When Solvi Ottesen, Vidar Kjartansson and Eidur Gudjohnsen last met on international duty, the Nordic trio were celebrating on the pitch in their national stadium in Reykjavik, having just defeated Czech Republic 2-1 in a UEFA EURO 2016 qualifier. The surprise result pushed Iceland into the top seat in a qualifying group that includes Netherlands and Turkey and helped The Strakarnir Okkar reach an all-time high of 23 in July’s FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
If that moment at Laugardalsvollur felt surreal, the trio’s next meeting would feel completely out of this world. The Icelandic reunion took place on 15 July at The Yutong International Sports Centre, home to Chinese Super League outfit Shijiazhuang Everbright. On this particular evening Ottesen and Kjartansson were wrapped in the blue of Jiangsu Sainty while Gudjohnsen wore the traditional white of his new club Shijiazhuang Everbright. The three players from the Nordic island country - which has a population of less than half a million - suddenly found themselves in the thick of it in the premier football league of the most populous country on earth.
"This was indeed a memorable moment for us," Ottesen told FIFA.com after the match. "It’s already a fond memory for me. Three Iceland footballers playing in a Chinese league game! We turned a foreign match into an Icelandic reunion."
So just what do three Nordic footballers do when meeting up in China? "Gudjohnsen visited us at our hotel after the match," Ottesen said. "We had a good chat together. I had actually never played against him in a match before.”
"For me, it is a big challenge to come to a mysterious country like China," Gudjohnsen said. Those words carry added weight when considering the former Iceland captain’s career, which includes 72 appearances for Barcelona and a six-year spell at Chelsea that comprised 186 appearances and 54 goals.
On international duty Gudjohnsen still holds Iceland’s all-time goalscoring record. It’s a record he is eager to extend. "By playing in this league I can keep up my performance levels ahead of next year’s Euro," he said. “I am hoping to represent my country after we reach the European finals."
Thus far, the Icelander’s have impressed in China’s Super League. Kjartansson is currently Jiangsu Sainty's top-scorer while Ottesen has quickly established himself as the spine of the backline. The seasoned Gudjohnsen, meanwhile – whose trophy cabinet boasts spoils from England, Spain, Netherlands and the UEFA Champions League - will be looking to lead Shijiazhuang Everbright through their debut season in China’s top flight.
World Cup hopes
Having been involved in Iceland’s past three unsuccessful FIFA World Cup™ qualifying campaigns, Ottesen is bullish about the road to Russia 2018 and about a potential World Cup debut for the Nordic minnows.
“We were so close to qualifying for Brazil only to lose to Croatia in the play-off,” he said, suddenly regretful and agitated while reflecting on the defeat. The defender’s mood shifted quickly however, visibly brightened as his thoughts cleared and refocused. “But we have shown that we are a competitive side and we have a good chance. The Iceland team have a strong mentality and we won't give up without a fight.”