The phrase national hero can be overused in football reporting, but one man who has a valid claim to such a title is Torkil Nielsen of the Faroe Islands.
The Faroe Islands sit inbetween Norway and Iceland, due north of Great Britain. With a population of only 50,000 they first entered international competition in 1990 where they faced Austria in the opening game of their Euro 92 qualification campaign. The game had to be played in Sweden as there were no grass pitches in the Faroes at the time, and the country were more used to the amateur opposition they faced in the island games (The Faroes first ever game was against the Shetlands in 1930 – a game they lost 5-1). No one fancied the islanders to make an impact against an experienced Austrian side.
So, on the 12th September 1990 in front of a small crowd of 1544 at Landskrona in Sweden, the Faroe Islands took to the field against Austria, a team that had just competed in the World Cup in Italy a few weeks before. The Faroe Islands should have had absolutely no chance against the professional Austrians, instead they pulled off one of the greatest shocks in international football history coming away with a 1-0 victory.
The commentary is understandably jubilant, as you can see from the following English translation of the goal.
“And now it’s Torkil… (some words here are difficult to understand). AND SCORES!!!!!!!!!!! TORKIL NIELSEN SCORES!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 1-0 TO THE FAROES!!!!!!!!!!! 1-0 TO THE FAROES!!!!!!!!!!! TORKIL NIELSEN FROM SANDAVÁGUR (the village on the island of Vágar, 700 inhabitants)!!!!!!!!! AIJAJAJAJAI!!!!!!THE FAROES HAVE SCORED!!! TORKIL NIELSEN TO 1-0! Oh, that a wild jubilation here! Completely, completely, completely unbeleivable how he passed through all these men here… Hopeless they try to drag is feet out, to do a professional freekick… TORKIL SCORES!!! 1-0 to the Faroes. 1-0 to the Faroes. This goes far over all the expectations. Long, long, long, long over it. So, the Austrians are in panic and are going to make substitutions…”
The goalscorer, as you’ll probably have already worked out, was no other than Torkil Nielsen, a man with talents that stretch far further than just football. Not only did Nielsen represent his country at football eighteen times, scoring two goals (the other came against Canada in 1989), he was also an excellent chess player – winning the Faroese chess championship in 1984, 1986 and 1988. He also represented the Faroes internationally at chess Olympiads in Europe.
Mixing chess with football isn’t an altogether alien concept in Scandanavia. The grand-master of the football/chess crossover is almost certainly Norway’s Simen Agdestein who played top flight football in Norway for Lyn Oslo during the 80s and represented his country on eight occasions. There can be few people who can claim to have played with Erik Thorsdvet and against Gary Kasaprov; Agdestein is one. A wonderful break-down of his football/chess career can be found here.
Nielsen and his Faroese colleagues returned home to a deserved heroes welcome. It’s still the most famous result in the small nation’s history and one that will be remembered time and time again when the subject of giant-killings or upsets is brought up. Nielsen is somewhat unfortunate that his colleague on that wonderful night in Landroskana, (as the Faroese Clive Tyldsley is almost certainly to have dubbed it) was Jens Knudsen, a goalkeeper who wasn’t so much madcap as madbobblehat. Knudsen’s trademark was a white bobblehat that he wore whilst defending the Faroe Islands goal, no keeper since has been brave to wear such audacious head-wear. Understandably it was Knudsen who took much of the publicity in the Faroes and even starred in his own commercial! However, I feel there’s an equally intriguing story of the chess master outsmarting the Austrians: Torkil Nielson, national hero.