Gunnleifur Gunnleifsson is an Icelandic goalkeeper who currently plays for Breiðablik, having spent most of his career with their rivals HK. Aged 39, he is still a key part of Iceland’s national team, having gained 26 caps. It is looking increasingly likely that he and his national team-mates will qualify for next summer’s European Championship finals. Gunnleifur is also a huge Manchester City fan, so I thought it a good idea to ask him a few questions about his life as a goalkeeper and of course about City.
Tell me a little about your early career. Did you always want to be a footballer, and were you always a goalkeeper?
From the moment I saw Rinat Dassaev, the goalkeeper of the Soviet Union in the 1982 World Cup, I knew I wanted to be a keeper. I started to train as a keeper 2 years before though, but at that moment I knew that to be a goalkeeper was all I wanted to do.
Representing your country must be an amazing feeling. Do you remember getting your first call up, and your first appearance?
I think that being called up to representing your country in any sport is the biggest honour you can achieve in the world of sport. I got my call up in 2000, and played the last minutes against Malta, which ended 5-0 for us.
What is it like playing football in Iceland?
Well the pre-season is about 6 months long. We train from November to April and then the league starts in May and ends in October. Football is the biggest sport here in Iceland so everyone is looking forward to the summer here when the football starts for real.
Tell me a little about your current club Breiðablik? Was your move there controversial?
Breiðablik has the biggest youth system in the country. We have about 1600 kids who train with us – for example most of other clubs have about 300-400 kids.
About 3-4 kids go to play abroad every year from Breiðablik. Gylfi Sigurðsson my teammate in the national team and who plays for Swansea now, was with Breiðablik from 2003-2005 and then went to Reading. As for myself, I was brought up at the other team in Kópavogur called HK who are in the first division now, and when I signed from FH then the champions of Iceland to Breiðablik in 2012, there was a bit of anger from HK . It’s water under the bridge now.
You’ve only played briefly abroad. Did you ever wish to play more in Europe or elsewhere?
I played for half a season in the Switzerland Super League in 2009 with FC. Vaduz and had a good time, but all through my career I have had lots of opportunities to play in Europe (i was even linked to United in 1998), but I have never had it in me to play professionally abroad. if i am honest I think I didn’t want to live away from Iceland.
Iceland seems to be punching well above its weight in international football, and regularly produces great players. Is there a specific reason for this, for a country with such a small population?
We had a breakthrough in the years after 2000 when we started to build football houses. That meant that kids now had an indoor pitch to train in the winter time. Since then football has exploded in popularity and we have lots of kids who are very promising coming up. The coaches here are also very well educated and that of course helps a lot. The coaches are very combined in teaching the kids that they can win against anybody and that sticks with you.
How does an Icelandic goalkeeper end up supporting Manchester City?!
I have always been a football fanatic. For example, I can even today name all the goalkeepers in every team in the 1982 World Cup, so I have always been addicted to football. When I was about 6 years old we could only see one game a weekend from England, and it was a week-old game. I have to mention that English football is hugely popular in Iceland and always has been. When I was 6 or 7 people supported Liverpool, Arsenal, Leeds, United, the usual suspects. And I too was becoming a United supporter – then I saw City play against Tottenham in the FA Cup Final, and I fell in love with the sky blue colour of the shirts. And through the next years I took everything I could from City. I even remember the years from 87-89 when players like Mark Seagraves, Nigel Gleghorn and Wayne Biggins played – I loved everything about Man City, and bought everything that I could that had the sky blue colour on it. My plan is to get all the shirts from 1981 to present – 1, 2 or 3 kits in every season. I am missing a few, and I have been looking for the 89 and 90 shirt but I haven’t found them.
Your son has an impressive collection of City shirts! Is he a huge fan?
I have collected City shirts from when I was a teenager and I have about 40 or something like that. My wife who is a United fan and I have 2 daughters 14 and 9 years old, and 2 sons who are 7 and 5. My sons are huge City fans and even can name which players has got what number, and we collect the shirts together now. We have for example an original Joe Hart shirt that Aron Gunnarsson of Cardiff got for us, and a Samir Nasri one that Gylfi Sigurðsson got. We also have a shirt number 12 from the 83 season – I don’t know who played in it.
You came over to Manchester earlier in the year to catch a match? Was it as enjoyable as you thought it would be?
Everything about the trip was fantastic except for the result. James Milner saved a point against Hull City. I took my older son with me for his first trip, and it is a privilege to get to do this with your son. We got very well treated in the Platinum box and the experience was fantastic.
As for City, it’s been a disappointing season. Where do you think it went wrong?
I don’t think it is a disappointment. You only have to look back 10 years or so and in that time we would have given our right arm for the place we ended in. We have to be realistic in that this will take time. No team wins always every time we will only get better and better.
How highly do you rate Joe Hart? I’ve had my doubts in the past, but he has clearly had a great season.
Well Hart is getter better every season. He is by far the best English keeper in the league, and I think he has his best years to come.
Apart from the obvious candidates, are there any other goalkeepers you really rate right now? Is Neuer the best of all?
I am a big fan of Gigi Buffon and in my opinion he is the best of them all. He has had a fantastic career and is a great leader on and of the pitch.
Is the English Premier League the most popular foreign league in Iceland? Who are the biggest English teams over there?
English football is like a religion in Iceland and has always been. The most popular teams are Liverpool, United Arsenal and the last few years Chelsea. I have seen more and more kids wearing a City shirt in the last couple years so we are also getting more popular here.
Finally, do you have plans for after you retire? Do you wish to stay in the game?
I have my coaching degrees and I have my goalkeepers’ academy here which is doing very well. I also have been doing a lot of TV work for the Premier League and Champions League which I like very much. I am also on the verge of renewing my contract with Breiðablik, and also hope that we will for the first time qualify for a big tournament with Iceland.
I will always be the biggest Icelandic City supporter and I am looking forward to all the glory in the coming years.