Issue 1: The Man with the Bobble

Illustration by Joel Benjamin

Illustration by Joel Benjamin

Jens Martin Knudsen is a man who knows what it takes to become a cult hero. The 49-year-old Faroese is an international gymnastics champion and also represented his country at handball. However, it was Jens' heroics on the football pitch that saw him become the talk of the football world and gain iconic status in his homeland. 

It started on the 12th of September 1990, when the Faroe Islands drew Austria in their first competitive match of the UEFA Euro ’92 qualifying rounds. Austria had just come back from Italia ’90 with a star-studded squad featuring the likes of Polster, Rodax, Ross and Herzog. So confident were the Austrians that star striker Toni Polster predicted a 10-0 win in the lead-up to the game. However,all was not to pan out as foreseen. This is Jens' account of that historic day.

Over the last few days I haven’t had the time to think of my job as a forklift truck driver at the fish factory in Fuglafjørður. The smell of fish and the salt containers are far removed from my thoughts. At Ørenas castle in Landskrona the Faroese Football Association saw to it that we were able to mentally prepare ourselves. We train twice a day, get plenty of rest and eat a strictly healthy diet. It’s a totally revolutionary change from my daily life in Runavík, where I usually train three times a week after work.

We are, so to speak, isolated from the rest of the world and nobody has a clue as to what is going on out there. The press has no access to the castle, so we know little or nothing about what is being said and written. But the journalists and photographers ask questions at the training sessions. We try to be optimistic. “Everything under 5-0 is acceptable”, is our response.

The Faroese media did extensive coverage prior to the match. One evening before the game, Árni Gregersen from Faroese television succeeded in getting a word with Josef Hickersberger, the Austrian team manager. Although slightly more mannerly than Toni Polster, Hickersberger is equally confident of a victorious outcome – stating that his men have to score goals from beginning to end.

Austria plan on strolling to a strong victory. There are no precautions taken whatsoever. They refuse to practice on the field in Landskrona. Two days before the match, the Austrians are seen in Tivoli and are amongst the spectators at a match between Denmark and Wales in Copenhagen. In addition, Hickersberger shows no interest in getting to know the heavyset players of the Faroese national team. For the Austrians, the football-happy amateurs from the north Atlantic are just a matter of execution.

Nobody expects the tiny Faroese nation – with a population of 47,500 – to ever stand a chance against Austria with its eight million inhabitants. It is quite simply a set-up for disaster.

“Faroes! Faroes! Faroes!”

The commotion from the enthusiastic Faroese spectators could be heard amongst the players, who are struggling to catch their breath. They’re all lying flat on the floor, some with their legs up on the bench. You can hear the sound of water being squirted into their mouths. The witty Faroese striker Kári Reynheim asks mockingly what in the world the football press is going to write about the Faroese, who have shown very little in the first half.

Páll Guðlaugsson, the Faroe Islands coach, has neither control of himself nor of the situation. He hasn’t got the slightest clue how he’s going to go about things. It is here that assistant coach Johan Nielsen calmly reminds us that we haven’t arrived anywhere yet.

Guðlaugsson makes no changes, but he knows that we won’t have the energy to run after them for another half. Game-wise we’ve only managed to defend ourselves to the best of our ability before the break. On the other hand, the Austrians have only managed two shots on goal. It’s still goalless. The Austrians are speechless. But their real downfall is looming right around the corner.

Suddenly the eager Faroese spectators cry out in anticipation. There are songs and shouts of joy. Only a few seconds after Austria are millimetres from taking the lead, the man from Vágar goes to war against the Austrian defence. The one-man army has gained speed and slips past a defender, who stretches to gain the ball. He can’t stop his run and Torkil Nielsen takes a left-footed shot. The ball, which rolls past the helpless goalkeeper, crashes into the goal. The shot from the carpenter travels like wildfire across the whole of Europe.

The Faroes take the lead against Austria! The second half is more than halfway through and I have never in my life seen so many Faroese flags wave for so long. The cheers seem to have no end. Everyone is ecstatic. Jóannes Jakobsen knows his part as team captain. Skilfully and perceptively he has led the defence. Merciless, he once again shows outstanding vision. With no fuss, he cuts to the chase and shouts out straight from his gut.

“Arms down immediately! Now’s the time to fight! We will bloody well not help them now!” He yells as the startled opponents hand over the ball. 

Minutes pass. Polster, Rodax, Ross and Linzmeier make an honourable attempt to get back up again, but to no avail. “Klutz!” The Faroese crowds shout to the Austrians several times. Mikkjal Danielsen, who works as an engineer in Miðvágur, plays his part dutifully and gives Polster – who is usually surrounded by the best defensive players – little space. A few dribbles and one lightning bolt left-footed shot from Sandavágur, which lasts nomore than five seconds, instantly puts the Faroes on the map. 

Guðlaugsson plays it cool. He just stands in front of the dugout. Gunnar Mohr has been told to warm up. The small-framed, speedy attacker from Tórshavn will most likely replace Kurt Mørkøre at the front. But the game needs the heavy-set player from Klaksvík. He’s crucial for the many aerial long balls the Austrians put into the Faroese penalty area.

The Austrians are not gentle giants and they use their elbows when needed. But despite the Austrian provocation, scrapes and scuffs, we play admirably in defence. Austria are constantly attacking and we are defending. We have all the players behind the ball and camp around the penalty area. We win the ball and kick it away as far as possible. The working-class amateurs against the hotshot professionals. Only one time during the match am I faced with a sudden challenge, when I am forced to throw myself at an attempt from Toni Polster who has free access within the penalty area. Other than that the other players made sure I didn’t have too much on my plate. It’s totally wild how my teammates fight for their country. Strong-willed and stubborn with no intention of giving up, even when all their energy is spent.

Now Kurt Ross has possession of the ball on the right side. Jan Dam and Kári Reynheim chase him but he has both the time and space to send the ball into the goal area. Jóannes Jakobsen jumps up and tries to get the ball with a header. But he doesn’t reach it. Tummas Eli Hansen isn’t aware of Polster, who comes bolting over by the back post. He throws himself at the ball and steers it towards the goal. I don’t have any trouble with the shot at first, but somehow the ball jumps out of my hand. Luckily, Mikkjal Danielsen is quick. Racing against Linzmeier, he gets control of the ball. Next, Julian Hansen has the ball and kicks it away across the line. I am one second away from ruining everything. One mistake and we’re all penalised. The pressure continues. There isn’t much time remaining. 

All of a sudden the match is over. The sound of the final whistle blows. Polster, Hickersberger and the other arrogant Austrians are hurled into the darkness. It seems totally surreal. Our patriotism has led us to victory. The Faroe Islands have beaten Austria.

My initiation into the world of international football has made several European associations curious to know more about this loud 23-year-old. Jens Martin Knudsen with the woolly bobble hat, who has just been voted player of the year in the Faroese second division and drives a forklift truck for a living at a small fish factory in Fuglafjørður. Ninety minutes on the football field in Landskrona wake the national pride and patriotism of the Faroese people, who are also starting to feel the sting of an economic crisis.

The finance minister has just warned that people employed in the public sector will not get their month’s wages because the national treasury is completely broke. But now the entire society is intoxicated with victory. Little do we know that the triumph would give way to a new era in Faroese football, with progress and money. With Torkil Nielsen’s goal and the startling victory against Austria, the Faroes have chiselled themselves into the minds of all football enthusiasts. Torkil Nielsen’s kick is a sensation in the world press. We receive 3,300 kroner as payment for our efforts. This helps make up for lost hours at the fish factory!

With special thanks to Jens Martin Knudsen and Uni Holm Johannesen, author of “The Bobble Hat Goalkeeper”. Download today at www.sprotin.fo