Wednesday 13 January 2021, 11:38

Gunnarsson: Iceland still have the same hunger

  • Aron Gunnarsson has captained Iceland for the past eight years

  • He now plays his club football in Qatar with Al Arabi

  • Midfielder talks tattoos, wonder goals and World Cup hopes with

Bearded, tattooed and brimming with passion, Aron Gunnarsson is widely seen as the embodiment of Iceland’s national team. He was named captain at 23, and a famous back tattoo – based on the country’s coat of arms – reflects his pride in holding that position.

When Iceland beat England to reach the UEFA EURO 2016 quarter-finals, it was Gunnarsson who led the first player-fan rendition of the now-legendary ‘Viking Clap’. But from the moment Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson began moulding a team that would write football history, they had identified this all-action midfielder as the rock on which they would build.

“He’s a shining example of what we would like to stand for,” Hallgrimsson said in 2018. “What he stands for as a player… he’s our living identity. He’s a shining example off the pitch of how players should behave and how they should support each other; on the pitch he’s vital for organising the team. He knows the position of every player, and he’s demanding. And on top of that, he’s just a very good football player.”

Given this glowing tribute, it should be no surprise that one of the first calls Hallgrimsson made, after leaving Iceland to take charge of Qatari side Al Arabi, was to his former skipper. Gunnarsson, restless and ready for a change, took up the offer that followed. And it was from his new home in Qatar that the 31-year-old spoke to, discussing Iceland’s heartbreaking EURO qualifying failure, their FIFA World Cup™ hopes and life in the country that will host the 2022 finals. Aron, be honest: are you missing the weather of a British or Icelandic winter? Aron Gunnarsson: A little bit actually! [laughs] Being Icelandic, I don’t mind a bit of cold! But it’s very nice here right now – about 20 degrees – so perfect weather really, and so much better than when I arrived back in August. That’s the hottest time of the year, and I was gobsmacked. The heat was unbearable at times. We’d train in the evening but even then the humidity was just crazy.

You’ve built your career on being the kind of midfielder who covers every blade of grass. Did you need to become more economical with your movements, especially in those early days? Yeah, there’s no way of getting around that. We all get our GPS stats and it’s clear the amount of running drops in the second half of games here. I would also cramp up towards the end of matches in those early days a lot more than I normally would. So I needed to adapt. But now the weather’s great – perfect for football – and I can play my usual game again.

Scoring goals from your own half isn’t your usual game though. Tell us about that one. [Laughs] That’s definitely true. But I’d seen the keeper off his line a few times before and thought, ‘Next time I get the ball, I’m going to whack it’. Fortunately I hit it nice and straight. Normally I’m like I am in golf, hooking or slicing my shots! [laughs]

You’d been out to Qatar in 2018 as part of your rehab following a serious knee injury. Was that when the seeds were sown about playing there one day? Absolutely. I came out here with my family, and at that stage it was touch and go whether I’d make the World Cup. There’s a clinic here with magnificent facilities and all the right doctors and physios, and they helped get me back in time. I said to my wife at that stage, ‘I wouldn’t mind living here, you know’. The next year, Heimir took the job with Al Arabi and, soon after that, he picked up the phone to me. I was in the last year of my contract with Cardiff and I knew straight away it was something I wanted to do. I felt like I needed a change after 11 years in the UK, so Heimir really didn’t need to do much to sell the idea to me.

I was reading that you’ve been impressed with, and pleasantly surprised by, the standard of football in Qatar. Definitely. One of the things I’d noticed before coming here was that there were a lot of goals in the league, and it made me think that the standard of defending and the tactical side of the game wouldn’t be what I was used to in Europe. But I think people here have recognised that issue themselves and there’s been a big change over the last couple of years, with more competition in the league and a better standard of play – tactical play especially. That’s very important for the league, and for the Qatari players who’ll be involved in the World Cup.

Aron Gunnarsson of Al Arabi in action during the Emir Cup Final between Al Sadd and Al Arabi at Al Rayyan Stadium on December 18, 2020 in Doha, Qatar.

What can people expect from a World Cup in Qatar? It’s going to be special. They’ve prepared for everything here. All the stadiums are air-conditioned, although the change to have the tournament in December is completely right in my opinion because it wouldn’t be nice for the supporters to come here in summer. As it is, they’ll get a bit of winter sunshine and be able to watch football in really perfect conditions. And everything right now is geared towards making this a fantastic World Cup because the Qataris really do want to do something extraordinary and have everyone talking positively about the country.

You’ll obviously be desperate to be involved in that World Cup but it’s been a tough time for Iceland lately. Where do you think it went wrong for Erik Hamren? Erik was very unlucky with injuries. We were without a lot of key players during his time in charge. We nearly made it to the EURO all the same, losing in the last minute in the play-offs. That was very tough to take. But now we have new coaches in place (Arnar Vidarsson having been appointed, with Eidur Gudjohnsen as his assistant) and I think there are real possibilities in our World Cup qualifying group. Germany are there and they’ll be favourites, of course, but then it’s ourselves, Romania, North Macedonia, Armenia and Liechtenstein. So I’d be hopeful of us doing well, and the boys are definitely highly motivated to return to the World Cup. There are also quite a number of players who are in their 30s now and know this will probably be our last chance.

How do you reflect on Russia 2018 now, a couple of years on? I really enjoyed it at the time but I didn’t enjoy the build-up. I thought I wasn’t going to make it for a long time - right up until the tournament really - because I not only had the issue with my knee, but ankle ligament damage too. But stepping out on to that pitch, at a World Cup, was a special feeling. Not being match-fit and needing to chase Messi around for 90 minutes wasn’t the easiest comeback, I can tell you! But I was so relieved to be involved and it was fantastic to come up against one of the greatest players ever.

Are the ingredients that underpinned Iceland’s success over the past few years – that hunger and team spirit – still there to the same extent? I get asked that question quite a lot: ‘Do we still have the hunger?’ And for me it’s a definite yes. Ok, we made history by qualifying for the EURO and the World Cup. But once you’ve experienced those things it just gives you a taste for doing it again and again. It’s the best feeling ever to be representing your country in a big tournament and if experiencing that doesn’t give you the hunger to do it again, you shouldn’t be playing football at all.

Tell us about that famous back tattoo. What was the inspiration there? Playing for Iceland means a lot to me. I think there’s something special about representing a small country; you feel like you’re the little guy who always has to fight harder than the others. With the tattoo, it was after the EURO and I wanted to do something special and meaningful. It was done by an Icelandic guy who came over to Cardiff four times, working on my back for two days each time he came. Once it was for seven hours straight. When I introduced the idea to him, he said: ‘Are you sure? Because the colour [of the flag] will be right on your spine and you’re going to be in a lot of pain.’ And I can tell you: he wasn’t lying! [laughs] But it was something I really wanted to do, and I have no regrets.

You’ve been Iceland captain since you were 23. How did it feel to be given that responsibility at such a young age? Lars [Lagerback] was building a new team at the time and I think he maybe wanted a young guy to lead the pack. It’s a big ask at that age but I guess he must have seen some leadership qualities in me. I made some mistakes at the start, said some silly things in interviews, but I think I grew into the role. One thing I know is that, when I retire, I’ll be so, so proud to say I’ve captained an Iceland team that made some real history.

 Iceland captain Aron Gunnarsson