‘If I had not come back, I would definitely have that regret’ – Through the fire again for Iceland’s Sif Atladóttir

Photo: Adam Ciereszko

The international career of Sif Atladóttir has its fourth major instalment. The lead character is familiar, so too much of the soundtrack and supporting cast, though the production chaos was something else this time around.

“As long as I’m fit, and it’s fun, you’re gonna see me around; I think having my baby girl just pushed me to play longer. I think it’s fun, and I love football, I love it, so I think you’re gonna see me for a while.”

Iceland defender Sif Atladóttir, speaking five years ago this month in Doetinchem, after an agonisingly-narrow loss to Switzerland that ultimately meant the end of the team’s UEFA Women’s EURO 2017 hopes, in the second game. The time since has brought the birth of her second child, Champions League finishes with Kristianstad, personal hardships and a pandemic, but she was there to start their EURO 2022 opener against Belgium in Manchester, with characteristic, pulsing intensity.

“Not knowing if you are going to come back, that was definitely really hard, but then one call made all the difference; ‘okay, I’ll do this one more time’,” she explains. “It was a really difficult time, but I think COVID for me was a blessing in disguise, because that pushed the EUROs one year back, which was great for me, because the second time around (returning to play after giving birth) was definitely harder than the first.”

Leading up to 2017, a tournament she would have her 32nd birthday at, the task was not just to break into a well-functioning defence, but to do it while studying full-time, working as a personal trainer on the side, and raising a toddler with husband Björn ‘Bjössi’ Sigurbjörnsson (Kristianstad assistant coach at the time). Successfully resuming life as a footballer was gruelling enough, given that daughter Sólveig arrived in April 2015 after 40 hours of labour, and a caesarean section that meant walking was the most she was permitted to do for the first eight weeks.

By the end of that August, she was back in top-flight action for KDFF, though it was almost a year before she gained back the kind of muscle power she had felt previously. Sigurbjörn Egill (‘Sibbi’) was born in September 2020, and there in the crowd with his older sister at last Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Belgium.

He may have a little longer to wait to see his mum loading up for one of the powerful throw-ins that were a feature of Iceland’s EURO 2017 games. Wolfsburg’s silky attacking prospect Sveindís Jane Jónsdóttir is the new kid on that particular block, but should she be needed, is Sif there to cannon them in again during this tournament?

“I’m halfway there! Because my strength comes from my core, and when the pregnancy went on, it glided my muscles apart, and they haven’t fully committed together again, so I’m like ‘damn it!’

“Next year, if I get a really good off-season, then I should be – not as long as Sveindís, but maybe competitive!”

The former Kristianstad teammates are part of a group that enjoys a foundation of closeness and camaraderie, blending as well the promise and excitement of youth with vast experience. Alongside goalkeeper Sandra Sigurðardóttir and captain Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir, Sif is the remaining member of the team from EURO 2009 in Finland.

As has been referenced in media recently, those three are players in the squad with children, along with Valur captain Elísa Viðarsdóttir and West Ham United midfielder Dagný Brynjarsdóttir. Anyone in the dressing room, though, does not have to look far if ever in need of guidance or a galvanising voice.

“We definitely have many leaders in the group. With Sara coming back, obviously she’s a huge puzzle piece for us and her voice is definitely needed in this team, but we have Glódís (Viggósdóttir) driving from the back, Gunny (Gunnhildur Yrsa Jónsdóttir) has been the captain since Sara was away during her pregnancy.

“We have older players like Elísa, I definitely say my share, and Dagný of course. The young kids are actually really speaking up also, which is really good, because we need their feedback to be able to help them in their game.

“Everybody knows that they have a platform to talk, it doesn’t matter if you’re 18 or over 30.”

Photo: Hulda Margrét Óladóttir

They are a team where the suggestion of companionship rings slightly truer than many in football. Bayern Munich goalkeeper Cecilía Rán Rúnarsdóttir was confirmed last week as being ruled out of the tournament, having suffered a broken finger, with her shirt then held up in dedication during the line-up photo before kick-off against Belgium.

Despite not turning 19 until later this month, the recent Everton player is already right among their bubbliest personalities, says Sif, who confirms they are a squad who find the time to have fun together.

“We actually do. Definitely Sveindís and Cessa are the two off the top of my head.

“Karólína (Lea Vilhjálmsdóttir) is amazing, too. The young kids are really good, in that sense, they’re fun to be around.”

Even a conflict in team DJ matters does not hold them back. What’s a sound clash between friends, after all?

“I think it’s Berglind (Björg Þorvaldsdóttir). Berglind and Glódís, but it’s so funny because they had this social media thing, and they got asked which quality of their roommate would they not want, and both said music taste!”

Currently based in Crewe, there is a relaxed feel to their camp, where commitment to the task in hand is supplemented by empathy and trust from head coach Þorsteinn Halldórsson. For Sif, a weight was lifted when the discomfort of having to ask if children would be allowed at the team hotel to see them during the tournament was taken away.

“(In 2017), we were kind of secluded, on our own, and the approach was more ‘it’s just us, we don’t invite people to the hotel, it’s just really a hard bubble in there.’ Going from that to this, Steini said, ‘Of course the kids are welcome at the hotel. If that gives you energy, bring them, just manage the time correctly, so don’t have them all day because that’s going to drain you so you can’t relax.’

“I think the environment now is more relaxed, more open. You know what you need to do, just be prepared for practicing games.”

The ‘dóttirs’ are one part of something huge this summer, where the rise in wider profile of the women’s game has been proven beyond doubt by swarming media presence around the competition. Women’s football has indeed become the new Ramones t-shirt (but can you name five songs?).

The Icelandic team’s national press contingent has been consistently strong, at times in past tournaments even putting to shame that of many ‘bigger’ nations. For three summers running, theirs was a country enjoying representation at a major finals: the catapult of global intrigue that came their way at the men’s EURO 2016, the women in 2017, and the men’s World Cup debut in 2018.

Both of their respective teams would then miss out on their next tournament, with the pandemic also providing an obvious puncture. Is there a feeling now of needing to find momentum again for Icelandic football, or is all that progress still there, as Sif sees it?

“I think so, and I think that shows with all the young kids who are going to Europe. Especially in Iceland now, and because of social media, you’re so much more aware of it, so of course there’s people who want more, and people who aren’t supporting women’s football and stuff like that, but I think in general, people are just excited about having something to celebrate.

“I think the pandemic kind of emphasised how much we need our sports. The support’s definitely there, and I think we felt it in the (Belgium) game; that energy kept through the 90 minutes, which made us push through that last barrier.

“I think we had most of our chances in the last 20 minutes, and that’s definitely a huge advantage, having 2000 people there supporting you.”

Was there any detectable shift in the national psyche as a result of those aforementioned footballing successes and skyrocketing popularity around the world?

“I think the biggest part is we didn’t change that much. Even though we’re small, we look at it that we have a status; ‘why aren’t we in the World Cup?’

“Statistically, we shouldn’t be there, but we always think that we’re going to be the best, we’re going to win, and I think that mentality is just survival mode from when the Vikings came. You have to know your environment and you have to see the hope of ‘of course we’re the best.’

“It kind of emphasised that, ‘oh, of course we are’, so I don’t think the mentality has changed. It’s kind of like a stamp that you’re doing good.

“It’s definitely helped that we have good players out there, and Icelandic product, they want it.”

Berglind Björg Þorvaldsdóttir celebrates putting Iceland ahead in their UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 game with Belgium at Manchester City’s Academy Stadium. (Liam Asman / Sports Press Photo)

Nestled away among the sea of Icelandic colours in the stand last Sunday was a banner for Sif’s father, Atli Eðvaldsson, a goalscoring midfielder with Borussia Dortmund and others, and a former player and manager of the men’s national team. Atli passed away in September 2019, with Sif’s uncle, Jóhannes Eðvaldsson, the versatile 1970s Celtic favourite known as ‘Shuggy’, also passing in January last year.

Born in Germany while her dad was a Fortuna Düsseldorf player, Sif was always taken along to his games growing up, whether he was playing or coaching. She is one of four siblings who have each been involved in football, and she continues to carry the legacy forward with all her heart.

In her own career, devotion to the game has had to come with alternative work, including jobs in a nursery, as a caretaker, and as a coach in football schools, while she is currently a project manager for Iceland’s Player Union. Regardless, playing football has been sewn into who she is for so long; only for something you truly love would you attempt to justify what is too often absence of material reward, alongside emotional sacrifice.

While players can remain involved in team training while pregnant, there will obviously come a time, before and after the birth, where it is necessary to step away for an extended spell. With Sif having been through it twice, is it possible to still feel like a footballer while you are taken out of it, or a case of two very different identities?

“With Sólveig the first time, I was able to train with (Kristianstad), I was with the team all the time. When I got pregnant the second time, I thought ‘oh, it’s okay, I can be at practice, I can play football with them’, but then COVID hit, so I was even more separated from them.

“It’s such a weird understanding, because your whole identity is football, and you’ve put so much work into the footballer version of you, so when that just goes away, and especially with COVID, I was just at home with Sólveig, and when Bjössi wasn’t at practice, it was just the three of us. I understood that I need to be around people, just to get that connection, and that’s what football has done for me.

“That was so hard, being away from that, not being able to go to the games or go to practice. Just being able to sit down in the locker room, ‘Hey, how are you doing, what’s with the family?’, and just get that connection.”

It may be easy to assume, especially with a player whose game is the epitome of lionhearted spirit, that even with such an uphill battle, it was inevitable she would return. She admits, however, that she considered calling time along the way.

“Oh, definitely, many times. I think the first steps are always the hardest, like being in practice and you want to do something, but your body isn’t prepared for it.

“Even just running straight, or you’re running to catch a ball and your body’s like ‘no, no, no, you’re not gonna do that movement!’ and then you just fall over yourself. For me, it’s always a debate, and I have that discussion with myself a lot, because being a footballer, an older footballer especially, the contracts I’ve had have been bare minimum and doing it for the heart of it.

“So, it’s the debate of ‘why am I doing this when there’s no security at all for me or my family?’ But then it comes down to ‘I just love this. I love being around the team, I love being an older player and helping the young ones.’

“Maybe it’s a glitch in my mental side – ‘oh, it’s okay, the money worries, we’ll fix it!’ The debate is always ‘is it worth being away from your family?’, and at points, no, definitely not.

“The hardest thing is looking at your kids and walking away. I have to just shut ‘mommy’ off for a week or whatever.”

As 2021 drew to a close, the Hafnarfjördur-raised right-back reached the end of her decade-long Kristianstad adventure. Alongside the on-field achievements with the Damallsvenskan club, the small Swedish city was where she and her husband became parents twice over, where Sif graduated, and where they made friends for life.

The move home followed, with Sif joining top-division Selfoss, where Bjössi had been appointed head coach, along with coaching at the Fjölbrautaskóli Suðurlands football academy.

 

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A post shared by Sif Atladottir (@sifatla)

“For us being (in Sweden) for so long, I think it was a great move for him, and we thought of the kids, at least at some point, to be brought up in Iceland. We just started (Sólveig’s) first year in school, so for her, it could be a good transition going from Sweden to home, friends-wise and stuff like that.

“That was the main reason of why we moved. We discussed it, if I should keep playing abroad or not, but at this stage, it really doesn’t matter if I’m playing in Iceland or abroad.

“After hearing from a few teams in Iceland, Selfoss just made more sense; I kind of know the coach a bit, so I have an understanding!”

September will bring the conclusion of the World Cup qualifiers for an Iceland team sitting two points behind leaders Netherlands, with a game in hand. With Belarus at home and the Dutch away, the opportunity is there to book their place at Australia/New Zealand 2023, in what would be their very first World Cup. If not, the first or second round of the play-offs beckon.

For now, you can find them temporarily settling into life in Cheshire, with the English version of Love Island on ITV proving a particular squad favourite since they arrived. Their headquarters may be much more rural than in previous tournaments but Sif laughs that they can just shop online instead. True enough, shortly before this interview, one of her teammates has come to reception to politely ask if her parcel is here.

Earlier this year, they won twice in three games (v New Zealand and Czech Republic) at the US-hosted SheBelieves Cup, with the trip including a team outing to Hollywood. Reaching EURO 2022’s knockout phase would stand alongside Sif’s glitziest accomplishments, and why not? This is a team that went to Germany and won in the qualifying stage of the last World Cup.

Already an extraordinary feat for her to be here, there is ample room yet for another plot twist or two.

“I think in the end, if I had not come back, I would definitely have that regret. I have at least a couple of miles still left!”

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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