- Aron Gunnarsson has been Iceland captain for eight years
- He plays today in the Qatari club of Al Arabi
- The midfielder talks about his global hopes with FIFA.com
Bearded, tattooed and passionate, Aron Gunnarsson personifies the Icelandic national team. Appointed captain at 23, he had his country’s crest tattooed on his back to show his pride in wearing the armband. When the Our boys beat England to reach the quarter-finals of UEFA EURO 2016, it was he who launched the first “clapping” between players and supporters, which has become a cult today.
When Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson laid the foundations for a squad capable of writing a new page in football history, they knew straight away that the hot midfielder would be the cornerstone of their team.
“He is the living example of what we want to represent,” Hallgrimsson explained in 2018. “He embodies our identity. Off the field, he is a role model and supportive for his teammates. On the pitch, he plays a crucial role in organizing the team. He knows the position of each player and he is demanding. And to top it off, he’s a great footballer. “
It’s no surprise, then, that after leaving Iceland to take the reins of Qatari team Al Arabi, Hallgrimsson brought in his former captain. Ripe for a change, Gunnarsson was quick to accept his offer. It was from his new home in Qatar that the 31-year-old spoke with FIFA.com Iceland’s painful failure in EURO qualifying, its World Cup hopes and life in the country that will host the finals in 2022.
Aron, are you missing the British or Icelandic winter?
A little bit, in fact! [rires] Icelanders are not afraid of the cold. But here the weather is very pleasant at the moment. It’s around 20 ° C, it’s perfect, especially compared to my arrival in August, the hottest time of the year. I was stunned. The heat was unbearable at times. We trained in the evening, but even there the humidity was stifling.
You’ve built your career on your reputation as a midfield moped. Did you have to brake yourself, especially at the beginning?
Yes, I had no choice. Our GPS plotters show a marked slowdown in the races in the second period. At first, I also had a lot more cramps than usual at the end of the game. I had to adapt. But the climate is perfect for football now and I can play at my usual pace.
Tell us about the goal you scored from your own half of the field, which is not your habit.
[Rires] It is true. I had seen the goalkeeper move away from his line several times so I figured I would give it a shot as soon as I get the chance. Fortunately, I hit the nail on the head. Generally, I tend to zigzag, like in golf! [rires]
You went to Qatar in 2018 as part of your rehabilitation after a serious knee injury. Was that what sparked the idea of joining a local club one day?
Absolutely. At that time, I was not sure I could compete in the World Cup. I was followed in a clinic with magnificent facilities. Thanks to excellent doctors and physiotherapists, I recovered in time to go to Russia. At the time, I told my wife that I would like to live in this country. The following year, Heimir took control of Al Arabi and he called me soon after. I was in the last year of my contract with Cardiff. After 11 years in the UK, I wanted a change, so Heimir didn’t have too much trouble convincing me.
You have been impressed and pleasantly surprised by the quality of Qatari football, it seems.
Indeed. Before coming here, I had noticed that the championship was very prolific. I concluded that the defense and tactical aspect would not be up to what I had experienced in Europe. But I think the Qataris have realized this, because the level of competitiveness and play has improved significantly over the past two years, especially tactically. This is very important for the championship and for the local players who will take part in the World Cup.
What does the Qatari edition of the World Cup have in store for us?
It will be extraordinary. Qatar has thought of everything. The stadiums are all air conditioned, although we were right, in my opinion, to move the tournament to December. The climate does not lend itself to competition in summer. So fans will be able to enjoy the sun and see the matches in ideal conditions. At the moment, everything is focused on the World Cup, because the Qataris want to make it an exceptional event that offers a beautiful image of their country.
Iceland has been through a rough patch recently. What problems did Erik Hamren encounter according to you?
Erik had bad luck with the injuries. We were deprived of many key elements during his tenure. However, we were only eliminated at the very last minute of the UEFA EURO play-offs. This failure was very painful. But now we have new coaches (Arnar Vidarsson has been appointed, with Eidur Gudjohnsen as assistant) and our World Cup qualifying squad offers real possibilities. It includes Germany, which will be the favorites, of course, as well as Romania, North Macedonia, Armenia and Liechtenstein. I have high hopes and my teammates are eager to return to the World Cup. In addition, the team has a lot of thirties, and we know that this is probably our last chance.
How do you see Russia 2018 today?
I really enjoyed it. What I didn’t like was the preparation. I feared almost until the kick-off that I would not be able to play in the tournament, because I had a problem not only with my knee, but also with an injury to the ligaments in the ankle. Stepping onto the pitch at a World Cup is a big moment. On the other hand, I can tell you that running after Messi for 90 minutes did not make the recovery easier! But I was overjoyed to be there and face one of the greatest players in football history.
Does your team still have the same winning and collective spirit that has underpinned Iceland’s recent successes?
People often ask me if we are still hungry for victory. My answer is a strong and solid yes. We made history by qualifying for EURO and the World Cup. Once we have tasted these sensations, we want to relive them again and again. There is no greater pride than to represent your country in a high level competition. If such an experience does not make you want to start over, you have nothing to do in football.
What inspired your famous back tattoo?
Playing for Iceland is very important to me. I think representing a small country arouses a special feeling. We have the impression of being a featherweight and always having to fight harder than the others. After the EURO, I wanted to do something special to mark the occasion. This tattoo was made by an Icelandic man. He has been to Cardiff four times and worked two days on my back each time. One day, he spent seven hours there in a row. Before I started he asked me if I was sure of myself, because the colors of the flag would be on my spine and I was going to suffer a lot. And believe me, he wasn’t lying! [rires] But I wanted it and I have no regrets.
You were named captain of Iceland at 23. What does it feel like to be entrusted with such a responsibility at such a young age?
Lars [Lagerback] was building a new team at the time and he probably wanted to put a young player in charge. It was a big load for someone my age, but he must have detected leadership qualities in me. I made a few mistakes at first, said nonsense in interviews, but I think I got better over time. What I am sure is that when I retire, I will be extremely proud to have been the captain of an Icelandic team that has made history.