Eidur Gudjohnsen, One-on-One: "I’ve only been to Iceland once... I didn’t buy anything"
A car with darkened windows pulls up on a Barcelona back street. A front window is lowered. The driver looks across. “Gudjohnsen!” he shouts. Iceland’s greatest ever footballer glances at the driver. “Crack!” shouts the driver, before putting his foot down. A ‘crack’ is a great person. A legend.
A smiling Gudjohnsen, aged 37 and still playing, is a father of four now, with all but his eldest son settled in Barcelona, where another of his brood is on the books at Barça’s academy. Still an Iceland international – 80 caps and counting, over 20 years – he has firm intentions of going to Euro 2016.
He sits down with FourFourTwo at Da Greco, an Italian restaurant his former team-mate Thierry Henry used to adore, and answers readers’ questions cogently and candidly.
- Date of birth: 15/09/1978
- Place of birth: Reykjavik, Iceland
- Height: 6ft 1in
- Position: Forward
- Clubs: 1994 Valur 17 games (7 goals); 1995-97 PSV 15 (3); 1998 KR Reykjavik 6 (0); 1998-2000 Bolton 73 (26); 2000-06 Chelsea 261 (78); 2006-09 Barcelona 112 (18); 2009-10 Monaco 11 (0); 2010 Tottenham (loan) 14 (2); 2010-11 Stoke 5 (0); 2011 Fulham (loan) 10 (0); 2011-12 AEK Athens 14 (1); 2012-13 Cercle Brugge 14 (7); 2013-14 Club Brugge 49 (7); 2014-15 Bolton 24 (6); 2015 Shijiazhuang Ever Bright 14 (1)
- International: 1996- Iceland 87 (26)
- Honours: KNVB Cup 1995-96; Eredivisie 1996-97; Premier League 2004-05, 2005-06; League Cup 2004-05; La Liga 2008-09; Copa del Rey 2008-09; Champions League 2008-09; UEFA Super Cup 2009
Does growing up as the son of an international footballer give you more of a chance of making it as a pro yourself? What do you think you would have done if you hadn’t become a footballer?
I didn’t become a footballer because I’m the son of a footballer, but football is genetic and I was born with football in my blood. I’m told that from the first time I saw a ball, I didn’t see anything else. I knew at the age of three I was going to be a professional footballer! I just knew. It just felt natural to me. I was obsessed with football. I grew up in an environment where all my friends were into football. I loved watching my father play and went to every game possible. Then I played myself. I’ve never thought about doing anything else.
How much did you enjoy playing alongside Ronaldo at PSV Eindhoven when you were only 17? Did he teach you anything specific?
I soon realised I was playing with someone special. He was 19, only two years older than me, but I was a boy and he was already a man. He could do amazing things at full speed – stepovers, twists and turns. The normal players, even the top-quality players, have to slow down to do certain things; he just did it at full speed. He was unstoppable at times. He was one of those talents where you didn’t think ‘I could emulate that’; he just had something special. I probably did learn to do the double one-two from him, though. I’d play a one-two with him and look on, thinking he was going to finish, then I got the ball back. I thought: ‘Yes, why not do that?’ He was a step ahead.
Who has been the best striker you have played with during your career?
That’s a difficult question. I could put together a pretty good list: Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Gianfranco Zola, Didier Drogba, Hernan Crespo, Samuel Eto’o, Lionel Messi, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo... I’m probably forgetting many more. Ah yes, Thierry Henry! If there are others, thenI apologise. The one I connected the best with, and most enjoyed playing with, was Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. We were fire and ice, so different, but we clicked – two halves gelled into one.
Do you remember your dad missing the crucial penalty for Anderlecht in the 1984 UEFA Cup Final shootout against Tottenham Hotspur? Did that not put you off joining Spurs 26 years later?
I don’t remember the moment myself, but I remember videos. I’m sure it wasn’t an easy moment for my dad. He had just come back from an injury. He was one of two or three that missed a penalty but he was the last one and they’re usually the one people remember. It didn’t put me off joining Spurs. Tottenham is a great club and at the time it felt like a good move.
My dad was a really good footballer. He was around in an era of [only] three foreign players in a team with no Bosman ruling, so it was difficult to go abroad then. He had a great career – over 20 years as a professional – and won player of the year in Belgium as well as being top scorer. He was voted best all-time foreigner in Sweden at 34. He was unlucky with injuries, but all in all he had a fantastic career.
Did you fear your career was over when you had injuries and had to leave PSV?
There was an element of fear, especially when the doctors said: ‘You’ll probably never play again at a high level’. When you’ve been on and off for two years you do start to wonder, but there was something within me that knew that wasn’t the end. I didn’t succumb to fear; I just needed time, because I broke my ankle and had some complications with bone growth. I had seven operations in total.
What was it like to come on as a substitute for your father for Iceland? Did you know it’d become a quiz question for years to come?
It’s amazing to think that I played in the same game as my father. The fact that I substituted him was a big moment and he gave me a kiss on the cheek when I came on for him. He was more nervous than me, but the moment could have been even bigger. Some people say that [former Icelandic FA president and West Ham chairman] Eggert Magnusson stopped us playing together, but that’s unfair. There was another international in Iceland six weeks later and he wanted us to start together. I can see the logic: it would have been a bigger moment to do it in front of a home crowd. But in between the two games I got injured. My dad played on for another two years after I got injured. We would have played together for a couple of years.
What has been the best goal of your career? Was it your solo goal for Bolton in the League Cup against Wimbledon in 1999?
I liked that one. Wimbledon were a Premier League team who got quite a lot of attention. That season lifted me, my performances and my profile to a different level, and the goal was part of that. It’s one of my favourites.
There was another, for Chelsea at Southampton in 2004-05. I got the ball in midfield, where [Jose] Mourinho had moved me to. I played a one-two with [Jiri] Jarosik, then gave the ball to [Frank] Lampard, who passed to Drogba, who then put me through to score. That was a pure footballing goal. I also scored an overhead kick against Leeds.
Were you annoyed at Bolton team-mate Dean Holdsworth for missing an open goal in the 2000 FA Cup semi-final after you’d virtually laid it on a plate for him? What did you say to him afterwards?
I wasn’t annoyed; it was just disappointment. We played an amazing game and had an amazing season. We went to the semi-finals of the FA Cup and the League Cup. We also got to the semi-finals of the play-offs. Pushing on all fronts was probably why we didn’t win a cup or get promoted. Also, I was a young boy and Dean Holdsworth was a senior pro – I wasn’t going to say anything to him!
What was behind your open-palmed goal celebration during your time at Chelsea?
[Laughs] I think it might have been something from the television show Friends. I used to watch it a lot. In one episode, Joey came in, wearing all Chandler’ underwear, and asked: ‘Could I be wearing any more underwear?’ Then he did something with his hands which I thought was quite cool, so I copied it.
Your partnership with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was incredible. What meant you hit it off so well? Are you surprised to see how well he’s doing as a manager?
We clicked off the field very quickly, and I think that helped a lot. Jimmy and I were different in how we played, but very alike in how we thought about the game. Jimmy was so powerful, while I was about picking a position and finding the right pass so he could take care of the rest. I’d usually drop off him and go deep, but we could alternate. It was such an enjoyable time. We became good mates. We even spent Christmas together with our partners. I’m not surprised that he’s doing well as a manager because he’s very clear in his thinking and knows what he wants. He is stubborn and determined, just like he was as a player – typically Dutch, I suppose.
If you and Jimmy were to wrestle, his finishing move would no doubt involve those oak tree-sized thighs of his, but what would your move be?
[Laughs] It’s usually me who has the biggest thighs, but his thighs and backside are even bigger. I’d have to come up with something intelligent, because he’d have me for pure power. Maybe I’d have to poke him in the eye.
It’s 2003-04: Chelsea get into the last four of the Champions League along with Monaco, Porto and Deportivo La Coruna. Were you confident of going on to win it? How tough was the defeat to Monaco?
We should have made the final. We messed it up in Monaco and it was down to tactics. We got it wrong. We were drawing 1-1 away from home with an extra man on the pitch. The substitutions had a big impact and we ended up losing the game. We should never have lost. Monaco were a good team, but they weren’t extraordinary. Taking a 3-1 defeat back to Stamford Bridge just proved too much for us.
A lot of people in the media seemed to think Jose Mourinho would ship you out as soon as he arrived at Chelsea, but you played a big part in the first title triumph in 2005. What did Jose say to you when he arrived? Did you have to win him over?
A day after [Mourinho] was appointed, Peter Kenyon called me and said: “Eidur, your new manager wants to speak to you.” Jose called and said: “Eidur, I’m your new manager. Don’t even think you’re leaving Chelsea. I want you here and need you at your best. Be prepared to start work on July 5.” That was it. He didn’t need to say anything else.
How did it feel to win your first Premier League title back at the Reebok? Did it make it a little sweeter? How crazy were the Chelsea celebrations that night?
Just the fact that we’d won the Premier League made it special enough, but I do remember some Bolton fans singing my name, so that made it even more of a moment. I love Bolton and the people there. I had two great spells up there. The celebrations? They weren’t crazy because we played Liverpool in the Champions League a few days later.
“Madrid showed interest first but when Barça came in, I said: ‘Where do I sign?’”
How different was the Chelsea you left in 2006 to the one you joined in 2000?
Pat Whittle, via email
Quality-wise it was similar, although we had more of a winning mentality in 2006. Claudio Ranieri was a lovely guy and a very good coach, but Mourinho was more driven – and the core of the team was at a perfect age, but with some experience, too. The team I joined under Gianluca Vialli had a lot of experience and young players, but not enough of them aged 24-27 – the peak years.
Did you ever shop at Iceland during your time in England? Are chicken tikka lasagnes as popular back home as they are in the English supermarket of the same name?
[Laughs] Of course! Whenever I missed home, I went shopping in Iceland! Not really. I’ve only been in there once and didn’t buy anything.
Did you turn down Real Madrid to join Barça?
From what I was told at the time, they were at least interested. The first interest I heard from Spain was Real Madrid. But the club were going through their elections and didn’t have a coach, so I wondered how concrete the interest was. I had no idea then how things worked in Spain. When Barcelona came in with everything in place, having just won the Champions League, I thought: ‘Let’s get this done – where do I sign?’ I’d heard whispers about Barcelona for a year, ever since we’d knocked them out of Europe
As Barça’s replacement for Henrik Larsson, did you feel pressure filling the shoes of somebody held in such high regard there?
I didn’t realise at the time that I was supposed to be replacing someone. Then I realised we were both from Nordic countries and wore the same shirt number. I’d come off the bench and score the winner, but speak to the people in Barcelona and it’s like Henrik Larsson came off the bench and scored the winner in every match. That’s how they remember him, and I couldn’t get away from that comparison. He was a great player. Still, I didn’t feel pressure in replacing him – joining Barcelona was pressure enough. Our Chelsea training was at a high level but they took it up another few notches. No matter how hard you drilled a pass to a player, their touch was perfect. If you were on the side without the ball, you couldn’t get it back.
You’re one of a very small number to have played for both Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola. What are the similarities and differences between them as managers?
Similarities are an eye for detail in the way that they work. In footballing terms, Jose is a little bit more defensive – not defensive-minded, but in the way that he analyses the opposition. Guardiola is more obsessed with the way that his team plays. And their personalities are completely different. Guardiola is more timid and doesn’t like confrontation. Mourinho is more chest-out ‘come and get it if you want’. Jose likes a bit of confrontation and a bit of discussion – and a heated discussion, at that. With respect, Guardiola would probably rather not have [that kind of conversation].
How close were you to joining West Ham in 2010 before opting for Tottenham, and why did you decide to go to Spurs?
I was very close. I spoke to Gianfranco Zola, who was West Ham manager at the time, but when I was travelling to England I had Harry Redknapp on the phone. He had spoken to my agent and my dad. When I landed in London, I had a decision to make: West Ham or Spurs? I opted for the team pushing for Champions League places rather than a team fighting at the other end of the table. That was the only reason for my decision. West Ham’s owners got a bit lively and were a bit outspoken, but that was the reason behind it all.
“The Reebok and the Camp Nou are quite similar. 27,000 fans can give you the same sensation as 98,000”
Why was your loan spell at Spurs so short? We could have done with your experience in the Champions League!
That was a weird one, and it’s something I regret. A lot of Chelsea fans won’t be happy that I’m saying this, but I enjoyed my time at Tottenham. We had a good team, with Gareth Bale and Luka Modric, and also guys like Peter Crouch, Ledley King, Niko Kranjcar, [Heurelho] Gomes in goal – a lot of really good footballers. Before I left at the end of the season, the last words that I heard from Redknapp [right] were: ‘See you pre-season. You have been brilliant for us – we’re going to need you next season’. That never happened. I still had a contract with Monaco, so I went back there. Whether the two clubs couldn’t agree a transfer fee, I’ll never really know.
You’ve played in the Premier League and La Liga. Which was tougher?
Technically, it’s tougher in Spain. Physically, it’s tougher in England.
How does playing at the Reebok/Macron compare with playing at the Camp Nou?
Depending on the weather, it can be quite similar. The atmosphere at Bolton can be electric. In Spain – especially at Barcelona – there’s a sense of the fans saying: ‘You need to excite us before we applaud’. At the Reebok, you sense the atmosphere straight away: 27,000 can give you the same sensation as 98,000. Unfortunately I never played for Bolton in the Premier League, but we played against Liverpool in the FA Cup fourth round last season and it was a crazy atmosphere.
Frank Lampard turned out to be much better than I thought. When he signed for Chelsea, I thought he was a good player, but expensive at £11 million. It turned out to be one of the biggest bargains in the history of the club.
You played with guys like Frank Lampard, Lionel Messi and Gareth Bale relatively early in their careers. Can you tell which young players will make it to the very top and which will fail to make the grade? Has any former team-mate surprised you by doing much better or worse than you thought they would?
Harry Kane has turned out to be much better than I thought. That just shows that you can’t call players right all the time. If you don’t know them personally, you don’t know what their attitude is like. Sometimes in training, as he occasionally trained with the first-team squad, I thought: “I’m not sure about him”. I didn’t know him as a person. If I did, I probably would have held a different opinion. Usually you can see the talent, but you can never be certain if they’ll make it. The mind can be the strongest or the weakest attribute of a player.
Frank Lampard turned out to be much better than I thought, too. When he signed for Chelsea, I thought he was a good player, but expensive at £11 million. It turned out to be one of the biggest bargains in the history of the club. He grew season by season. His work ethic was extraordinary and he became a star.
With Lionel Messi, nobody had any doubts once he had become a professional. They did have some doubts when he was younger, because he barely spoke, but then when he was put into the first team he just exploded.
What took you to China? Just a hunger to keep playing for as long as possible?
I didn’t want a repeat of the previous season when I joined Bolton in November. I wanted to start this season playing. Last season finished and I was waiting for Bolton to finalise a contract. For reasons that are more obvious now – financial ones – they couldn’t. I had an offer from China and decided to take it.
Let’s be honest: when you go to China you know it’s going to be good financially. But it was more that I didn’t want to stop playing football. I made 14 appearances, the stadium was full – 40,000 for every game – and the atmosphere was unbelievable. We had an organised team which played on the counter-attack, and that didn’t really suit me. I was out on the left wing sometimes and I would be running up and down thinking: ‘I’m too old for this!’
How far do you think Iceland can go at Euro 2016? Considering the country’s size how big an achievement is qualifying?
It’s an amazing achievement. There’s talk of 15,000 fans travelling to France – that’s five per cent of the whole population! It shows the love for football in Iceland. Because we’re so small and our upbringing is so liberal, there’s very little crime, and in the summer kids can stay outside most of the night. If you’re mad about football you can play until the sun goes down – but it doesn’t go down.
Is there any chance you’ll hang around long enough to play for Iceland with one of your kids, as your father did with you?
I doubt it. I’ll stop playing for Iceland after the European Championship. As for club football, I’ll see how I feel and if I can still play at a decent level. To go to the Euros I need to be fit and playing, but I can’t wait to play in a major tournament for the first time in my life.
I still love football. I still love going to training every day. I suffered a bad injury – a double fracture – at 33 and people said: ‘He won’t come back from that’. But something within me said: ‘You’re not going to end your career like this’. I’ve enjoyed another four years since.
However, I won’t be playing for as long as Ryan Giggs did. That’s only two years away, but at my age it’s two long years.
This feature first appeared in the March 2016 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Subscribe!