When Hodgson leads England onto the field against Iceland on Monday, he will be intrigued to meet his former player again. Michael Yokhin explains the story...
Birkir Bjarnason looks like a Viking, and it is fitting that his first professional club were Viking FK from the Norwegian town of Stavanger. That is where Roy Hodgson worked when he gave the Icelandic youngster his first opportunity at senior level in 2005. The 17-year-old Bjarnason was included in the squad ahead of a UEFA Cup fixture against CSKA Sofia and came on for the last 12 minutes of a 2-0 defeat.
"Birkir is very young, but has great potential," Hodgson told the local press in Stavanger. "He is athletic, good with the ball and has a positive attitude. He has no significant weaknesses, and excels both in attack and in defence. I am certain that his career will develop in the right direction."
Such plaudits are especially interesting considering the Englishman was famous for refusing to give chances to teenagers; Bjarnason was an exception, and that was a huge compliment.
Hodgson's prediction has most certainly come true. Today, the 28-year-old Bjarnason is one of Iceland's key players, having helped them qualify for a first major tournament. His contribution became even more dramatic when he scored their first goal in France, ensuring his name in history.
Bjarnason is nicknamed Thor, after the Nordic god of thunder and storms – and he has certainly made himself heard. His brilliant strike against Portugal earned the Scandinavians a deserved draw in their first group game, and Iceland went on to qualify from Group F without a single defeat.
Bjarnason is nicknamed Thor, after the Nordic god of thunder and storms, and he has definitely made himself heard
A move abroad
It is safe to say, however, that Birkir probably would have succeeded without Hodgson. His talent was evident for all to see, and he made enormous progress despite moving from Iceland to Norway at the age of 11 after his father received a lucrative job offer.
You might think that was a positive change, but the reality was quite different. Iceland had a long-term youth project running already, and Bjarnason would have had five training sessions a week with qualified coaches in his homeland. Upon arriving in Norway, he was surprised to discover that children of his age only trained twice a week, bizarrely under the guidance of their parents.
He comes from a family of sporting heritage – his father played for the national football team, his mother represented Iceland in volleyball, and his sister was also a footballer
Birkir refused to let the circumstances stop him. He comes from a family of sporting heritage – his father played for the national football team, his mother represented Iceland in volleyball, and his sister was also a footballer. Thus he continued, and his name became quite famous around the area. That is why Hodgson made sure he joined Viking from tiny Figgjo in the summer of 2005.
Joachim Baardsen, who works as a journalist for Dagbladet, played at Viking's academy in those days and witnessed Bjarnason's progress: "Birkir was regularly training with the first team, and we – the players of the youth team – could see that his work rate was truly amazing," he tells FourFourTwo. "He had an eye for goal too, and his love for the game knew no limits. There was a time when he finished practicing with the first team and immediately asked the youth coach to join our session. He has always been a true professional."
Bjarnason aggravates CR7 & Co.
Life after Roy
Fans began blaming him for poor performances, even calling him ‘fat’ and ‘lazy’. He decided that he needed to change everything, refused to sign a new contract and left
Viking dearly wanted Hodgson to stay after a successful 2005 season, but the Englishman chose to accept an offer to work with the Finland national team, and Bjarnason made his first steps in the Norwegian Tippeligaen with Swede Tom Prahl on the bench.
His best season at the club was under German coach Uwe Rosler, who recently worked at Brentford, Wigan and Leeds. The Icelander was chosen as Viking's player of the year in 2009, and around that time Hodgson's Fulham sent scouts to follow him.
Eventually, Bjarnason's time at Viking ended rather unhappily. The team experienced a significant crisis in 2011 and fans began blaming Bjarnason for poor performances, even calling him ‘fat’ and ‘lazy’. Disappointed and angry, the player decided he needed to change everything, refused to sign a new contract and left for Standard Liege on a free transfer at the beginning of 2012.
ENGLAND VS ICELAND
Six months later he was in Italy, starring for Pescara in Serie A and making quite a name for himself in a country that hasn't seen too many Icelandic footballers. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that Sampdoria signed him when Pescara were relegated. However, Bjarnason was back at Pescara in Serie B for the 2014/15 season after falling out with manager Sinisa Mihajlovic, and that's when a very amusing incident occurred.
Club or country?
Local football associations don't take international fixtures into account when planning second division timetables, and it was unfortunate for Pescara to see Bjarnason joining Iceland for an important Euro 2016 qualifying game against the Czech Republic just as the club were due to take part in the promotion play-offs.
Iceland won, but Pescara lost without their leader, and the fans' outrage knew no limits. A Facebook page was opened against the entire Icelandic nation, as the Italians threatened "to boil their sheep in their geysers" and wished for "the Eyjafjallajokull volcano to wash the island away".
Despite receiving attractive offers from Serie A clubs, he chose to continue his career at Basel, attracted by the chance to play in the Champions League
Sadly for Pescara supporters, Bjarnason never returned to the club. Despite receiving attractive offers from Serie A clubs, most notably Torino, he chose to continue his career at Basel, attracted by the chance to play in the Champions League for the first time. That aspiration has yet to be realised after the Swiss champions were surprisingly eliminated by Maccabi Tel Aviv in the qualifiers last August, but Bjarnason didn't grieve for too long. Just a week later, he was back with the national team and continued to live another, even more important, dream.
It was Bjarnason who was fouled in the penalty area by Gregory van der Wiel, leading to the phenomenal 1-0 win over Holland in Amsterdam. After that, Iceland's qualification for the Euros was virtually assured, and Birkir – who started all of the country’s qualifiers – became one of the national heroes.
England are favourites on Monday, but it is important to remember that Iceland have beaten the Dutch twice, and their remarkable results in France are no accident. They are strong tactically and play as a unit, while every star gives his utmost.
That's what Bjarnason has been doing all his life, and Hodgson knows that better than anyone. The England coach must be proud to see the boy who made his senior debut under his guidance more than a decade ago reach such a high level, but there will be no sentiments as far as Bjarnason is concerned. He is out to beat his mentor.
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