History

Iceland’s first Professional

Even prior to their sensational exploits during this Summer’s European Championships, I think it’d be fair to say that for a Nation less populous than Glasgow, Iceland have traditionally punched above their weight in terms of producing quality footballers, particular those suited to the British game. Most famously perhaps Eidur Gudjohnsen, but also Gudni Bergsson, Herman Hreidarsson, Aron Gunnarsson, current Burnley player Johann Gudmundsson (who featured against Rangers recently), or present-day star of Icelandic Soccer, Swansea’s Gylfi Sigurdsson. Kari Arnason and Eggert Jonsson, who played for Aberdeen and Hearts respectively, are added to that list, as well as Rangers’ own Tottie Beck. Not bad for a nation whose most popular sport is Handball!

The story of Iceland’s first professional footballer is an eventful one. Rangers play a small part. His nomadic career saw him turn-out for top teams in his native Iceland, Scotland, England, France, and includes a fascinating tale involving one of Europe’s fiercest derbies. Leading his Country in football wasn’t enough. He wanted to lead his Country full stop, in a lifetime that also saw success in the business world as well as Icelandic politics.

Albert Gudmundsson was born on the 5th of October 1923, in the Icelandic Capital of Reykjavik. At the age of 15, he joined Valur, a sports club which focussed primarily on football but also had successful handball and basketball teams. (Valur remain Iceland’s 2nd most successful top flight football team, having won 20 League titles). How much of a part he played in Valur’s success is unclear. They did win the 4-team national League in 1938, 1940 and again in 1942 when it expanded to include a side from outside Reykjavik for the first time, IBV. The Championship was retained in 1943 and again in 1944. It was around this time that Gudmunsson would leave Iceland, enrolling in a Business course at Skerry’s College on Bath Street in Glasgow.

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The Youngster must’ve made an impression because almost immediately he would join Rangers as an amateur. The specifics of how this move came about are unknown but it would appear that it was down to 1 of 3 men, neither of which have obvious connections to the Light Blues. Murdo McDougall was the co-Manager of Valur, along with fellow Scot Robert Jack, until 1938. McDougall would remain in Icelandic football, taking a similar Managerial post with the national side. He was succeeded at Valur by former footballer, another Scotsman, Joe Devine. Motherwell-born, he had enjoyed a successful playing career in England, most notably with Burnley, both Newcastle and Sunderland, and Queen’s Park Rangers.

Gudmunsson’s stay at Rangers was a fairly brief one, mainly featuring for the reserves and making just a single appearance for the first team. His only outing came in a Southern League clash, playing at centre forward against Clyde on Christmas day 1945, at Ibrox. The match was won 3-1 thanks to 2 goals from Willie Waddell and a 3rd by Charlie Watkins. Former Rangers Captain Davie Meiklejohn was the Daily Record’s reporter for this match and commented, “In comparison, Rangers were slow with their movements. Thornton was too slow and deliberate off his mark. Gudmundsson was the opposite. His first-time passing went in a forward direction, but never within reach of a colleague. This lad, I believe, has something, although he didn’t shine here.” His only notable attempt on goal was a header from a Waddell cross, which was saved by Clyde ‘Keeper Sweeney. Nevertheless, the win would help the Light Blues to their 7th consecutive, and final, wartime League Championship.

In September 1946, the young Icelander was on the move again. Perhaps using his contacts at Arsenal, Bill Struth may have arranged Gudmundsson’s switch to the London Club. He signed on the 25th of September, again on amateur terms.

He entered an Arsenal team in turmoil. Legendary boss George Allison, who had succeeded Herbert Chapman, had struggled to replace the men who had made the Gunners a force to be reckoned with prior to the outbreak of the 2nd World War. Players such as Cliff Bastin and Ted Drake, who had been essential in Arsenal’s most successful period in their history, had retired and the Club were unable to bridge the gap. (Most Clubs would go through huge change as normality resumed to professional football post-war, Rangers included. Bill Struth did a tremendous job in again rebuilding the squad, bringing on stars like Young, Waddell and Thornton).

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Gudmundsson in his Arsenal days

The frequent change, due to injury and squad rotation in Arsenal’s team created opportunity for Gudmundsson. (When he made his League debut, he was the 4th person to wear the no.8 in just 11 games). He didn’t have to wait long for his first start. Initially making his debut in a friendly match against Sparta Prague at Highbury on October 2nd 1946, 2 days shy of his 23rd birthday. On their way to Britain, the Czech champions had actually been involved in an accident, when their plane collided with an English aircraft in a Cologne Airport. Despite extensive damage to the plane, fortunately, nobody was injured. The Icelander impressed at Inside-right, so much so that the headline in the next day’s Dundee Courier was “Ex-Ranger was Arsenal’s ace.” The match was drawn 2-2, despite Arsenal being the superior side for the most part. The Gunners’ 2nd was an own goal that stemmed from a Gudmundsson shot. (Sparta would then go on to face Rangers, with the Gers winning 3-1, before taking on Hibs whilst on tour in Britain).

During this time, Gudmundsson was also involved with Iceland’s national team, who were touring England, playing against sides such as Ilford. Whether that kept him out of the Arsenal team for matches against Blackpool and Brentford is unclear, but he did return to the team for the League fixture against Stoke at Highbury on October 19th. 62,000 witnessed Arsenal win 1-0, only their 3rd victory in the first 11 games. He kept his place for the following week’s trip to Stamford Bridge. The North London side went down 2-1 to Chelsea, in what proved to be Gudmundsson’s last competitive match in Britain.

A problem began to emerge. Arsenal were keen on Gudmundsson, and the Icelander wanted to remain. Although due to his inability to gain a UK Work Permit, he was unable to turn full-time professional.

His final appearance was in a friendly against Racing Club, in Paris, on the 11th of November. These matches had been a fixture of both sides calendar since 1930. Arsenal had never lost in 10 meetings between the sides, with all but one of them played in France. The final score was 2-1 to the home side, but the damage could, and perhaps should, have been a lot worse. Despite the loss, Gudmundsson was again a stand-out. So much so that the Parisians would make an offer for his services. A deal wasn’t agreed, although the young Icelander did remain in France, eventually joining Nancy for season 1947-48. (Arsenal went on that season (1946/47) to finish a disappointing 13th, in what was George Allison’s final campaign as Boss).

Details on his short stint at Nancy are scarce at the moment. He finished the Club’s top goalscorer as they finished the Ligue 1 season in 13th. One French journalist noted that unlike the reputation of Scandinavian footballers, Albert’s game centred on technical ability rather than physical attributes. The campaign was enough to earn him a move to AC Milan in 1948, who had just finished (a distant) 2nd to Torino in Serie A.

His only season in Italy, 1948/49, would be that blighted by the Superga tragedy in May 1949. The plane crash caused the death of the entire squad of Torino, who had won the previous 3 Serie A titles, as well as pioneering coach Egri Erbstein and all Club officials on-board.  Despite the accident occurring with 4 matches remaining in the season, the Turin side would win their 4th consecutive Championship, with the remaining fixtures being played by the reserve team.

Milan were hoping to build on the previous season’s 2nd place finish and mount a challenge for the Title, aided by the goals of another Scandinavian footballing trailblazer, Sweden’s Gunnar Nordahl. Instrumental in this move was Irish International “Paddy” Sloan, who was with Milan and had also been at Arsenal with Gudmundsson.

The new signing played 14 times that campaign, scoring twice as the Rossoneri improved their points tally but slipped down to 3rd place. His final match for Milan was very nearly the last of his career. Whilst playing against Lazio, the Icelander suffered a serious knee injury. The Club refused to pay for treatment and seemingly, Gudmundsson’s football career was all but up. However, the team doctor of fierce rivals Internazionale claimed that he could perform a surgery that would correct the injury and allow him to resume playing. Milan, who were involved in an intense battle for 2nd place with the Nerazzuri, rejected this proposition on the grounds that it was too risky. So, fully 60 years before Andy Webster, Gudmundsson bought out his own Milan contract and paid for the procedure himself.

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The first 3 players standing (in club colours) from the left are Walter “Paddy” Sloan, Gunnar Nordahl and Albert Gudmundsson.
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Albert Gudmundsson and “Paddy” Sloan, reunited at AC Milan.

 

The surgery was a success and Gudmundsson moved on again, returning to France. RC Paris maintained their interest and the Icelander eventually got his move to the French Capital.

Gudmundsson made a relatively quick return to football, playing 26 times and scoring 9 goals in 1949/50 as RC Paris finished 7th. He also featured in the 1949 Challenge match against former Club Arsenal. A Joe Mercer-led Gunners side defeated the Frenchmen 2-1 in Paris. (He competed in the fixture the following year too, a 5-1 defeat with Don Roper scoring a hat-trick for the Englishmen). RC also reached the Final of the Coupe de France, losing out 2-0 to Reims, with Gudmundsson starting in the forward line.

The following season RC Paris slipped further down the table, ending the season in 13th, despite the Icelander improving his record to 14 goals in 24 appearances.

Gudmundsson very nearly made a return to British football at the end of this campaign. He re-joined Arsenal as a guest on their tour of Brazil in 1951, and had agreed terms to join full-time with the Gunners, but once again he was refused permission to permanently reside in the UK.

He remained in Paris for the 1951/52 season. RC fell further to 14th with Gudmundsson playing on 19 occasions and finding the net 7 times.

He was on the move again, this time to Nice, in what would be his final campaign as a professional footballer. His 14 appearances helped them to a 14th place finish.

It would also appear that Gudmudsson had guested for Nancy, but details of this remain unclear. What is known, however, is that he had returned to Iceland by 1953, and to the Club where it had all began for him, Valur.

2 years at Valur preceded a switch to FH of, Hafnarfjörður, for the 1956 campaign. (FH are the current reigning Champions of Icelandic football, and include in their playing staff former Rangers trainee Steven Lennon.)

It was at around this time that Gudmundsson set up in business as a wholesaler, importing mainly women’s clothing from France. However, it was successful enough to diversify and trade in other types of commodities, such as wine and later he became an agent for Renault motor cars.

Little is known of his time at FH, who were playing outside the top division. (Only winning promotion for the first time in 1979). At the end of the 1958 season, he quit the game.

As an Internationalist, he played 6 times. (Iceland had first played an International match in 1930, but the first to be recognised by FIFA was in 1946, against Denmark in which Gudmundsson played). He also managed 2 goals for his Country.

He was appointed Iceland’s French Consul in 1962. 6 years after that he was elected as Chairman of the Icelandic football association, the KSI. The KSI had honoured Gudmundsson the previous year with a Silver Badge for services to the game, and was subsequently presented with the Gold Badge after stepping down from the top job in 1973. Later, he would also aid other Icelandic footballers in moving abroad.

The late 1960’s also saw Gumundsson join the Independence party, a centre-right, liberal, eurosceptic organisation, for which Albert would become active. (The Independence party remains the largest in Iceland, having only once failed to top the polls in parliamentary elections since the Second World War. They currently have 19 members of the Icelandic parliament).

In 1970, he first ventured into elected politics. He was voted onto the Reykjavik City Council, of which he would become Chairman until 1986.

There must’ve been a moment of personal pride for Gudmundsson as he again made the journey back to Glasgow, taking part in Rangers’ Centenary celebrations in 1973. He was one of over 200 former players presented to the crowd at half-time of the match between the Light Blues and Arsenal. (Derek Parlane put the home side ahead, but 2 late goals from Charlie George and John Radford would deny the Gers a positive result on their special day).

He entered the Althing, the Icelandic Parliament, in 1974, as a member for his home City. (The Althing is believed to be the oldest surviving parliament in the World, first convening as early as 940 AD.) He was re-elected at the end of his 4-year term, as the Independence party remained the largest in the House.

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Albert Gudmundsson the politician.

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In 1980, Gudumundsson decided to run for President, as an Independence party nominee. (Most Presidential candidates in Iceland run independently of the political parties). He received 25,599 votes, 19.8% of the total turnout, coming 3rd. Vigdis Finnbogadottir narrowly won the election, with 33.8% of the vote, to become the World’s first democratically elected female President.

He was returned to Parliament following the 1983 General elections, and joined the Government, being appointed to the post of Finance Minister. 2 years later he switched to Minister for Industry. Just weeks before the 1987 Parliamentary elections, after becoming embroiled in a tax scandal, he resigned and quit the Independence Party, the leadership of which he believed had failed to support him adequately. The scandal concerned a former shipping company that Gudmundsson had been involved with, Hafskip. The controversy would be one of the largest in Iceland’s history and saw a number of employees and board members charged with criminal offences. The vast majority were found to be innocent, with the rest having their charges reduced to relatively trivial ones. Gudmundsson was a popular politician, and stood-up for what he believed in, even if it meant bumping heads with his own Party membership. Perhaps he had long been set on a collision course with the party’s leadership.

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The Icelandic Government with Gudmundsson seated on the left, closest to the camera. President Vigdis Finnbogadottir at the top of the table.

Dramatically, he formed his own faction, the Citizens Party, which adopted similar Centre-right positions as the Independence Party, only with a populist element. Remarkably, Gudmundsson’s party took 10.9% of the vote in the election, with the Independence party receiving its worst result in history. (It remained the largest party in the Althing, winning 27.2% of the vote share). The result earned the Citizens party 7 seats, in that number included the election of Ingi Bjorn Albertsson, Albert’s son. He had also been a footballer, starring for Valur and the Icelandic national team in the 1970’s.

Gudmundsson retained Chairmanship of the Citizen’s Party until 1989, when he stepped down to become Iceland’s resident ambassador to France. That same year saw a split in the Citizen’s party when Ingi Bjorn Albertsson, along with another member of the Althing, split to form their own organisation, which was later incorporated into the Independence Party. The remaining members joined the Government, in coalition with the left-wing Social Democratic Party. The Citizen’s Party was so fragmented by the time of the 1991 elections that it did not stand any candidates, and was eventually dissolved in 1994.

Gudmundsson remained in his ambassadorial role until 1993. He passed away on the 7th of April 1994, at the age of 70.

Outside the offices of the KSI stands a statue, erected in March 2010, of Icelandic football’s most significant pioneer, Albert Gudmundsson.

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The Statue of Albert Gudmundsson outside the KSI headquarters

Gudmundsson’s granddaughter, Kristbjörg Ingadóttir, was also an Icelandic international footballer. His great-grandson, also Albert Gudmundsson, is a current youth player at PSV Eindhoven, whom he joined last summer. The 19-year old rejected the chance to follow in his great-grandfather’s footsteps when he turned down a contract offer from Arsenal, in favour of a deal from Heerenveen in 2013.

 

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