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.”