It’s Friday afternoon in Santa Monica, California and Gudi Thórarinsson is relaxed. The 29-year-old has a testing encounter with LAFC in a little over 24 hours. While many of his teammates will use the international break as an opportunity to catch a breath, he will instead join up with the Icelandic National Team for the first time since 2019.
“I’m only excited,” he said. “I remember being younger and it was kind of nerve wracking, but now I just enjoy it so I’m not nervous at all. I know so many of the guys on the team as well and they’re good friends of mine. It’s only excitement that I have in my head before these games after last year.”
Thórarinsson’s first involvement at international level came with Iceland's U17s in 2008. His debut, he admits, was a time that nerves did engulf him.
“It’s just a special feeling to be with your friends or players you know from across the country who are the best players from each team,” he said. “Then you build a team together and play against other countries.”
For Thórarinsson, a senior national team appearance was the next major milestone, and that arrived in January 2014 against Sweden. As he stood alongside his countrymen, the words could not do it justice.
“It felt so big, in a way,” he said. “I just remember my parents being so proud as well and my family. When you see it means a lot to them, and obviously it means a lot to me, but it’s sometimes difficult to be in the situation to understand, like, ‘Oh, this is actually what I’ve been working for my whole life.”
Thórarinsson’s arrival on the national stage coincided with Iceland’s improved standing. As of January, Iceland’s population stood at around 369,000 - roughly four times smaller than the Bronx. While the country has celebrated individual success through players like Eiður Guðjohnsen, who spent time at Chelsea and Barcelona, they had not seen anything like that as a national team.
That all changed in 2016 when Iceland qualified for their first major international tournament - the European Championships in France. Far from making up the numbers, they advanced to the quarter-finals, beating England in the Round of 16 and won the hearts of neutrals everywhere.
The Viking Clap - an act in which the players and supporters clap rhythmically in unison - is enough to give you goosebumps. A nation had defied the odds, and even from afar, it was clear to see there was something special cradled in this small island, even if it was hard to articulate.
“It seems to have some kind of weird attraction,” Thórarinsson said of his homeland. “When you look at it from like the world’s perspective, it’s just like an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The weather is bad, pretty much all year round. And it just makes no sense in a way that it has this crazy attraction for all of us who come from there.
“I think there’s some kind of energy in nature, and the air is so clear up there. Again, I’m gonna get so patriotic right now. It has this beautiful landscape. It’s so different from anywhere else that I’ve been. Even now, sitting in California, which is amazing, and New York is amazing. It still has this weird attraction that I tend to miss. I guess everybody can miss home, but sometimes I just wonder why. Why am I missing home? It makes no sense.”
It's Slow-mo Sunday with special guest Gudi Thórarinsson 🎯 pic.twitter.com/lLb9PLudUq— New York City FC (@NYCFC) April 25, 2021
Thórarinsson was unable to break into the national team for the 2016 Euros or the 2018 World Cup, but he has remained committed to earning more national team caps. He moved to New York City FC as a means to change scenery and, in his own words, ‘feel something different.’ That determination; to exit his comfort zone and be challenged is something he believes was in part fostered in his homeland.
“I think for sure it has made me mentally tough,” he said. “You learn growing up that it’s not going to be easy if you want to make it and get away from Iceland, especially as a football player, because you have to work so hard to catch eyes from teams away from Iceland.
“I think the weather plays a factor there as well because I can’t even count the games that I’ve played in such terrible conditions, and you’re just kind of like, ‘Oh, this is what it is.’ You just have to go out and play and do your best and work hard. And I feel as though every footballer in their career has tough periods, and you can have a coach that doesn’t like you, and you can have so many different factors in football."
He went onto add: “I feel as though this kind of mindset has always helped me that you don’t give up. It’s like, okay, the weather’s bad, you still just go out and play.”
The 29-year-old is certainly far away from home in New York, and his bright start to the season has understandably caught the eye of head coach Arnar Viðarsson. Thórarinsson has braved being out in the cold with his country, but now he will swap the Bronx Blue for a different shade and emerge for his moment in the sun with the country that means so much to him.