WORDS AND IMAGES BY MARC BOAL
Isafjordur is an 11-hour round trip (by car) from Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, so I decided to fly up instead, to visit the local football club Vestri. The flight itself was an incredible experience as the plane flew over glaciers, vast fjords and some of the most inhospitable terrain Iceland has to offer. The approach landing, to Isafjordur, is not for the faint hearted as the small plane hugs the 1,500-foot snow-capped mountains to combat against the dangerous wind shear, and it’s easy to see why the top aviation websites consider the approach to the town one of the most challenging in the world.
With a population of about 2,600, Isafjordur (Ice fjord) is the largest town in the peninsula of the Westfjords, and the seat of the Isafjardarbaer municipality. Located just 34 miles from the Arctic Circle, Isafjordur is surrounded by the cavernous Kirkjubolsfjall, Eyrarfjall and Kubbi mountains that soar high above the main town, which is situated on a plateau that juts into the middle of the fjord. This type of landscape provides the remoteness and beautiful melancholy that keeps me coming back to the land of fire and ice.
There have been many club mergers with neighbouring towns across the whole of Northern Iceland, and the main town and village (Isafjordur and Bolungarvik) are no different. The club have played under a few different guises over the decades; IBI, then on to BI/Bolungarvik – formed from the merger of the football team Boltafélag Ísafjarðar (BÍ 88) and sports club UMF Bolungarvik in May 2006. In a quest to get a new identity the club finally settled for the new name of Vestri in 2016.
There hasn’t been much success on the field although IBI won the first division in 1961, and lifted the second division title twelve years later in 1973. The club were playing in the Icelandic first division from 2011, with their highest league position coming in 2013 when they ended the season in 5th place, but they finished bottom of the table in 2015 and have been playing in the second division ever since. In 2011, they were 45 minutes away from causing one of the biggest upsets in Icelandic cup history as they played champions KR Reykjavik in the semi-final at Torfnesvollur. A bumper crowd of 1,000 saw the local side match the capital club for most of the game, however, KR – with far superior fitness – scored three late goals to progress to the final after the 1-4 victory.
It’s been a challenging season for the young Vestri squad, and the club’s form has been erratic at times, but I don’t think it will be too long before they are back in the first division. The Vestri officials are working hard behind the scenes laying the foundations for this little club, and it will be no surprise to see Vestri moving up divisions in the years to come.
Vestri Chairman, Svavar Thor Gudmundsson, was my host for the day as he showed me around the facilities, and told me that Vestri are about to embark on one of the biggest transformations in the club’s history: “The Board of Directors have had advanced discussions with the local council about getting a half size indoor hall with an artificial surface, this will be a huge benefit for Vestri football club, and the community as a whole, as other sports can also be played indoors during the winter months when the weather is bad.”
I caught up with manager Jonas Leifur Sigursteinsson in the rather modest surroundings of the Vestri clubhouse. Jonas spent 11 years at Thor Akureryi and carries the same sentiment as Svavar (when I asked him about the best moment of his football career): “My best moment has not come yet, but it will… when the first piece of turf is cut from the ground to start the construction of the new indoor hall – that will be the highlight of my career.” It was very clear to me after speaking to the board and club officials that they have gone to extraordinary lengths to build a legacy for the youngsters of this isolated town and surrounding villages, and in a way, epitomises what can be done if the whole community bonds and works together. It’s not going to come cheap, the cost of this venture is going to be something in the region of £1.5 to £2million depending on inflation. However, it would be the main focal point of the town during the long winter months and benefit the 150 youngsters and players that are registered at the club. The plans are drawn up and the hall would be built behind the main grass pitch, on the old artificial park, which is over 15 years old and has seen better days.
Travelling to away games can be very difficult and costly due to the logistics of Isafjordur; Jonas tells me, “We will set off at 7am for a match in Reykjavik, and we will arrive back in Isafjordur at midnight but most of the lads are used to the travelling now. However, if we have a match in the east of Iceland then that can be a 10-12 hour drive, one way, so if there are two clubs in the east of the country in our division we will ask the Icelandic FA for special dispensation so we can play our two away games over a 5 day period, this is expensive as we will have to book accommodation for the players and officials but at the same time this is a much cheaper option than going out to the east of the country twice in a season.” The club get some help with funding for the travelling, from a government scheme, but it’s only a small amount of money. The local bus/car rental firm give the club a special rate for hire of a minibus during the season which helps reduce costs. Vestri have very good sponsorship from businesses around the town, the fishing fleet and process plants are also big backers of the club.
There have been a few notable names from the town who have gone on to become fully professional; Matthias Vilhjalmsson went on to have a successful career at Rosenborg, and Omar Torfason won 39 caps for the national team. Bjorn Helgason and Emil Palsson have also gone on to further their careers at bigger clubs.
All of the squad at Vestri are part-time, the local players will have jobs outside football to earn a wage and the foreign players will work part-time during the season for some extra money; the club will also give accommodation and a car to the foreign players. The team trains 5 times a week during the summer months, plus a match, and usually have one rest day; there is a weight lifting suite downtown in Isafjordur as well as another in the nearby village of Bolungarvik for the players to use.
The sun was beating down and there wasn’t a breath of wind which is very unusual at this time of year (May) this far north. At the training pitch the shouts from the youngsters training drifted into the Nordic sky around the fjord. I spoke to one of the coaches, Jon Halfdan Petursson, who was putting the youngsters through their paces on the artificial pitch: “We are aiming very high for a small provincial club, we give the kids the best training possible and with the new indoor hall on the horizon we will also be able to train in the perfect environment. We are trying to get a nucleus of 7 good players for the first team and we can build around them, we are always on the look-out for new talent.”
The dreamy and mesmeric stadium Torfnesvollur is perched at the bottom of the vertical Eyrafjall mountain. The ground is just a long ball punt away from the freezing waters of Pollur Bay at the mouth of the fjord; it looks as if a giant troll from the sagas has placed the ground lovingly on its location and wandered off, as most of the terrain in this part of the world is mountainous and there isn’t a great deal of flat land for a football pitch. The panoramic views which this ground has to offer are, quite simply, staggering. At the vantage point behind the main stand I was taking photos and had to stop to really appreciate the view and whispered to myself ‘WTF’… the photos don’t really do the stadium any justice, you simply have to visit the place to take in the enormity of the chiselled mountains, that are peppered with snow, that provide the backdrop to this alluring ground. The pitch, which usually gets brutalised by the Arctic gales and snow, was in pristine condition due to very low snowfall over the winter period. The groundsman was busy tendering his little ‘Garden of Eden’ when I arrived with a few of the players for the photo shoot – I’m not too sure he was entirely happy with us on his hallowed turf.
Torfnesvollur was built in 2013 and has seating for 540 spectators although there is plenty of standing space around the ground, the average home matches attract between 200-300 spectators. There were plans to put a roof on the stand but this would have gone way over the budget costs so this idea was eventually shelved. Underneath the stand there is actually a shooting range for the local gun club!
Svavar took me through to the sleepy village of Bolungarvik which is one of Iceland’s oldest fishing outposts, well positioned close to abundant fishing grounds. On our way there we made a stop at the small hamlet of Hnifsdalur (Knife’s Valley). Svavar told me of the heartwarming story about two young ‘football daft’ boys who used to stay at this secluded place: “There was no park in the area for the two youngsters to play football so they wrote a letter to the Icelandic FA to see if they would build them a pitch. The FA replied and sent the boys the turf, and the local municipality provided the rest of the materials to build them an outdoor 5-a-side pitch with the promise from the two lads that they would take care of the brand-new playing surface.” There are over 150 of these small pitches scattered all over the country.
The training ground, Skeidisvollur, at Bolungarvik, is a 10-minute walk from the main village, and is set against a backdrop of craggy desolate mountains and a tundra-ish looking landscape, this really is the final frontier in Iceland; to the west some 700 miles away is Greenland. Vestri will train at Skeidisvollur if the pitch in Isafjordur isn’t in good condition, it will also host occasional youth games. One of its charming features is the huge log that is based at the side of the pitch with 15 plastic seats nailed to it; the village’s own little theatre of dreams. Club Manager Jonas joined Svavar and myself on the pitch and told me a story from yesteryear: “There used to be a black lava pitch in the middle of the village which was being used until 1990, (Jonas’ face grimaces) there were lots of injuries and cuts after playing on the infamous and merciless pitch.”
I have travelled around most of Iceland visiting clubs and stadiums, I have felt a real community togetherness from the townsfolk I’ve met, they are very proud of their football clubs. This was even more apparent in Isafjordur, I have to say I was totally blown away with the beauty and tranquillity, forget about going to the Golden Circle and the Blue Lagoon or the other tourist traps, be sure to visit Isafjordur – its charms will seduce you.
This was an excerpt from the new edition of Icelandic Football Magazine, In the Land of Fire, by Marc Boal. Get your copy via their website https://www.facebook.com/Icelandicfootballuk/
You can also follow on Twitter @marcboal