Let’s be clear from the start. My trip to the Islands was built around the idea of groundhopping, which I did my best to explain to a number of bemused locals during the fortnight. The English school break for Easter (at least on my patch) coincided with the start of the new Faroese league season, and it turned out that the fixture schedule, together with the relatively small distances involved, would allow me to get to at least nine different venues. In the end I was able to see twelve games at ten venues in fifteen days. Knowing that the weather would be variable, I expected to fill in the time between games with a mixture of driving, sightseeing and walking, and so it proved. Overall, it was an immensely enjoyable experience when taken as a whole. The football of itself is interesting, sure, but it is its interaction with the physical settings and the friendly “community” feel of the matches that made this such a great trip.
Without doubt the most common football-related question to me has been, “What are the standards like?” I have found this difficult to pin down. Given that the tickets were 80DKK each (about £9.60), the crowds were 400-800 in size, and that the teams are part-time, the starting point for discussion should probably be our Step 2, the Conference North or South. Let’s imagine a tie between such an English club and a Faroese club played over two legs. In most cases the Faroese manager would turn out to be the younger of the two.
Within the Faroese teams I saw, there was likely to be a mix of physical shapes and sizes, with the bigger and heavier players in the spine of the team from striker through central midfield and defence to the goalkeeper. Some of the full-backs and wide-players were, however, more slightly built for speed and agility rather than strength and stamina. I am pretty sure that any Step 2 English team would be confident about winning at home, on grass, against a Faroese top-tier side. They would probably have a significant average height/weight advantage and be less likely to be caught out by variable bounce and the dreaded “bobble”. The experience of the Faroe Islands national side in the Euro 2012 qualifiers bears out the difficulty of the transition (one point from five games, taken at home against Northern Ireland).
|If only EB/Streymur could have brought Manchester City here in their Europa League tie ...|
I am less sure about what would happen on the artificial surfaces that are used at all levels of club football in the Faroe Islands. It is not until you see the relative lack of flat or flattish land in the country as a whole that you realise that it is remarkable that the game thrives at all, and the latest artificial pitches allow community clubs to thrive by running several teams. (Dynamite was needed to blast a space for the new national stadium at Toftir!)
Some of the most extreme windy conditions that I saw would be a leveller, but on a half-decent day I could easily imagine statuesque English-style central defenders watching in awe as the ball whizzed around in intricate pass-and-move triangles for nimble midfielders and wide players. Certainly there was no significant difference in the pace of the men’s game in the two leagues, and the games, as in England, often had “cagey” starts and a period of open end-to-end play as the players tired in the last quarter. I watch a lot of football, as you can see from this blog, and the matches were all, with one exception perhaps, very entertaining. A reasonable proportion of the men's games still had the result in doubt right up to the final whistle.
The Faroese teams had no problem with using the strong winds to their advantage - I saw a number of goals scored from viciously swinging corners and free-kicks - but the ball spends much more time on the floor. Defenders are often required to play the ball out from the back. Front players are most likely to receive the ball to feet with back to goal. The “lofted ball into the channel” is much more rare (I was wondering whether it is harder to make the ball “hold up” with backspin on the artificial turf) and heading opportunities arise most commonly from set pieces or corners. It is predominantly a two-touch game - control and pass. Tackling could be hard, but it is rarer to see a player go to ground. A mistimed tackle often resulted in a yellow card.
While thinking about standards, it has to be said that the women’s game in England is much more competitive and developed. One team, KÍ of Klasvík, has dominated the women’s league for the whole of this century, and it looks like it will be several years yet before they will be seriously challenged.
I wonder whether adopting the artificial surface for step 3 and below would really transform the grass-roots game in this country. I’d like to find out whether Faroese players suffer from fewer knee injuries and can have longer careers. I wonder how many more younger players could get involved when a club can run several teams on the same patch of land. How much better could first team training be? I have listed below the games that took place on one pitch in Tórshavn on Saturday last – it is an undeniably impressive use of a resource. I am sure that the basic financial mechanics of running a non-league club would be helped immeasurably by the reliability of the pitch, and the levels of winter entertainment for spectators would be improved.
Out of Africa
One other thing that makes the England/Faroes comparison difficult is that there was not a single English (or Scottish, Welsh or Irish) player plying his trade in the league. The basic issue is that they can probably earn more in the English game, without all the side issues of language and lifestyle. However, that does not seem to be stopping African players, and to a certain extent some from Central or Eastern Europe, making a mark. Clubs who bring players in from abroad have to guarantee them a basic income which means they do not necessarily need another job. The Faroese players are all part-time. This means that several clubs have black players with “star” status, usually up front or in central midfield, and goalkeepers or midfield playmakers from central Europe are also quite common. For these players, the Faroese league (currently sponsored by Vodafone) might be a stepping stone to Denmark or the other Scandinavian leagues.
Overseas players make up around 20% of the starting line-up, but in the first two weeks of the season they had contributed more than 20% of goals and assists.
Out of the Faroes
When Faroese goalkeeper Gunnar Neilsen made his debut for Manchester City, it was big news in the Islands that one of their own had made it to the big league. He had been on Blackburn’s books and has been loaned to Wrexham and Tranmere. His experience at the moment is the same as many young keepers – he has been on the bench a lot. Jóan Simun Edmundsson played up front for B68 Toftir and is in Newcastle’s reserves, though he has been loaned out to Gateshead in the Conference. Neither of them are household names here - yet.
|Tórshavn's main shopping centre|
The impact of the English Premier League is everywhere in the Islands. I saw club hats and jackets at every ground I visited. The big-name shirts are on sale in the city centre, and even a rural bus-stop had a poster for a competition to win tickets to the United-City FA Cup semi-final at Wembley. The games are shown on TV, a week after the event. *EDIT: See comment below, happy to be corrected - games are shown live too* I can’t say that it makes me feel good as an Englishman to find this.
Most of the adults that I spoke to at the games were in touch with Premiership events and had an English team that they supported. Liverpool more than most, I’d say, especially for the 30-something-plus generation. There seemed to be more affinity for northern or coastal sides, and the original inspiration was more often than not a prima donna goalscorer.
Faroese crowds are quiet and polite by English standards. The latter is no bad thing, to be brutally honest. Home and away supporters mixed without difficulty, and the makeup of the crowd was much more representative of the population, with a higher percentage of women and children in attendance. Players were quite likely to apologise to each other after a mistimed tackle, and any dissent to the officials was momentary and covert rather than overt. Aggression was focussed rather than generic. The crowds applauded ideas and intention as well as outcomes.
As a percentage of the population the attendances were impressive – remember the entire population of the Islands is about 50,000 meaning that about 5% of them must go to a game in any given week (say, 5 games with 500 present at each). The same proportion of England’s population of 50 million would be 2.5m people shared among 10 premiership games, or 250,000 at each. Even sharing among 46 games (92 premiership and league clubs), that would be an average of over 54,000 for each. Therefore, the per capita support and involvement of the Faroe Islands in football is impressive. Some of the grounds are geographically assisted in generating the atmosphere of an amphitheatre.
However, the general level of spectator facilities is less than English fans would expect. Refreshments were usually basic, and signage often poor. Some of the main stands are still works-in-progress, though they are of a good standard and better than the typical English non-league stand. Just as here, some clubs are richer than others and have more affluent catchment areas. The main competing sports, as judged by the newspaper coverage, are handball and swimming, and, at certain times of the year, rowing at sea.
The Bottom Line
The Bottom Line
Do I recommend this trip for fellow footy fans? Yes. Just Do It.
A Day on the Upper Pitch at Gundadalur, Tórshavn (23 April 2011)
A similar progamme takes place on the adjacent lower pitch.
1000 Training for B36
1130 Boys: HB v ÍF
1300 Boys: B36 v B68
1500 1.deild men (2nd tier) HB v NSÍ
1715 2.deild men (3rd tier) Undrið v AB
1915 3.deild men (4th tier) HB v Giza
I hired a car and stayed at the Hotel Streym in Tórshavn, making full use of their wi-fi each evening for fixture-checking and blogging! This meant that I drove along the same stretch of road several times during the fortnight, but to be honest the driving was a pleasure and the variations in light and weather meant that I never got bored. All of the grounds on the six islands connected by roads and tunnels are within 100 minutes of the capital, so these were not long journeys. I covered about 2200km in a fortnight, and not all for football. I did not use public transport but it seemed to be reliable and of good quality – whether it would work in practice for groundhopping I could not say.
Tickets and Prices
Top-tier games were a uniform 80DKK to enter (about £9.60) and second-tier games around 50DKK. There was no problem with ticket availability or with parking. The locals tend to turn up in the last ten minutes before KO. Prices of other commodities in the Islands tend to be greater than the nominal UK equivalent - this is not a "budget" destination by any means.
Weather and Activities
I visited at the start of the season in April, and saw everything from sunshine to thick fog to hailstorms. I would say that three of the twelve matches I saw were seriously influenced for the worse by the wind conditions. I suppose this proportion would reduce as the season develops. I found waterproof overtrousers were helpful – and dressing in layers is best. For April you could well need hat, scarf and gloves too! Walking off-road for any distance needs the right clothing and footwear. This is not a place dominated by health-and-safety consultants and the environment and conditions should be treated with the respect that they will demand. Having said that, every drive was a scenic drive and there are many "Wow!" moments accessible without leaving tarmac. The weather forecast is available on www.dmi.dk but certainly for my stay, a bit of everything accompanied by stiff SW breezes summed up most days.
I used the Bradt Guide to the Faroe Islands and Ronaldson’s Directory of Faroese Soccer as my printed resources. I’d say that the guidebook is essential to get the best out of any visit, and the Directory is useful for working out the recent history (up to 2009) of club mergers and moves. However, www.faroesoccer.com was far and away the most useful website. It gave accurate fixture information for the top three tiers of the men’s game and the top two for the women. Kick-off times move around, and checking on the day is essential. Club websites remain of variable reliability.
All information correct to the best of my knowledge as at April 2011. All opinions expressed are my own. Any mistakes are mine. The value of the Faroese Krone is tied to the Danish one at 1:1 and exchange rates against the pound can go up or down. Boats adjacent to the Vestmanna bird cliffs can also go up and down, in fact, they will. Planes landing at Vágar airport can go sideways as well as down, but the pilots are used to it. Corner kicks at Faroese football grounds can go in any direction, who knows.