As one of Europe’s remotest outposts lying in between the North Atlantic Ocean and the Norwegian Sea, roughly half way between Britain and Iceland, the Faroe Islands is probably one of the last places you would associate with football. Yet the Faroese Premier League was founded as far back as 1942, predating some of it’s far more illustrious counterparts such as the Bundesliga and the Sűper Lig by well over a decade, giving the country a rich football history. The recent and relative success of the national side – particularly the creditable draws against their closest neighbour Scotland – has now brought the football of this tiny archipelago into the eye of a far wider audience than you might expect.
The achievements of the national side become all the more impressive when you consider that the Faroe Islands were only admitted to FIFA in 1988 and UEFA in 1990, and they remain one of the smallest member nations. Spectacularly, in their first ever competitive international fixture in September 1990 the tiny Faroe Islands defeated Austria – one of European football’s most historically powerful nations – in a Euro 1992 qualifier. That the game had to be played in Sweden as there were no grass pitches in the Faroe Islands at the time speaks volumes of the gulf between the two countries.
As an admittedly forced but nevertheless interesting comparison between the two nations, it’s worth noting that Austria’s Bundesliga currently receives €17 million a year in exchange for TV rights in deals with public broadcaster ORF and SKY Deutchland. In contrast, the Faroe Islands Premier League receives just over €2 million per annum. Yet this current deal represents a huge rise in revenue for the Faroese, increasing on the income of the previous deal by a staggering 600%. Football in the Faroe Islands is also moving away from its amateur origins, with player’s now contracted to clubs – something that was a rarity just a decade ago – in turn meaning wages have steadily risen over this period and an increase in both local players earning moves to more lucrative European leagues, as well as a rising number of players moving to the Faroe Island’s to ply their trade.
This is a far cry from the sport’s humble beginnings in this part of the world. Though the country’s oldest team TB Tvøroyri was founded way back in 1892 the game really only existed in the form of friendlies arranged into unofficial tournaments, held intermittently and entirely at the mercy of the unpredictable weather that often ravages the islands. It was fifty years later that the league was established, initially only made up of four teams, with the inaugural competition being claimed by KÍ Klaksvík. Though the league was halted in 1944 due to the friendly occupation of the territory by the British Army during the Second World War, the presence of large numbers of British troops helped to spread the popularity of the game, with frequent matches taking place between Faroese sides and teams drawn from the ranks of the troops taking place whilst the league was on hiatus. To this day British football remains highly popular in the Faroe Islands as a result.
Following the withdrawal of British troops from the islands at the end of the war the league was re-established, and in 1955 it was joined by a national cup competition. In 1971 the number of teams in the league rose to seven with the introduction of ÍF Funglafjørour, and was then increased to eight with the arrival of NSÍ Runavík. By 1976 a promotion and relegation system was put in place so that teams from the second tier – established back in 1943 – would now find it easier to move into the top flight, and the Faroe Islands Football Association (FSF) was set up three years later to oversee the running of the sport following these changes. By 1988 the Premier League had been expanded to ten teams, with a two up two down promotion and relegation system, and since 1992 Faroese clubs have been allowed entry to UEFA’s European tournaments. Today the teams that make up the top tier are drawn from all across the Faroese islands, but despite all these changes the four founding teams that contested the first title still survive. The inaugural winners KÍ Klaksvík are still at home in the top flight, and are the second most successful Faroese team with seventeen titles to their name, though TB Tvøroyri , despite being the nation’s first football club, have fallen on hard times and are now languishing in the second tier. The capital’s two clubs and fellow founding members – Havnar Bóltfelag and B36 Tórshavn – fall either side of KÍ Klaksvík, with twenty-one and eight titles respectively. These two sides also have the honour of contesting the most famous of the Faroese derbies.
B36 v HB is not, as it would first appear, an order of pencils, but one of footballs most enchanting local derbies pitting the Faroese capital of Tórshavn’s two biggest teams against each other. With a population of less than 20,000 you might not expect it to be much of an occasion, but crowds are normally in their thousands and it is a fixture that has its fair share of history. In 1991, seemingly on the brink of sealing the title, B36 were demolished 8-2 by HB, a result which sent B36’s season careering of the rails as they picked up just one more point all season. HB, spurred on by their momentous derby victory, sealed the title on goal difference over B36. The difference was a single goal.
Havnar (the local word for Tórshavn which loosely translates as ‘harbour’) Boltfelag (which translates as football) – or HB as they are commonly known – were founded in 1904. Their first chairman was the then mayor of Tórshavn, and the club has had a reputation for being associated with the Tórshavn elite ever since. In 1970 they were due to play KÍ Klaksvík in the national cup final, but their opponents did not show. HB, however, were not handed the title, a sore point even today, though they avenged this knock by becoming the only team to win the cup in five consecutive seasons between 1978 and 1982. Since admission to UEFA was granted they have competed regularly in the early rounds of European competition, which has afforded them a relative state of financial security, a factor that has helped them strengthen their grip on the domestic league.
Of the two sides then it is B36 that are the newer, though confusingly they actually began playing matches in 1935, despite not being founded, and named accordingly, until 1936. This anomaly is part of the folklore of the club, though fans will tell you that B36 simply sounds better. Founded by Tórshavn ‘s working class who were put off by the perceived snobbishness of HB, B36 trail their city rivals in terms of success, though have also regularly competed in European football, and in 2006 they even made it to the Champions League second qualifying round, where they were beaten by the mighty Fenerbahçe 9-0 on aggregate.
That this derby is played in such a truly stunning part of the world certainly adds to its appeal. But beyond the derby Faroese football is certainly growing in quality, and its appeal is now spreading as fans around the world are drawn to this tiny nation and its sporting anomaly. The Faroe Islands are filled with breathtaking scenery that can be discovered under the magical glint of the midnight sun, its citizens are honest, hardworking, welcoming people and the islands tingle with a natural beauty that is becoming increasingly rare. But it should always be remembered that they play football too.
By Joe Sharrat