðjohnsen was phoned by Mourinho at the beginning of his Chelsea tenure, telling the player to not even consider leaving, as the Icelander was a crucial part of his plans. On the field he created many memorable moments; his overhead kick against Leeds was stupendous, while his performance in the Barcelona tie, famous for *THAT* Ronaldinho goal, was tenacious, topped off by a classy goal.
Sadly though, his time at Chelsea wasn’t all good. He was being paid very handsomely, earning more than he ever had at Bolton or PSV, and he developed a gambling problem. Over a five month period he spent almost half a million pounds throughout London casinos. It was a problem that he was able to overcome, but it was certainly a blot against his name. It helped lose the “Mr Nice Guy” tag that he had been wearing throughout his career. He had some baggage that Mr Mourinho was able to turn into fuel to invigorate his forward.
Back in the early 2000’s, having a gambling problem wasn’t something that you could write off as part of a mental health lapse, there was no sympathy or support back then. It was a stigma and one which was frowned upon by many. He overcame this though and trained harder than he ever had before. He was harsh on himself and was determined to fight past this. All was forgiven in 2005 when he lifted the Premier League trophy, his first major honour of his career. He went on to win another Premier League title the year after, becoming a pivotal player in Mourinho’s team.
Eiður was still featuring regularly for Chelsea, but in the summer of 2006 he felt a change was needed. Both Spanish superclubs were sniffing about him, but in the end it was Barcelona who tempted him, signing him for £8 million. Just like at Chelsea, he was an unusual addition to a star-studded squad, hardly the same technical level of the likes of Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o and Deco, yet just like at Chelsea, he found himself a crucial member of the squad. He was versatile enough that he could slot in anywhere, and was suited to the style of Barcelona.
Just as Guðjohnsen was a catalyst for Jose Mourinho’s success as Chelsea, so to was he that player for a young Catalonian manager by the name of Josep Guardiola in 2008. Things were not going well for Guardiola early on, and Guardiola was on the verge of taking only four points from five games in his opening fixtures. In a match against Real Sociedad, Barca were struggling, labouring to a draw, when a very un-Guardiola move was converted by a very un-Guardiola player. A long ball was fired into the opposition box, and smacked in by Guðjohnsen. Barcelona won the match and spurred a run of 17 wins from 18, allowing Guardiola a bit of breathing room to formulate his own preferred style of sexy football that culminated in a dominant year for Barca.
After a relatively loyal period where he would remain with a club for a number of years, the second half of Guðjohnsen’s career was remarkably turbulent. He was a brave striker who cultivated a great many chances for his team mates. He was a capable goal scorer, but not the most prolific, and as such, when age crept up on him he would begin to lose a yard of pace. Eiður was still a good striker, but his lack of goals saw him given a number of shorter term deals at smaller clubs than Barcelona and Chelsea, and as such, by playing with less powerful teams, he would receive less chances up top. This goes some way to understanding why he played for 15 different clubs (16, if we include his two spells at Bolton 14 years apart).
Eiður Guðjohnsen is a much loved player, he has held down starting spots with top clubs and provided the neutral with an array of happy memories over the last two decades. There are a couple of fan bases who don’t have positive memories of the Icelandic star, however…
The first is West Ham. In 2010, while contracted to Monaco, he was offered out on loan. He agreed a deal with the Hammers, meeting with Gianfranco Zola and undergoing a medical at their training facility. At the eleventh hour though, Spurs hijacked the deal, bringing Guðjohnsen to White Hart Lane. He had an excellent spell there and at the end Harry Redknapp expressed to the striker his interest in making the deal permanent. Nothing materialised though, and eventually signed for Stoke City later that year. West Ham felt aggrieved at having their deal poached, though Guðjohnsen came out years later and explained that he had no regrets as Spurs were the far superior side at that time.
The second set of fans that have an issue with Eiður Guðjohnsen are those of Cercle Brugge. After a wayward couple of years, the small Belgian outfit made quite the coup by signing the big Icelandic man. His explosive start for the team (6 goals in 13 games) saw city rivals Club Brugge express their interest in acquiring him, and did so, just a few months after Guðjohnsen had signed for Cercle. It was a no brainer for Eiður who was still good enough for the top level and was wanting to continue his international career, however as is the way, he would have suffered a hard time for ditching the side who took a chance on him after unconvincing spells at Stoke, Fulham and AEK Athens.
Since he left Barcelona the player has been on a decline, both in terms of playing style and stature of clubs – although it would have been hard to top Barcelona! He only played eleven times for Monaco, failing to score. His loan spell at Spurs was promising, but his next two teams, Stoke and Fulham, saw him play fifteen games combined without a goal. He scored once for AEK Athens in Greece, before his rejuvenation in Belgium. Back at Bolton he formed a less than lethal strike partnership with Emile Heskey, racking up six goals in 24 games for Neil Lennon’s side as the Trotters flirted with relegation all year. China was Eiður’s next destination. He signed for Shijiazhuang Ever Bright and played fourteen times for them, scoring once. He scored one goal, and on reflection of his time there, his feelings are mixed. He said the atmospheres were incredible as the stadium often packed out at 40000 fans, however the team played on the counter attack, which did not suit his aging
legs, particularly as he was so often played wide on the left. He played a season with Molde, in Norway, being released a year into his two year deal. He got one goal in the league to tie up a club career that saw him score 158 in 656 appearances.
Gudjohnsen went on to play a handful of games for Molde after Euro 2016, but with the worldwide viewing figures of Norwegian football being rather low, it was his endeavours for Iceland in 2016 which acted as Guðjohnsen’s final swansong. He played twice for his country at this tournament, coming off the bench against Hungary in the group stages and in their final game against France. Guðjohnsen was far past his best by Euro 2016, however it was still wonderful to see him feature at Iceland’s first national tournament after the impact he has had on a generation of Icelanders. While he had not been a prolific striker for a decade or so, he was brought on as more than just an act of symbolism. He is a pro with over two decades of playing experience, and was a strong leader to help lift the team. While it is a shame that his last international game was a 5-2 defeat it is possibly fair to suggest that when he made his debut all those years before, that he would have taken being knocked out of the quarter finals by France at a major tournament. In his tenure with Iceland, he has seen them rise from European minnows to a fearsome opposition.
Few footballers epitomise hard work and determination the way that Eiður Guðjohnsen has done. He was never the fastest, the strongest nor the most technically gifted, but he had the mind set, and worked as hard as he could, day in day out to ensure that his coaches knew it. Because of this application, he ended up becoming a national hero for Iceland, a Premier League winner with Chelsea and a La Liga and Champions League winner with Barcelona. He was loved by almost everyone and proved himself to be a valuable team mate and loyal family member over the course of his career. He played with Ronaldo and Messi at their prime. He helped both Mourinho and Guardiola kick-start their careers at Chelsea and Barcelona. For a striker his goal return was poor, and yet his contribution to the team was stellar. He was a warrior, he would lift his team mates up and drag defenders away with his clever positioning. With the modern game being dominated by pace and instant gratification, Eiður Guðjohnsen is the type of player who would struggle to break through today, however his style contrasts the current styles so vastly that he was just a joy to watch. He may not have been as silky and cultured as Ronaldo and Messi, but that does not detract from him being just as beloved a player. Eiður Guðjohnsen was truly
the applause before the thunder clap.