Positive results in qualifying matches have often been elusive for minnows Faroe Islands. Under manager Lars Olsen, however, the North Atlantic archipelago has achieved notable victories and draws against formidable opposition in recent times.
First came the home and away giant-killings against Greece in the UEFA EURO 2016 preliminaries, then a draw and away victory against Hungary and Latvia, respectively, in 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying; a remarkable achievement for a country boasting a modest population of 50,000.
It is these valiant results that have seen the Faroes rise to their highest standing of 74 in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking – currently higher than the likes of Norway, Bulgaria and Finland. While they may have been taken lightly by opponents in years gone by, it is certainly no longer the case.
“We’ve been improving over the last two years and I think we are getting better and better,” Olsen told FIFA.com. “In the past, it has always been very difficult for us to play away from home and now we’ve had two away wins in recent times: Greece, and now Latvia.
“It’s important for us to realise that we can win away games. I hope we can improve, get more points and try and build on our Ranking position. It will be difficult, though, as teams no longer underestimate us which makes it more difficult for us to take points against them.”
Pitted alongside Switzerland, Hungary, Latvia, Andorra and European champions Portugal in Russia 2018 qualifying, Faroe Islands currently find themselves joint-third on points in Group B after three games. Having claimed a draw against Hungary and a victory in Latvia, they faced an enormous task against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal last month, eventually suffering a 6-0 defeat in Torshavn.
“I am pleased with the start to the campaign but in our last game against Portugal, I don’t think we played to our full potential,” said Olsen “If we don’t do that, then we can lose to everybody – we can lose to Portugal, we can lose to Andorra.
“Performance, for me, is the most important thing because if we play to our full potential, then we can cause problems for every team.”
Spirit of 1992
Coming up against European champions is nothing new for Lars Olsen, though, for he himself was one as a player 24 years ago. One of football’s most celebrated underdog stories, the former defender captained Denmark to UEFA EURO 1992 glory after the Scandinavian country had originally failed to qualify for the tournament and were instead drafted in as a late replacement for Yugoslavia.
Denmark saw off Europe’s traditional heavyweights to take the crown as kings of Europe and it serves as a reminder to smaller nations, such as Olsen’s Faroe Islands, that football’s status quo can be toppled.
“I always tell my players that anything is possible in football because I have seen it myself with EURO 1992,” asserted Olsen. “It was the biggest moment in my playing career, it was a surprise for everybody and, of course, I’m very proud of it.
“Denmark is a small country and to win the European Championship is huge – and perhaps the biggest thing that’s happened to Denmark in sports. It was a fantastic time in Sweden in 1992.”
As they look to build on their highest position in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking and their impressive start to World Cup qualifying, Olsen’s exploits as Denmark captain in 1992 is not the only source of inspiration for the Faroes. Neighbours Iceland have further illustrated that so-called minnows can pack a punch, with their exploits in France capturing everyone’s hearts at EURO 2016.
“Everybody in the Faroe Islands is very proud of Iceland and what they’ve achieved,” said Olsen “They’re our nearest neighbour, the weather and lifestyle is similar, and they are an inspiration to us.
“We don’t have any star players at the Faroes and that’s similar to Iceland. While they have Gylfi [Sigurdsson] playing in England, it’s the team that is the star, and that’s the same with us.”
Sights on Switzerland
With the country’s rocky, rugged landscape and subpolar oceanic climate, football in the Faroes is faced with many obstacles, and ahead of a demanding World Cup qualifier against seasoned Switzerland in Lucerne on 13 November, Olsen is tasked with another challenge.
“Our domestic league has recently finished, so I have to make sure the players are prepared for the game in Switzerland,” he said. “It will certainly be difficult for us. Last time out against Portugal we lost 6-0, but for me, the game in Switzerland will be more difficult as it’s an away game. But after Portugal, we feel like we have something to prove to ourselves.”
While Faroe Islands travel as rank outsiders to Switzerland, a side steeped in tournament pedigree, recent results show that it would certainly be unwise of the hosts to underestimate Olsen’s spirited side.