Steve Menary1 Comment


Steve Menary1 Comment

Not your average away match....

12 July 2005, Burra, Shetland Isles

AFTER TWO MATCHES unbeaten in the 2005 Island Games, Greenland's only real outlet for international football, manager Jens Tang Olesen's side are on course for their best ever finish in the bi-annual event.

After a 0-0 draw with the Welsh island of Yns Mon, the Greenlanders travelled to the remote Shetland isle of Unst. The trip was a rare moment of glamour for Unst, whose population of around 700 people is reeling from a Ministry of Defence decision to close a long-standing Royal Air Force base on the island. Around 70 RAF personnel and their family will leave Unst after the MoD's decision to close the Saxa Vord listening base, which was set up in the Cold War to spy on the Russians and has been the UK's most northerly listening post.  Now, a thousand years after the Vikings rampaged through Unst, the Greenlanders quietly pitched up, clinched a 2-1 win over a weak Orkney side and returned to their base in Burra later that day for two matches in two days that could secure their first ever medal in the Island Games.

Playing for one of these 'nations' is hardly the kind of glamorous lifestyle that comes with a Premiership contract. The entire squad of 18 Greenland players are camping out on the floor of a relatively new village hall built adjacent to the pitch in Burra with money from the Shetlands' oil boom. Like Greenland's population of 55,000, the squad is predominantly Inuit, but also includes a number of players of Danish descent from colonisation of the west coast. To the rest of the team, they are all Greenlanders.

The team's vital third match at the Island Games is against tournament debutants the Western Isles and a crowd of around 200 people has slowly built up by kick-off time, standing around three sides of the pitch that looks out into a glorious view of the neighbouring sound. Sometimes shy around outsiders, Greenland are well supported by other athletes from the Greenlandic squad at the games including Kim Godtfredsen, who has just won silver in the men's athletics 10,000 metres race and has represented Denmark on a number of occasions. The most famous Greenlandic footballer chose to do just the same.

Jesper Gronkjaer was born in the capital of Nuuq in 1977, but left Greenland as a young boy for Denmark, where he joined Aalborg and would play a vital role in Roman Abramovich buying Chelsea. According to football legend, Abramovich was only willing to buy Chelsea if the club were in the Champions League and it was the Greenlandic winger/striker who secured this with a superb solo goal against Liverpool on the final day of the 2003 season.

Gronkjaer joined Chelsea from Ajax Amsterdam in October 2000 in a £7.8 million move and played in all four Denmark games at the 2002 World Cup finals as the side knocked out holders France in the group stage only to lose heavily to England in the first knockout round. After scoring seven goals in 88 appearances, Gronkjaer left Chelsea in 2004. He had spells with Birmingham City, Atletico Madrid and Stuttgart before returning to Denmark and joining FC Copenhagen, where he would have again played in the Champions League in the 2006/07 season but for injuries.

Gronkjaer, perhaps not unreasonably, prefers playing for Denmark ahead of the land of his birth. At the time of the 2005 Island Games, four other Greenlanders were playing in Denmark, Rene Overballe and Aputsiaq Birchm at Jens Tang Olesen's home town club Frederikshavn and Anton Overballe at Aalborg. The other player playing in Denmark is probably the team's best and one happy to put his career on the line not for Denmark but for Greenland.

"It's just tremendous to be on the team again and see all your friends as it's so difficult in Greenland and there are no roads and it takes ages to get anywhere," says Niklas Kreutzmann, who plays as a semi-professional at Aarhus Fremand in Denmark's third league, the Liga West.

In football terms, the next season is a big one for Kreutzmann as Aarhus Fremand are likely to challenge for promotion. The city's biggest club, AGF, are on a poor run. If they go down from the top tier and Fremand get promoted into the second level to join Aarhus' other club, Gymnastik Forening, for the first time all three of the city's clubs would be in the same division. Confident that Fremand can meet their side of the bargain, Kreutzmann has bet 100 Danish Kronar (about £9) on this scenario panning out and the winnings of £180 would be a help towards his seven-year long course to be a dentist.

In addition to training with Aarhus Fremand five times a week, Kreutzmann works up to 60 hours a week on his dental studies, but was never going to let Greenland's bear-like manager Jens Tang Olesen down by not playing. For Kreutzmann, football has been as big a part of his life in growing up as rituals such as killing his first seal aged 12 with his father. In Greenland, most locals learnt to speak Danish and Greenlandic through sport and football in particular.

“We can only play football outside for three or four months a year and in the winter we play futsal instead. At home, I spoke Danish, but I learnt Greenlandic through sport," adds the bright-eyed defender. When Greenlanders reach 11 or 12, many are sent to Denmark on an exchange visit with a Danish child for three months to improve their Danish.

This is co-ordinated through Greenland Houses located in each area and how Jens Tang Olesen came across the Greenlanders, by taking in youngsters like Niklas Kreutzmann. Kreutzmann adds: "I left Nuuk when I was 16 to do my exams. Jens Tang is brilliant guidance for young people and learning about the soccer world.

“When I came from Greenland, I had never lived on my own and Jens Tang told me how to live and to behave. We were introduced to a tough world [moving to Denmark] and it is still difficult, but now because of Jens I manage to play football, study and be young."

In the Shetlands, the articulate and personable Kreutzmann is suffering from a niggling injury that he puts down to the sand pitches that players train on in Denmark and play on in Greenland. Injuries at least provide him with rare opportunities to return home to Nuuk, but despite that problem and his hectic dental and football schedule, he was always going to play the Island Games.

Apart from those handful of Danish-based players such as Kreutzmann, Greenland's squad is drawn mainly from home, taking players from isolated towns such as Uummannaq and giving them a chance to play football – and experience places - that would otherwise be impossible.

Playing football at all would seem impossible in Greenland yet the island's oldest club dates back to 1933. The game was brought to the island long before that by the crews of whaling boats and first played around Disko Island. The first championships were staged in 1958 and the Football Association of Greenland (FAG) founded in 1971. Today, there are 76 clubs with 4,000 players, of whom 2,200 are under 18.

Football is a major source of identity for Greenland, which won home rule from Denmark in 1979, but due to Danish subsidies of around £15,000 a year per head of the population cannot afford to be independent. Instead, Greenland sends two representatives to the Danish parliament in Copenhagen and forms a Danish commonwealth with easterly neighbours the Faroe Islands - themselves, of course, a fully-fledged member of FIFA, despite having the exact same political standing as Greenland.

A flight from Greenland to Denmark - the only international link with the outside world - costs about £1,000 in high season, which effectively restricted the Greenland national football side's matches to casual outings against the Faroes until the 1989 Island Games. Since then, Greenland has played in the football tournament at every Island Games, providing great experiences for isolated Greenlanders, but never doing better than a play-off for sixth and seventh place.

After a good start, an improvement surely looks possible this time. Against the Western Isles, winger Kassava Zeeb is running the burly Scots defenders ragged and Kreutzmann is dominant in central defence. Within a few minutes the Greenlanders are in front as Brian Thomsen steers the ball home. Despite the Western Isles having more of the ball, the shorter but stronger Greenlanders hold out and increase their lead. With half-time approaching, Leifeeraq Karlsen scores a second against the run of play, a goal that is met by terrifying Greenlandic whooping on the pitch and quiet smiles among their supporters on the side lines.

Smoking a pipe, Jens Brinch is one of these supporters. Brinch is head of the island's overall umbrella body, the Sports Confederation of Greenland. Born in 1946 in Esjberg in Denmark, he studied in China and the US in the 1980s and published two books, "A comparative study of sports in China, USA and Western Europe" and "The Psychology of Sports" in the 1980s. He went to Greenland in 1995 initially for a year or two seeking a new experience, but fell in love with the place and the people and has been in the job for a decade.

"We don't have a league as the infrastructure is such that you cannot drive between the cities," he explains, unaware that the idea of Greenland having a city at all seems odd to most people. "We play regional qualifiers and then meet up for a week to decide who is champion. It's not very good as they cannot play regularly enough and we can only play three months of the year because the ice does not melt until May."

Played a month after the Island Games, the 2005 finals of the Greenland club championship were staged at Uummannaq in the north of the island. This meant that some teams needed a week by boat to get to the tournament, where B-67 - the number relates to the year of the club's formation - from the capital Nuuk clinched the title beating Ilulissat 3-1 in the final. Local side Malamuk finished third. The week-long finals over, the players set off home with many, again, taking a week to get back by sea.

For Greenlandic footballers, merely getting to play the game is a battle; but a popular one. At the finals in Uummannaq, 2,000 of the 3,500 inhabitants were watching the semi-finals of the championships being played on a sand pitch near the coast, when an iceberg floating by capsized. A large section of ice under the water had sheared off, making the iceberg top-heavy and forcing it to topple. Jens Tang Olesen recalls large sections of the crowd fleeing to rescue boats facing wreckage from the mini-tidal wave that ensued.

That sort of difficulty is what makes football's survival and prosperity in Greenland so amazing. The biggest network of roads is the 15km around the capital of Nuuk. This even includes a couple of speed cameras – those administrators don't miss a trick - but none of these roads lead anywhere outside of Nuuk. So just getting to matches can be difficult; and even fatal in the most tragic part of Greenland's football history.

On 8 August 2004, Karl Olsen, 35, Martin Larsen 40, and Kristian Davidsen, who was 43, set sail from Aasiaat in the north across Disko Bay to play in a veterans' game in Qegertarsuag. The journey usually only takes an hour and after playing the game, the trio set sail back home again. But they never arrived. A massive search and rescue mission was launched including Greenland Air's helicopters, fishery inspections ships, a Gulf Stream search and rescue aircraft from Royal Danish Air Force and hordes of locals in their own small boats; but the men could not be found. On 16 August, the search for the three men, who all had wives and children, was called off.

As the summer closed in and Greenland's harsh winter descended, there was still no sign of the trio and all hope was abandoned. Then, on 10 June 2005, the players were all found - dead. They had seemingly got lost and their boat was stuck on the small, uninhabited Hareoe Island (or Hare Island in English) to the north of Disko Island. The three men had built a rough shelter from drift wood and even written SOS on the cliffs to try and attract attention from the search parties, but to no avail. The footballers had died either from starvation or cold during the winter, all for a game of football.

The incident led to massive soul-searching among Greenland's tight-knit but geographically fragmented community with many criticisms of the local police, whose chief Steen Silberg responded: "It is my belief, that the search has been carried out thoroughly and has covered a very large area. I firmly believe that the military and police crew, and also the volunteers have done a tremendous job, but the sad story is that the search did not find the missing men."

Against this background, winning a football match seems pointless, but the harsh conditions on the world's largest island of 2,175 million square kilometres mean there is a bond between the Greenlandic players that other national teams will never have. Olesen explains: "All the players, they love to be together. Sometimes I forget and shout when they forget a tactic, but they love it, to be together and to be with each other."

This article is an extract from Steve Menary’s book ‘Outcasts! The Lands That FIFA Forgot’- a most underrated read. In the course of 224 pages, Menary embarks on a journey that at the outset appears to encompass only the periphery of the beautiful game, but quickly transcends into an absorbing study of football’s global pulse.  Beyond the sickly world of lavishly over marketed club brand coverage, the grim realities of life and football’s role as an escape are illustrated perfectly here.  Outcasts! leads you well away from FIFA’s comfort zone with pied piper like Menary the most compelling of guides.  Sepp Blatter would not want you to read this book, and that alone should be complete justification for doing so.  

You can buy Outcasts! The Lands That FIFA Forgot’ from Amazon.