The Faroes: Small islands with a big heart for football
The Faroe Islands get an average of 300 days of rain a year
There are more sheep than residents on the islands
Away days are a challenge even for adventurous football fans
"I’m just happy if it isn’t raining and the wind is fairly calm," admitted Kevin Schindler, assistant coach at record-breaking champions and capital city club HB Torshavn in an interview with FIFA.com. At the start of the year, the former Werder Bremen winger and Germany youth international began his new adventure in the tough environment of the Faroe Islands, where it rains for an average of 300 days a year.
These 18 small windswept islands in the Northern Atlantic – which are semi-autonomous but form part of the Kingdom of Denmark – are home to the Liga Betri Deildin, the first league in Europe to restart after the coronavirus outbreak. Ten teams battle it out for the title and play each other three times each season.
"We travel for two hours by ferry to play some opponents – that’s a memorable experience," said Schindler who, as well as playing in Germany, spent time plying his trade for FC Cincinnati in the USA and SC Cambuur in the Netherlands.
With hardly any other football being played and fans hungry for action, the league’s television audience suddenly grew rapidly. "The increased media attention was huge," recalled the HB Torshavn assistant coach. "I’ve never had so many interview requests."
Hardly a black sheep to be found on the Sheep Islands
According to a local saying, “Ull er foroya gull” or “wool is Faroese gold”! With their 50,000 inhabitants far outnumbered by more than 80,000 sheep, it is no wonder that the islands are also known as the ‘Sheep Islands’.
Yet the islands are not only a destination of choice for outdoorsmen, birdwatchers and photographers. The country’s recent sporting success means that the Faroe Islands have become serious opponents in international football and now also attract foreign players and coaches.
This is mainly down to the hard work, ambition and discipline of the islanders. Despite the often-challenging climate, they have a tremendous enthusiasm for football. "Everyone here is incredibly motivated and wants to train all the time," explained the 32-year-old Schindler. Although the league takes a break between January and April, players continue to train outside during this time rather than in sheltered halls – even though the conditions can take their toll on a coach.
"The problem isn’t the cold but the wind, which means setting up the training area is no fun at all. You’ve barely finished before a strong gust comes along and forces you to start again." It is clear that these rugged islands pose entirely new challenges even for a globetrotter like Schindler. "Yet this doesn’t bother the players at all. Even in the wind and weather, all of them always turn up to training."
Special times call for special measures
Talking of wind, the league has a special rule to address this issue. A second player can hold the ball still in dead-ball situations, as it is sometimes impossible to ensure that it will keep still. "Yes, that’s true, we do have that rule," confirmed Schindler, "but luckily it doesn’t come up all that often, so we don’t focus on special tactics for this kind of set piece in training."
The league has not yet reached the stage where all players are full professionals who can concentrate exclusively on football, so many players and coaches supplement their main job in the beautiful game with other work. "We have roofers, fishermen and sheep and salmon farmers in the team," Schindler explained. "Although the infrastructure is still being established, we are moving in the right direction and want to continue building something here, particularly with young players."
The fact that HB Torshavn fancy their chances in qualifying for the UEFA Europa League shows that Schindler, his team and the club’s setup are on the right track. No team from the islands has yet made it into the competition’s main draw. As the country’s record-breaking champions, HB Torshavn work closely with the Faroe Islands Football Association and the national team. Several of the club’s players are regularly considered for international duty and they share the same training facilities as the national side. "I like to compare the situation here with Bayern Munich in Germany."
Always capable of springing a surprise
Whenever the national team plays, the entire country tunes in to watch. "There’s a great sense of national pride here and a real sense of solidarity among the Faroe Islanders. Everyone here knows everyone else and it’s a great thing to experience."
In 1990 the Faroes’ men’s team – currently ranked 110th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking – made their competitive international debut with a scarcely believable 1-0 win over erstwhile FIFA World Cup™ semi-finalists Austria. Even four-time world champions Germany did not get an easy ride en route to two 3-0 victories in qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.
The women’s team, who are currently inside the top 100 of the World Ranking at 86th, recently shone on the road to the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019™ by reaching the main round of qualifying. There they faced several European heavyweights including two-time world champions Germany, who inflicted a heavy 11-0 defeat on the Faroes in their first-ever meeting.
Despite scarce resources and few inhabitants, the Faroe Islands have developed a reputation for achieving a great deal with plenty of heart and passion. And even though the temperature rarely exceeds 15 degrees Celsius, Schindler has long since developed an affection for the place. "I regularly send my friends selfies with sheep and have discovered a new passion in fishing."
This article is part of our 'The Global Game' series, which focuses on football in remote places away from the spotlight. Next week we'll travel to the Seychelles.