Tiny Stjarnan making big waves
Four years ago a tiny team from Iceland suddenly became a huge hit on YouTube.
Stjarnan, an outfit that was absolutely anonymous until then, made the headlines by providing extremely imaginative goal celebrations. Fishing, swimming, bobsleighing, ballet dancing and many more -- you name it!
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They've done it all, and became hugely popular with the neutral fans all over the world, who might never have heard of football in Iceland before.
The fame, however, was rather short-lived.
At a certain point, Stjarnan players stopped inventing new celebrations. As Vidir Sigurdsson, a leading football journalist from Iceland, explains: "They realized it would be difficult to carry on for a long time. More importantly, they decided it was better to try to focus on winning something, rather than being only regarded as non-serious clowns."
Thomas Thor Tordarsson of 365 channel added: "Everyone got tired of it because their games were more about celebrations than football."
The immediate result was that Stjarnan were quickly forgotten outside their country, but changing their attitude has certainly helped them in the long run. Having finished third last season and qualified for Europe for the first time in their history, Stjarnan are sensationally leading the table this term, unbeaten after 15 games, probably on their way to an improbable title triumph.
In addition, they are taking the continent by storm as well. A very small club even by local standards, Stjarnan became the first ever Icelandic team to win three European ties in a row, versus Bangor City, Motherwell and Lech Poznan. On Wednesday they face Inter in the biggest game in the club's history. Some would say it's a dream come true, but that will be an understatement. In reality, none of the players even dared to dream of such an opportunity.
Stjarnan's progress is simply phenomenal. They were playing third-division football just nine years ago. Promoted to the top flight in 2009, they continued to play at the small Stjornuvollur stadium, just south of Reykjavik, that has only one stand for about 1,000 spectators.
Prior to their celebrations fame, they were known locally thanks only to Bjarni Benediktsson, a prominent politician who currently serves as the finance minister, having played for them in his young days, excelling both in football and handball. Nowadays, their name is on everyone's lips, and they even overcame an injury crisis to achieve some of the best results in Iceland's football history.
Bangor City, thrashed 8-0 on aggregate, might not have been the strongest opposition, but nobody expected Stjarnan to overcome Motherwell. The Scots were clear favourites and duly took an early 2-0 lead in the first leg. Stjarnan managed to salvage a draw thanks to two penalties, and then took the return leg into extra time when Danish star Rolf Toft, recently signed from Aalborg, made it 2-2 again on 85 minutes.
With the shootout looming, there came one of the best goals you'll see anywhere this season. Atli Johansson's superb strike made the Icelandic commentator go absolutely wild and lose his voice.
Next came Lech Poznan, who finished second in Poland twice in a row, and they were also stunned by the islanders, who managed to keep a clean sheet for 180 minutes and went through thanks to another Toft goal in Iceland.
Ingvar Jonsson was spectacular in goal, proving his impressive talents once again. "He was the best in the league last season, and improved even more this year," Tordarsson said.
Jonsson's progress is partly due to the great work by Stjarnan's goalkeeping coach, Henrik Bodker. The Dane is playing a very important part in the club's success because his ties in his homeland enable the club to sign Danish players. Players like Toft, Martin Rauschenberg, Nicklas Vemmelund and especially captain Michael Praest are leading by example, having been underrated in Denmark.
Twenty-eight-year-old defender Praest, for example, spent most of his career in lower divisions, but has become an ultimate leader at Stjarnan. His cruciate ligament injury two weeks ago was a desperate blow for the team, but they managed to continue winning in the league nevertheless.
Facing Inter without their best player will naturally be even tougher for Stjarnan, but the excitement is enormous. The game was moved to the national stadium in Reykjavik and all 10,000 tickets were sold out almost immediately. The players, who are mostly part-timers -- a mixture of students, janitors and engineers -- can hardly believe their luck. Next week they are going to San Siro, one of the most famous stadiums in Europe. Having watched the likes of Nemanja Vidic on TV on a weekly basis, they will now share the field with their idols.
Overcoming the Italian giants to reach the group stages might be too much to ask of them, but Stjarnan are certainly capable of making life difficult for the illustrious opponents, and maybe scoring another great goal.
Wouldn't that be the perfect timing to invent another celebration? Fans around the world would surely appreciate that.
Michael is an experienced European football writer, who contributes to ESPN, Blizzard, Champions and FourFourTwo, amongst others.