Former Chelsea and Barcelona winger Eidur Gudjohnsen was recently unveiled as the marquee player for FC Pune City for the 2016 season of the Indian Super League (ISL).
In conversation with HT over the phone from the team’s pre-season training camp in Spain after the announcement, the 37-year-old spoke about his desire to play in India, his experience playing in the Chinese Super League, and what Euro 2016 meant to him and his compatriots:
Have you heard of the Indian Super League previously?
I’ve heard of the league before. I was contacted to play in the first two seasons but the timing just wasn’t right for me then.
What convinced you to sign with FC Pune City?
The main thing was that the club contacted me, the people of Pune City — the president, the coach. I spoke with them. They explained the situation of the club and how they wanted to take the team forward. It just seemed very interesting for me to come over and play. It gave me a positive feeling and that’s how things developed.
Have you met your teammates? What is your first perception about the team?
I’ve been here (training camp in Spain) for a few days with the team. The players are training very hard. The facilities here are very good. Everyone is working hard to prepare themselves.
Considering you are now 37 years old, what kind of role do you see yourself playing for Pune City FC?
I think when we become older, as players we don’t play so much with our feet, we play with our minds. We have to be quicker in reading situations and need to have vision and reactions in the game which are quicker than everybody else. That becomes a very big part of our game. But physically, I am in very good shape. I’m in the best physical shape that I’ve been in over the last few years.
You played for Shijiazhuang Ever Bright FC in the Chinese Super League recently. How was your experience?
The Chinese Super League was very relaxed. It’s very interesting. Obviously, it’s a different culture. I’m glad to have come there. We had a good team, a competitive team. Even though India and China have different cultures, I expect the experience to be similar. It is a different part of the world but the focus is on the football — and that’s what’s most important.
What helped the Chinese Super League develop enough to attract Champions League and World cup winning coaches and players?
I think it starts with the government in China investing a lot of time and finances in building up the quality of their football. They want to get the interest of the younger generation into football so they can build up the national team. They seem to be heading in the right direction. It takes time like everywhere else. I think the main thing in China — what they didn’t do in the past — is investment in the youth side of football. And it seems like they have started doing that now quite successfully.
What does Indian football need to do to improve its quality like that of the Chinese Super League?
I think everything starts from the bottom up. If you get the interest of the younger generation and the youth in playing football, you improve their skill and generations to come will play at a higher level.
After playing for the Iceland national team for 20 years, how was it playing in your first international tournament at Euro 2016?
For me it was a dream that I was able to fulfil. I played for 20 years with the national team and sometimes we came very close to qualifying but sometimes not. It was great to end my international career like that.
What did qualification to the Euros mean for Iceland as a nation?
It united everyone. It was the biggest event of the summer for everyone in Iceland. It was all everyone talked about and they will always talk about how they lived during the Euros. That was because of how we played, how our fans behaved, how we came together as a nation. It left a good image and it spread around the world.
What did Iceland do to bring itself to the level of big European footballing nations?
The facilities have been improving a lot. They started building full-size indoor training grounds about 10 years ago. That has allowed us to train and play the game for much longer. I think that investment is helping. I think the set-up in Iceland with the influence of the national team spreading down to the youth has also been important. I think everything has played its part in getting Iceland to the Euros.
Iceland’s domestic football circuit is quite limited. How did the national team manage to get good enough to beat the likes of England?
I think it works in a sense for Iceland that there a lot of teams in a small area so it was very easy to set up a league which can play all year round. And because of the natural strength of character of the Icelandic players and their desire to achieve something, they move abroad. If they get a chance they do so at a very young age to learn about the game. If you look at the players in the national team, there is not one player playing in Iceland. The league in Iceland is very good for them to start off their career when they are young and then move abroad.