Iceland veteran will make his major tournament debut at Euro 2016
For countries like Iceland, prodigies emerge once in a blue moon. Eidur Smari Gudjohnsen is the greatest they’ve ever produced.
Son of former international footballer, Arnor, who Marcus Maher spoke to for Newstalk’s Team 33 as part of our Iceland Euro 2016 special which is podcasted just below, Gudjohnsen was always a step ahead of his age group:
At 14, he was part of the Iceland under-17s in the early 1990s and by 16, the youngster was with the under-19s.
Indeed, his progression was so swift that in February 1996, he and his father made history when a 17-year-old Eidur came on as a sub in place of his father for the Iceland senior team in a friendly. It was the first time a father and son had featured in the same international match, albeit not on the pitch at the same time.
But for a leg break suffered on duty with the under-18s - coincidentally against an Ireland side featuring Ian Harte and Glen Crowe in a UEFA qualifier on May 7th 1996 - he and his father would have started a match together before the latter’s retirement.
Alas it was not to occur because of that injury.
Yet it wasn’t an impediment to a successful wider career at club level with some of Europe’s well-known clubs.
By 1998, those of us who followed English football, Gudjohnsen made a mark for Bolton Wanderers in the old First Division after moving from PSV Eindhoven.
Chelsea's Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink celebrates scoring a Chelsea goal with Eidur Gudjohnsen. Picture by: Tony Marshall / EMPICS Sport
His 21 goals in all competitions attracted Chelsea, where he became a household name in the Premier League, particularly as a strike partner for Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink who has spoken glowingly playing alongside his Icelandic colleague and friend.
That time at Stamford Bridge would become the most stable and fulfilling of his career, ultimately staying for six seasons before becoming the first man from Iceland to play for the mighty Barcelona in 2006, remaining part of the squad that lifted Pep Guardiola’s first Champions League in 2009.
His career has been far more nomadic ever since with spells in France, England, Greece, China and now Norway.
All the while, the striker who has now reached the grand old footballing age of 37, continued to represent a national side that remained also-rans and never qualified for any major tournaments. It seemed that he would never represent his country at a major tournament despite his achievements at club level.
Indeed, he seemed to have retired from Iceland duty in tears after the 2014 World Cup playoff defeat to Croatia as Iceland came closer than ever to reaching a major tournament. But by then he was already 35.
"I’m pretty sure that was my final game for Iceland," he stated after the second leg against Croatia with tears shimmering in his eyes, although the term “pretty sure” left the door slightly open to an indian summer if Iceland were ever to qualify.
Although, there are no subtitles available in the clip above, his emotions are quite clearly on the surface.
But just as the curtain drew closed on his international career, a new generation of Icelandic talent was emerging.
A squad featuring Gylfi Sigurdsson, Aron Gunnarsson, Kolbeinn Sigþórsson and Alfreð Finnbogason qualified for the 2011 UEFA under-21 championships and only missed out on the knockout stage by the narrowest of margins on head-to-head goal difference.
Over 80% of that Iceland under-21 squad have since graduated to the senior team and after 18 months in the wilderness, Gudjohsen decided to come back in from the cold as Euro 2016 qualification went from a dream to reality.
The veteran made a goalscoring return, scoring a 20th minute opener away in Kazakhstan to help Iceland to a 3-0 qualifier win.
He flitted between sitting on the bench and substitute appearances for the remainder of the qualifying group as Iceland managed to qualify for Euro 2016 automatically.
While he is unlikely to be a starter when Iceland kick off against Portugal in Saint-Etienne on June 14th, the all-time national team top scorer with 26 goals has been rewarded with a place in the Euro 2016 squad for Iceland’s first taste of major tournament football.
Indeed, he found the net in Iceland’s final warm-up game against Liechtenstein so a role as a back-up forward is likely.
Either way, he might not have been able to start a match alongside his father 20 years ago due to that broken leg against Ireland’s under-18s, but his international patience means another dream can now be complete by putting his boots on the turf during a major tournament match.