The Faroe Islands are a mysterious archipelago located in the North Atlantic’s Gulf Stream. With the highest sea cliffs in Europe, and a rocky, rugged inland, building roads was so problematic that the Faroese had to concoct revolutionary underwater tunnels to connect its 18 inlets.
Building football pitches, which require exclusively flat surface, was even more back-breaking. The Faroe Islands had just one leading up to their 1988 admission into FIFA. It was made from gravel. The team therefore had to play its first competitive home fixtures, in UEFA EURO 1992 qualifying, in Sweden.
Indebted to exhaustive, unpaid work from the villagers of Toftir, a new pitch was built that met UEFA standards in time for the 1994 FIFA World Cup™ preliminaries. The Faroe Islands finished that campaign with zero points from ten games, one goal scored and 38 conceded. And whipping boys is what they remaining over the next two decades, during which they found themselves at an all-time low of third-bottom of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking in September 2008 – beneath the Cayman Islands, Bhutan, Aruba and Comoros among others.
The Faroe Islands were only marginally higher – 183rd – on the global ladder when the race to reach UEFA EURO 2016 began. With their co-competitors Greece (13th), Romania (27th), Hungary (34th), Finland (55th) and Northern Ireland (95th) significantly higher, and having seized only ten points from a possible 150 in their past five European Championship or FIFA World Cup qualifying campaigns, it was, consensually, a foregone conclusion that Lars Olsen’s part-timers would finish bottom of Group F.
Three games in and, predictably, the Faroe Islands had zero points, though they had unpredictably given Finland, Northern Ireland and Hungary stern examinations. That left the Faroes at the pool’s foot, but one of the most stunning upsets in EURO qualifying history elevated them off it. Greece, only denied a Brazil 2014 quarter-final place by a penalty-shootout defeat, were expected to run riot in Piraeus. However, the Faroes had the better of the opening hour – teenage midfielder Brandur Olsen and 37-year-old captain Frodi Benjaminsen both hit the woodwork, while Orestis Karnezis made four fine saves for the 2004 European champions – before Joan Edmundsson nodded home the only goal.
“Football’s popularity has never been higher [in the Faroe Islands],” raved Benjaminsen following that Athens apogee – their first competitive away victory in 13 years. “It’s unbelievable, it’s all people are talking about.”
A 1-0 loss in Romania – one facilitated by a lucky deflection – did nothing to dampen this enthusiasm. All 4,700 tickets for Greece’s visit to Torshavn in June sold out at unprecedented speed, while the Faroe Islands Football Association (FSF) even marked the occasion by laying on free salmon for the diehards who had travelled to Torsvollur stadium via underwater tunnels, ferries or on foot.
Football’s popularity has never been higher. It’s unbelievable, it’s all people are talking about.
And what an occasion it was. Hallur Hansson and Olsen strikes ensured a squad made up of fishermen, construction workers, school teachers and carpenters won 2-1 to complete back-to-back victories over one comprising luminaries from Bayer Leverkusen, Benfica, Borussia Dortmund, Roma and Sunderland.
“Absolutely unbelievable!” exclaimed Olsen, who is based with Danish dynamos FC Copenhagen and considered the greatest-ever Faroese prospect. “Surreal. Torsvollur with 4,700 spectators and we win 2-1. It's difficult to grasp.”
An extraordinary night by Torshavn’s towering cliffs preceded an extraordinary leap up football’s mountain. On the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, indeed, the Faroe Islands stormed 28 places north to break into the top 100 for the first time in history. They now sit 74th, above the likes Uzbekistan, Montenegro, Morocco, Finland and Saudi Arabia, and a staggering 113 spots higher than they were merely nine months earlier. Brandur Olsen believes the Faroes’ placement has earned them respect.
“I think the other European teams respect us more now,” he told FIFA.com. “They no longer underestimate us. We’ve beaten Greece twice, and put in solid performances against Romania and Hungary. We now have the belief we can win every game.”
Another Olsen has been the sage behind the surge – and that despite some sizeable hurdles. Lars Olsen, who assumed the reins in late 2011, has few professionals at his disposal, all of whom are based in Scandinavia. The majority of his players have day jobs and can only train at night. And even when they do, they have to brave subarctic temperatures.
Yet despite all of this, the 54-year-old believes the Faroe Islands can still reach EURO 2016 – they are fourth in Group F, with the third-placed finishers guaranteed at least a play-off for a ticket to the finals. “In football anything is possible,” he stated. “If we win our matches we can do it.”
An archipelago with abundantly more sheep than inhabitants qualifying would arguably surpass Denmark’s 1992 success – the Scandinavians failed to qualify but somehow conquered that tournament – as the mother of EURO miracles.
Lars Olsen is, however, no stranger to getting fairytales reclassified as nonfiction stories. Remember who captained the Danes to that glorious night in Gothenburg 23 years ago?