The news came as a shock. In a World Cup qualifying match this past September, Hungary, with a population of 9.9.million could only manage a draw with the tinny tiny Faroe Islands, population 49,500. I was ignorant of this startling result, until I noticed it online yesterday. With World Cup qualifying games taking place this past weekend I wondered how Hungary was doing in their group. I was cautiously optimistic since they had managed to qualify for the European Championships last summer. The Hungarians finished tied for first in group play, advancing to the second round where they fell to a strong Belgian side. After falling apart at the end of World Cup 2014 qualifying, when they had trouble defeating an awful Andorra squad in a home game, it finally looked like Hungary was improving. That illusion seemed to be shattered by the result against the Faroe Islands. I did a double take when I saw the score. Could Hungarian football have hit a new low? The Faroe Islands were supposed to be an automatic victory, or so I thought. Once I looked deeper into the situation I learned that the Faroese national team has a long history of defying the odds.
The Faroe Islands is not exactly known as a hub of international football or for much of anything at all. It is difficult to find more than a handful of people who can locate these exceedingly remote islands. I only knew of the Faroes because my high school had a terribly shy exchange student who hailed from the country. The 18 islands that make up this self-governing country within the Kingdom of Denmark can be found northwest of Scotland and east of Iceland. The kind of weather beaten place where it rains on average for 15 days a month, sheep outnumber people and seabirds outnumber both twenty to one. The main industry is fishing, how could it be otherwise when there is over 1,100 kilometers of coastline? Besides fishing, bird watching, and dodging raindrops the other major pastime is football. One in seven citizens is a registered football player. It has been estimated that during the 2011-2012 Faroe football league season, 10% of all Faroese attended at least one game. Part of this fanatical interest has been brought about by the Faroe Islands play in international football tournaments over the past twenty-five years. Much of their limited and surprising success has come against Eastern European nations, starting with their very first international game.
The Miracle At Landskrona – “Those Arrogant Austrians”
In 1990 the Faroe Islands faced Austria in the qualifying for the Euro 92 Championship. The Faroese squad consisted entirely of amateur players, but was coached by a former Icelandic professional player, Páll Guðlaugsson. The Faroese could not host the match since there were no grass pitches on the islands. Instead, the game was played at a neutral site in Landskrona, Sweden. Just before the game, Guðlaugsson gave a fiery speech in which he implored the Faeroese players to “Think of the Faroese flag. Your flag. Take it with you on that field. Throw yourself into the tackles against those arrogant Austrians with one mission – to win the game for your nation. Tonight you pay back your childhood.” In an incredible display of determination the Faroese side did just that. The lone goal of the game was scored by Torkil Nielsen, a salesman for the local builders company, more famous for his chess playing prowess than footballing skills. The 1-0 victory by the Faroese continues to be rated as one of the greatest upsets in football history. The Faroese also fought Northern Ireland to a draw in another qualifying match during that tournament. This auspicious start was a harbinger of upsets to come.
During the late 1990’s and early 2000’s the Faroese drew matches against several Eastern European sides in World Cup and Euro qualifying, including Lithuania, Slovenia and Bosnia. Each of these matches took place at the Svangaskarð in the village of Toftir, the first football pitch built to international standards in the country. The stadium holds 6,000 people, over seven times the population of Toftir. Five of the Faroese side’s six home victories in international qualifying tournaments have occurred at the Svangaskarð. A notoriously difficult place to play, a trip to Svangaskarð requires the visiting team to first land in the capital of Torshavn, followed by an hour long bus ride to a port terminal. The journey ends with a 45 minute ferry ride, often in poor weather conditions. In 2008 Svangaskarð proved its value to the home side as the Faroese once again surprised the Austrians, this time with a 1-1 draw in World Cup 2010 qualifying. Less than a year later they would go on to defeat Lithuania 2-1 in the same stadium.
Giant Killers – The Faroese Conquer Greece
The greatest upsets pulled off by the Faroese since the miracle at Landskrona were two games against Greece, that mercurial Balkan powerhouse and consistent middle of the pack contender in European football. Both games occurred during qualifying for the Euro 2016 Championship. At the time Greece was ranked #18, a full 169 spots ahead of the Faroese. The first meeting was by far the most shocking. Greece was playing at home and as such was heavily favored. Earlier in the year they had made it to the knockout round of the World Cup. None of this impressed the Faroese who were on another giant killing mission. The lone goal of the game was scored in the 61st minute on a busted play befitting a miracle upset. A Faroese cross from the right side deflected off a player who had fallen to the ground. The ball skipped over to Brandur Olsen. He proceeded to pass it over to Jóan Simun Edmundsson who then booted a clean shot into the net. For the next 33 minutes the Farose clung to the lead. The Greeks came within inches of a tie when one of their shots struck the goal post, but the Faroese managed to hold on. When time expired they erupted in celebration, while a chorus of boos rang out from the stands of Karaiskakis Stadium in Athens as the Greek fans poured scorn onto their team.
By world ranking this was the greatest upset in football history, but what happened eight months later in the Faroe Islands made the match seem like less an upset and more a pattern. Revenge was certainly on the minds of the Greek team as they traveled to the capital city of Torshavn in June 2015. This was the first match in the Faroese side’s newly remodeled Tórsvøllur stadium with its special section, the Skansin (fort), built for their most rabid fans. Once again the Faroese team rose to the occasion, taking an insurmountable two goal lead over the Greeks in the 70th minute then holding on for a 2-1 victory. The result left little doubt that the Faroe Islands were the superior team. These victories allowed the team to break into the world’s top 100 for the first time ever in 2015. In 2016 they finished the year even higher, at 74th in the world.
Beyond Upsets – A Future For Faroese Football
The Faroe Islands had another opportunity to make history against Eastern European teams when they drew Hungary and Estonia in their group for the 2018 World Cup qualifying. On September 6th in a home match against Hungary – the one I had first read about – they came within a hair’s breadth of victory. With just five minutes left in the game midfielder Hallur Hansson produced a left foot strike that bounced off the goal post. The Faroese ended up settling for a 0-0 draw. A month later they went to Riga where they produced a decisive 2-0 victory over Latvia. It was the eleventh time since 1990 that the Faroese had defeated or tied an Eastern European country, accounting for 48% of their total successes in international football tournaments. With two more qualifying games scheduled next October against Hungary and Latvia, the Faroese may well achieve more success. The day is fast approaching when a Faroese football victory will no longer be shocking or surprising. Instead their opponents may be the ones looking for an upset.