For many football fans, Faroe Islands were long synonymous with the name of Jens Martin Knudsen, the goalkeeper who won 65 caps in a distinguished career between 1985 and 2001 and who made his name by sporting a distinctive bobble hat on his forays between the posts.
Knudsen aside, the Faroes and their players have traditionally failed to make much of an impact on the global scene. But with the recent emergence of the likes of Frodi Benjaminsen, Suni Olsen and Christian Holst all that is changing.
Despite being home to only 50,000 inhabitants, the nation has enjoyed a dramatic rise up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking over the last two years, climbing from 170th to 74th.
The Landsliðið (The Team) are currently excelling themselves in Group F of the qualifiers for UEFA EURO 2016, where they have beaten Greece home and away and suffered narrow 1-0 defeats to Romania and Hungary.
A prominent feature of the campaign has been the form of their new starlet Brandur Hendriksson Olsen, the revelation of their outstanding performances last season. Handed a creative brief by national team coach Lars Olsen for the qualifier against Northern Ireland on 11 October 2014, the 19-year-old FC Copenhagen playmaker has retained his place in the side ever since.
The highlight of his subsequent four convincing performances on national duty was the winner in Faroe Islands’ 2-1 home defeat of the Greeks in June, a moment he summed up with FIFA.com: “I can’t describe it and I’ll never forget it.”
Every time we go out there now we do so with the belief that we can win, which is something entirely new.
His appreciative club coach Stale Solbakken, giving an indication of the unprecedented expectation Hendriksson Olsen is generating in his homeland.“He’s technically very gifted, comfortable with either foot, full of running and a real threat in the penalty box,” said the former Norwegian international.
A skilled performer on the pitch, the teenage sensation is an easy-going and intelligent presence off it, and has all the makings of a star - not that he has any such thoughts in his head.
“I don’t think about that at all,” he said. “I know our recent wins have gotten everyone in the country excited and I know that I get recognised more in the street now, but I’ve played only a small part in the team’s good results. The success we’ve had is down to the squad as a whole.”
Fourth in their EURO 2016 qualifying section, ahead of Greece and Finland, Hendriksson Olsen and his team-mates have belied all expectations, as he acknowledged: “We’ve never done as well as this before in any competition. What we’re doing is historic for Faroe Islands, and it’s a reward for a lot of hard work, an unshakeable self-belief and a conviction that anything is possible no matter who we play.
“Every time we go out there now we do so with the belief that we can win, which is something entirely new.”
A step up in class
What is also new is the fact that a sizeable proportion of the national team are now playing professional football outside the Faroes. The 23-man squad for the respective qualifiers against Northern Ireland and Finland this coming Friday and Monday contains ten players who ply their trade for clubs in Denmark, Norway and Iceland.
“That’s the secret behind our progress,” said Hendriksson Olsen. “The national team reaps the benefit of the experience these players have acquired in other countries.”
Given its proximity in geographical, political and economic terms, Denmark is a destination of choice for Faroes players, with Hendriksson Olsen himself making the move to the country’s Superliga in 2013. “Denmark is our closest neighbour, and for players from Faroe Islands it’s the gateway to professional football,” explained the FC Copenhagen man. “Its second division is more competitive than our first.”
Discussing his debt to his club, he added: “I owe them a lot. They gave me my big break and offered me my first pro contract, my first taste of top-level football and the chance to win my first cap and score my first international goals. FC Copenhagen are the reason why I’m so happy today.”
Above all, the up-and-coming youngster owes his place in the sun to the unfailing support of his parents and in particular to his father, to whom he recently chose to pay a touching tribute: “I decided to stop wearing the name Olsen on my national-team and club shirts and to wear my second name, Hendriksson, instead.
“It comes from my father’s name, Hendrik. He’s a big reason why I’m where I am today. Then there’s the fact that Hendriksson sounds a lot more Faroese too.”
If the young Faroes star continues on his current trajectory, it is a name that football fans will be hearing a lot more of.