With its population of just 300,000, you might not expect Iceland to be producing professional footballers on a conveyor belt, but a handful of exceptional individuals have made the grade and carved out a place in a major European league. Gylfi Sigurdsson is one of them: the exciting midfield talent signed for German Bundesliga outfit Hoffenheim last summer, the culmination of a whirlwind six-year journey for the young hopeful.
"I had a few trials with Reading and I ended up moving to England when I was 15. I was on my own for the first three or four months, but my mother and father moved to Reading after that. Leaving my friends and family behind in Iceland was hard, but I was determined to realise my dream of becoming a professional footballer. At the end of the day, it was the right decision, and I had some great years in England,” the midfield schemer said.
The club’s bigger than I was expecting. Hoffenheim still count as newcomers to the Bundesliga, but the infrastructure is perfect. Our training facilities lack nothing.
Sigurdsson’s first steps towards the professional game were in the youth section at Reading, where he played at every junior level, before signing professional forms at the start of the 2007/08 campaign. He remained in the reserves for a time, but the free-kick specialist finally made his senior debut the following season in the Championship, the second tier of the English game. He then went out on loan to Shrewsbury Town (League One) and Crewe Alexandra (League Two) to gain match practice.
Breakthrough in Reading, switch to Germany
The man from Iceland excelled in his loan spells and secured regular football with Reading in 2009/10. The Berkshire club were not to regret their decision: Sigurdsson emerged as a dynamic and valuable member of the team, with 20 goals and eight assists in 44 league and cup appearances.
With the 2010 summer transfer window poised to shut, Bundesliga outfit Hoffenheim splashed out a reported £6.5 million to secure the midfielder’s services, pipping a clutch of Premier League clubs to the post. The clincher was Hoffenheim’s recent but justified reputation as a crucible for shaping and supporting talented young professionals.
Speaking to FIFA.com, the player described the early months in his new home of Sinsheim. "The club’s bigger than I was expecting. Hoffenheim still count as newcomers to the Bundesliga, but the infrastructure is perfect. Our training facilities lack nothing. The team is technically and physically top class, and the coach is a true professional. It's obvious the club’s recent success was no accident. I personally needed a little time to settle, but I hope I’m now in a position to help the team.”
Stirring start for Sigurdsson and Hoffenheim
It is immediately obvious that the player is modest by nature and has his feet firmly on the ground, despite a rip-roaring start to his debut season in the German top flight. The Iceland international has an impressive five goals and one assist in 11 appearances to date, even though he has only started twice for Ralf Rangnick’s side.
"I wouldn’t know if I’m a super-sub. Ralf Rangnick is introducing me step-by-step, which is the right way to do it. Obviously, I’d like to play every game, but I’m still young and new to the club. I’m still learning the language, and I have plenty of time to make sure I’m on the right track. But when I’m needed, I’m there,” Sigurdsson said.
Fifteen games into the current league campaign, both the newcomer and his club can look back on 2010/11 with some satisfaction so far. Hoffenheim lie sixth, within touching distance of the European qualifying places, a fact which has not escaped the man capped three times by his country.
"We’re close to the European qualifying places at the moment, but it’s a long season. We’ve had some tough games so far, and we have tough games coming up. It's hard to predict where we’ll finish, so we’re taking each game as it comes. But if we get close to the end of the season and we’re in with a chance of Europe, we’ll do our best to get there,” the Reykjavik-born talent said.
I think Icelandic football has improved a lot in recent years. We’ve taken a big step forward, especially in terms of technique.
Naturally, Sigurdsson was spotted early by the Icelandic football authorities, entering the junior international ranks in 2005 and appearing at every level from U-17 onwards, before earning his first full cap in May this year.
"As a kid, I dreamed of playing for Iceland. The dream has come true, so I’ve hit one of my major targets. I think our national team has a bright future. Our U-21s are very strong, and the new generation is just starting to break into the senior side. We have a good crop of youngsters coming through, and hopefully that’ll bring us success,” he said, not without a degree of pride. Sigurdsson was a dominant figure as Iceland claimed a berth at next year’s UEFA U-21 European Championship in Denmark, their first trip to the finals.
Setbacks in UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying
The Hoffenheim midfielder is currently deep into UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying with the senior team, but Iceland’s campaign so far has been marked by inconsistency and a portion of bad luck.
"We led Norway at half-time, but ended up losing. And we conceded the goal which killed the game against Denmark in the last minute. It's a shame, but it shows our lack of experience. We still have a long way to go,” Sigurdsson acknowledged. Apart from the defeats to their Nordic compatriots, Iceland also lost 3-1 to Portugal in Group H.
Nevertheless, the 21-year-old remains upbeat about his country’s prospects. "I think Icelandic football has improved a lot in recent years. We’ve taken a big step forward, especially in terms of technique. A programme to build and upgrade sports centres means youngsters have the chance to play and develop all year round now. That’ll pay off in the future,” he concluded.