Jon Dadi Bodvarsson has spoken at length about his enjoyment of playing for his country, ahead of his Icelandic national team duty as they look to continue their promising bid to book their place at next summer’s European Championships.
Bodvarsson, the most capped player in the Millwall squad, will look to add to his tally of 42 senior outings for Iceland as they firstly host Moldova in Reykjavik on Saturday, before travelling to Albania next Tuesday as Erik Hamren’s side sit level on points in Group H with Turkey and group leaders France.
The striker claims he is very appreciative of his regular opportunities for Strákanir Okkar, and looks back with fondness on his international career to date.
“It’s always great to be called up. The journey with the Icelandic national team has been fantastic,” he says.
“I made my international debut in 2012 but came in properly in 2014, and the team had just missed out on the World Cup. The timing of when I started playing regularly for Iceland was brilliant because of the way the players were performing, and our former coach Lars Lagerbäck set the tone from day one.
“There was no mediocrity anymore – it was hard work, discipline, and an identity which everyone was on board with. So far we’ve seen an upward curve and it has been brilliant, especially with Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup since. I’m always very grateful to be in the squad every time I’m called up. I’m very proud – it’s a constant journey and we want to keep on going.”
The Iceland team’s undoubted highlight in their history arrived in 2016, when the nation – populated by just 339,000 people, only marginally greater than the London Borough of Southwark – qualified for their first major tournament in the form of the Euros.
Bodvarsson and his teammates would progress from their group and go on to inflict one of England’s biggest shock defeats in a major competition in the Round of 16, before bowing out to hosts France in the Quarter-Finals.
“Playing at the Euros was a surreal moment in my life to think about. When you’re young, you imagine things like playing at these big tournaments and the you’re actually there. But when you’re there it does feel more normal than you’d expect in a way, because you’ve worked towards it,” the 27-year-old explains.
“The England game was unbelievable because we fully believed we would win. We knew so much about what we stood for, and the confidence in the team was so high. It was funny and strange, the things we would read in the build-up to the game.
“A lot of the media made out as if we were a group of semi-professional players. I read a story that I was apparently a part-timer who filled gas tanks for a living, so some of the press had people believing that we were semi-pros, when a lot of our squad are top players in European leagues.”
Bodvarsson and the Icelanders used the underestimation of their team to their full advantage, despite acknowledging the obvious threat of Roy Hodgson’s Three Lions.
The forward would go on to assist the decisive goal by Kolbeinn Sigporsson to send the Nordic side through against all odds, where their fairytale journey would come to an end in the last eight against the Frenchmen with a 5-2 defeat.
“Because of what was said about us, it put England under more pressure to get through when their team knew it would be a tougher game. As soon as we equalised straight after conceding the goal from the penalty, we could tell it had shocked them. Then we scored the second goal, and they didn’t really know what to do.
“I’ll always remember the moment when the final whistle blew, and we obviously went ballistic and celebrated with the fans straight away, but the dressing room after the game was just so quiet. We were all just looking at the floor, reflecting on what we’d just done and enjoying the moment. We of course played against France in the next round, and what a team they had – I can’t believe they didn’t go on to win the trophy.”
The momentum from Iceland’s European exploits would carry them upwards to their maiden World Cup in 2018, eliminated in the group stage but earning a credible 1-1 draw with Argentina in their opening match.
Bodvarsson claims it has been a remarkable road so far which has seen the people of Iceland reap the rewards in seeing their heroes on the biggest stage.
“I played all the games in the Euros first of all, and it was just something special to have been a part of. We got more experience from it, that was our first international tournament and we went on to qualify for our first World Cup two years after.
“It was such a learning curve and I think it has helped really improve Icelandic football.”
Upon looking at the recent Iceland squads, it is easy to see Bodvarsson’s point that these players are far from the ‘part-timers’ they were once portrayed to be. National team captain Aron Gunnarsson has made over 400 competitive appearances in England’s top divisions, with Birkir Bjarnason at Aston Villa for two years and Burnley winger Johann Berg Gudmundsson also racking up over 70 caps. Hermann Hreidarsson and Kari Arnason are also well-known names in the English game.
But two particular teammates – past and present – stand out for Bodvarsson in terms of who he has had the pleasure of lining up alongside in the Icelandic shirt.
“I’ve enjoyed playing with my national teammates. Gylfi Sigurdsson is a top, top player. He has great quality, able to score and create goals, and he’s a match winner. Not only that, he sets such an example through his work ethic in every game. He covers the most ground, he’s a very dedicated trainer, and playing alongside players like him shows what it takes to go far in the sport.
“It’s not only players like Gylfi, but I had the privilege of playing with Eidur Gudjohnsen a few times before he retired, too. He had an absolutely amazing career, and even though his best years were behind him, he would still show a lot of quality and he was a player I looked up to as a kid. So for me, those two in particular have been very special to play with.”
It is clear to see Bodvarsson is a player who thrives off confidence. The striker’s summer move to The Den from Reading indicates a fresh start, after frustrating periods on the sidelines with injury. When fit and firing, however, he has shown himself to be one of the Championship’s most threatening attackers, scoring seven goals in just nine starts last term with The Royals.
He says that being able to switch his mindset between club and international football has made him feel refreshed, and that is key to maintaining the confidence needed to enjoy a successful career in both shades of blue.
“I take a lot of confidence from playing for my country,” Bodvarsson says.
“It’s strange with the national team how much it has helped me, in the way that perhaps if you’re having a bad run of form for your club – which can happen to any player – you can go on international duty and get that winning feeling back. Previously in my career, that has helped me when I’ve gone away with Iceland when we’ve been doing well.
“It’s good to have two teams to play for in that sense to balance it out, so I think playing internationally keeps my confidence stable and that has helped with the good spells I’ve had in my club career. I still maintain that belief – I always step onto the field knowing I can score goals, and that’s just the mindset you need to have really. Hopefully I can achieve that for Millwall and for Iceland too.”