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Kari Arnason | RedMatchday Interview

February 13, 2018 8:27 pm Author: Malcolm Panton

Kari recently spoke to the redmatchday editor.

The list of Gothenburg Greats just trips off the tongue. Willie Miller, John Hewitt, Alex McLeish, Jim Leighton, Peter Weir, Kari Arnason.

Whoa, stop there. Kari Arnason?

Yes, Kari Arnason. For while our central defender might be flying the flag for Iceland at the World Cup in the summer he was actually born in the Swedish capital. Add him to the list of the greats.

“My parents were both from Iceland, but they were studying in Sweden for about five years, so I was born in Gothenburg and stayed there until I was about five, before moving back to Iceland.

“Growing up, I would watch the Italian league and English football. We would watch the English league on a Saturday at 3pm and would watch the Italian football on a Sunday. The coverage of English football back home was actually better than it was here because they could show the 3 o’clock games. I just supported the team who my brother supported, so that was Liverpool.

“I always had a bit of ability growing up. The person who was probably the biggest influence in my career was actually an ex-Dundee United player who played for Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday and then who took over as coach of the club who I played for in Iceland, Víkingur FC. They were my neighbourhood club and I played with them for many years. Siggi Johnsson was a very good footballer and he had a great career.

“He took over at my club in about 2003. He was the one who encouraged me and said, “You can do something with this”. Playing in Iceland, you hope you can go somewhere and play but it is very difficult, especially in those days. There were not many players that went abroad to play. I never really believed enough in my own ability because I had only ever played against players in Iceland. You didn’t know how good you were but I only found out when I made the move that I could go toe to toe with anyone pretty much.

“Siggi said I should be doing something with my football but it was still a big decision to make. When he took over, I was studying and playing in America. I got my tuition fees paid through a scholarship. They did not have a very long season, so it was only about 20 odd games that I would play for my University.

“You could not play football in Iceland in the winter back then. There was snow up to your knees and the indoor facilities were mainly used for horses and were far too narrow to play football. It was good fun body checking people into the walls but you can’t really improve your game in those surroundings!

“It is completely different now. We have built really good all-weather pitches. It is very noticeable that the players who are coming through now are far more technical than in the past. Before, we produced a lot of centre-backs because we had the physique but the players did not have the same technical ability.

“So I was in America in the winter playing for my University and played the summer league in Iceland for Vikingur. I played for two years with Siggi and then he told me I should be playing at a higher level. I went abroad and then the call came from Sweden to play there for Djurgården, who were the Swedish champions at the time. I thought this offer would not come around again and I could always go back to my studying at a later date. I took the chance and thankfully my career has not looked back. I did postgraduate studies online and finished that, so I got the best of both worlds”.

As Kari says, Icelandic football has grown at a rapid pace in every sense over the last decade or so. Their performance at the Euros two years ago impressed everyone and now they are heading for Russia in the summer to take part their first World Cup.

“World Cup fever started massively after the draw was done and everyone starting booking their travel and accommodation. It will come around quite quickly now, just a few months away. Obviously, it’s hard not to think about it, the biggest stage in anyone’s career. If we do well it would be unbelievable, not only for myself but for everyone in Iceland. I just wish this opportunity had come around a bit earlier in my career!

“We have a tough group, probably the hardest of the lot with Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria. Playing against Messi will be interesting. As we get closer to the first game against Argentina then it will be more on my mind but it is going to be a tough one! We are pleased they are the first game – we hope there is a bit of rust there for them!

“I do believe in our team. We have an unbelievable team and we can soak up pressure for so long. The problem will be how Messi thrives in those little spaces so it will be interesting to see how the manager sets us up.

“We can’t shake off Croatia. They knocked us out of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil in a play-off and then we got them in a group, so we have played them in four competitive games in recent years now.

“They are such a good team. I have always said that they are our worst opponents because their average height is about 6 feet but they are all very good footballers as well, so on set pieces they are good and that is also our strength. They nullify our threat a bit but at the same time we have beaten them before so we can beat them again.

“It is quite nice going into games as underdogs, as we did at the Euros, because no one really expected anything from us. We expect to win, but we don’t take on any pressure from outside sources so that is quite nice. At the same time, going into the first game against Portugal in the Euros, you could see in the first half that no one wanted to be the one who made Iceland lose, so everyone was scared of making a mistake. You could see that in how we played the game.

image | Newsline Media

“First half we were not great but in the second half, we had them under full control. They had more of the ball but we felt that we could nick this easily and I honestly believe that if we played them again, if we had got them instead of France in the semi-finals, then we would have beaten them. We knew all about Portugal and we knew how they played and how to nullify their biggest threats.

“We had the perfect set up in France. We had a little hotel all to ourselves in the hillside with a little pool. The Iceland manager, Heimir Hallgrímsson, is brilliant. He lets us do our own things. He trusts us to do the right things. So if we want to play golf and we feel as if that is the right thing to do, we do it and he is fine with it.

“I always use the last game of the World Cup qualifying against Turkey as an example. We were away from home, it was simply a game we had to win to stay in the race for qualification. We were really just fighting for second spot because we thought Croatia would beat Finland. So it was a massive game, but the manager said, “Guys if you want to play golf, it’s fine”. We got three rounds in over five days leading up to the game in Turkey. We then went on and played one of our best games during our campaign and brushed them aside 3-0. Turkey did not have a shot on target. Croatia then drew with Finland so we were suddenly top of the group going into the final match, which was at home to Kosovo and we took care of them.

“Heimir Hallgrímsson comes from a little island next to Iceland. It is quite a small place, it is a fishing town, but is has a rich tradition in football. They have always had a good football team. So he played his career there. I think he might have been coach of their women’s team and did well and then he was the manager of the men’s team and did well again.

“He is still young so when he got involved with the national side in 2011, he was quite inexperienced. He took over as the assistant alongside Lars Lagerbäck and he grew into the role. They took us to the World Cup play-off in 2014. He then became joint manager with Lars and that was when the success came and we made it to the Euros. And then in this campaign, he has been on his own and we won the group. So he has done a remarkable job in such a short time. He is very easy going but he demands certain things from his players and we all know what he demands. We have been at it for a long time. We know exactly what he expects of us”.

Scotland will, of course, be spending the summer at home again, a source of frustration when we see, with respect, much smaller nations joining the party. So how have Iceland done it? It’s instructive to recall an Under 21s game between the sides back in October 2010 when Scotland, a final qualifier for the Euros. Scotland lost 2-1 in Iceland but were optimistic for the return at Easter Road. The game is best remembered for Chris Maguire’s goal from near the halfway line, but it’s often forgotten Scotland lost 2-1 and went out.

The Icelandic team was: Arnar Petursson, Logi Valgardsson, Aron Gunnarsson, Eggert Jonsson, Andres Johannesson, Rúrik Gíslason, Bjarni Vidarsson, Elfar Freyr Helgason, Johann Berg Gudmundsson, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, Gylfi Sigurdsson. Subs: Oskar Petursson, Almar Ormarsson, Birkir Bjarnason, Gudmundur Kristjansson, Alfred Finnbogason, Kristinn Steindorsson, Gudlaugur Palsson. Whatever happened to them Kari?

“I remember the game. The Iceland goalkeeper was still celebrating a goal and Chris Maguire scored past him from the halfway line! But it was some team Iceland had. Just looking at the bench, Birkir Bjarnason plays for Aston Villa and is one our most important players. Alfred Finnbogason has been one of the top scorers in Europe and is currently playing in the Bundesliga with Augsburg. Gudlaugur Palsson is like my brother. He plays in Switzerland now. He is a strong defensive midfielder.

“Of the starting XI, Aron Gunnarsson is a fantastic footballer, Johann Berg Gudmundsson plays in the English Premier League with Burnley, one of our most attacking players, and Gylfi Sigurdsson who is at Everton, is in a league of his own.

“Kolbeinn Sigthorsson is fantastic. He plays for Nantes in France but is currently out injured. Hopefully he will be back soon. To make it to the World Cup without him is an incredible achievement considering what he did for us in the Euros, in the qualification process and the competition itself.

“So in other words, quite a strong team then! Almost all of them got caps and a good number went on to become really important players for Iceland.”

And whatever happened to Scotland’s likely lads? Alan Martin, Paul Caddis, Danny Wilson, Paul Hanlon, Thomas Scobbie, David Wotherspoon, Paul Coutts, Stephen McGinn, Barry Bannan, Jamie Murphy, Chris Maguire. Subs: Scott Gallacher, Ross Perry, Jason Marr, David Goodwillie, David Templeton, Thomas Cairney.

Only Barry Bannan and Leigh Griffiths have gone on to be regulars in the squad. Tom Cairney maybe deserves to have a few more caps beside his name. The rest is largely made up of talented players who have had decent careers but not at international level. So what went wrong?

“We are a small country, so if the U21s do well, and those boys did do really well, eventually they will get a chance. The quality in that team was outrageous to be fair. It’s the best U21 team we have ever had. If everyone is fit, you have six guys there from our current starting XI.

“They have all come through together. They have all played together from a very young age. They are all best mates. These boys go on holiday together. They are all very good friends.”

Between now and the World Cup, Kari has a lot of football to play here in Scotland. How has he taken to life at Aberdeen second time around?

“I love it here. I just want to play as many minutes as possible obviously. I am enjoying my football when I get a chance to play. Apart from my first game against Hamilton, I think I’ve done alright and the team is doing well, so no complaints. It is a very good dressing room to be in. There are no rotten apples in there. So no complaints there either.

“The winter break was something slightly different for me here, as I have also experienced the full shutdown they have in Sweden. In Scotland we play seven games in December, get two weeks off and then come back and play five games in two weeks.

“I think if you are going to have a winter break, I would suggest you make it a bit longer like they do in other countries, but then you are going to have to do two pre-seasons and no footballer really wants to do to that!

“Personally, I would play through and end the season sooner. The season gets dragged out a bit and finishing it a couple of weeks earlier would make such a difference. If you end it so late, players have no time off before they are back playing in Europe.

“The current set up does not favour the teams who do well. It is not sustainable long term to have players performing in the current set up every season. Players are basically playing for twelve months with the odd week off here and there. I would say play through January and then end it three weeks earlier so everyone can get a proper break and come back refreshed”.

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