In Praise of Gudjohnsen

The Icelandic warrior Asmund is prized for his integrity and determination. After making a pact with his fellow general and friend, Aswid, that whichever of the two died first would accompany the deceased to the grave, Asmund duly kept his word. His friend dead from illness, Asmund was sealed up in the same tomb, where he ruminated on the best way to take his own life.

However, before he had had a chance to do so, Aswid rose from the grave as a vampire, consuming first the body of his dog and then turning on his loyal friend. Only after 300 years of earnest fighting was Asmund finally able to rid himself of Aswid’s ghost.

Eidur Smari Gudjohnsen, the great Icelandic warrior, captain of the Iceland national team, who must surely figure alongside Abba and Bjork in the list of Scandinavia’s finest exports (although Iceland isn’t strictly Scandinavian, it is often considered so by cultural analysts), also made a pact, when he signed for FC Barcelona in the summer of 2006. Attempting to cast off the ghost of the substitute’s bench, having already fought away the phantoms of his gambling problem at Chelsea, Gudjohnsen, like so many others (see Subhankar’s articles on the “forgotten Argentinines”), saw his covenant broken by the azulgrana hierarchy.

It all started so well for the Icelander. Towards the end of August, Gudjohnsen made his debut for the Catalan giants. With three minutes remaining, and with Barçelona clamped in a 2-2 deadlock with Celta Vigo, Guddy sent a fierce volley past the Galician goalkeeper to gift his club the three points. A further brace against Mallorca in November seemingly sealed Gudjohnsen’s place in Catalan hearts.

In a largely productive first season, Gudjohnsen scored 12 goals, more than any other Barça player excluding Messi, Ronaldinho and Eto’o. This tally included important strikes against both Liverpool and Chelsea in the Champions League, a competition in which he was the club’s top scorer. All of this despite finding himself keeping the bench company on an all-too regular basis, and playing in a position — central midfield — that was not necessarily his strongest. Guddy soldiered on, his resolution and pride never wavering, which qualities were and continue to be recognized by a great deal of culé fans. If fellow Scandinavian Ole Gunnar-Solskjaer was known as the “baby-faced” assassin, the “baby-faced” epithet had no weighting here.

However, like Asmund, Gudjohnsen would have stiffer tests to face. When Barçelona finished the 2006-7 season without a trophy to show for their efforts, the entombed club officials fought back violently, duelling ruthlessly in the transfer market to secure the signing of superstar striker Thierry Henry, amongst many others.

Ecstatic newspaper columnists yelled from the roof-top that Barcelona’s renaissance was nigh, and football-lovers across the globe licked their lips at the possibility of seeing Barça’s four “estrellas” line up together across the front line. In the midst of this euphoria, those who were calling for Eidur Gudjohnsen to be given another chance found their voices drowned, and Gudjohnsen’s name made less sound than that proverbial tree falling in a deserted wood.

However, three months have passed in the 2007-8 season and elements of Barçelona’s football have been anything but “four-star”. With the injury to Samuel Eto’o and the controversy surrounding the figure of Ronaldinho, Thierry Henry was thrown into the Catalan cauldron with little or no preparation. At first esteemed for his visible efforts on the field, in the absence of vital contributions such as goals and assists; now viewed by a multitude as lazy and uninterested, Henry’s popularity amongst fans and press alike ironically plummeted in inverse proportion to the number of goals he was scoring.

Now injured, proof came of the fall in his stock when El Mundo Deportivo, the Barcelona rag, began to write about various permutations of four “fantásticos” (rotating when it pleased them between the names of Messi, Xavi, Eto’o, Iniesta, Bojan and Ronaldinho), Henry’s name being at all times a conspicuous absence. Such misery for the Frenchman will have been compounded upon seeing Samuel Eto’o’s seamless reinsertion into the ranks of the first-team, although it is early days yet for the Frenchman, who must surely learn from Gudjohnsen’s example, especially at a club about which so many newspapers columns have been filled this season, primarily with chatter about players’ attitudes, divided changing rooms and partying prima donnas.

Breathtaking at times, Barçelona’s football this season can be defined by that nonsensical two-word phrase: consistently inconsistent. However, the two players whose contribution is most deserving of the laurel leaf are those two who are so seldom recognised. To one of them, Andrés Iniesta, I will dedicate an article later this month. On the other, that very same Mr Gudjohnsen, let us once again dwell at this moment.

Following the signing of Thierry Henry and the blistering performances of Bojan and Giovanni Dos Santos in the pre-season, it was largely assumed that Gudjohnsen would depart the Iberian Peninsula and return to the Premiership, where no shortage of suitors would all-too-happily have attempted to persuade Guddy to join their ranks and bolster their arsenal (I am sure that Gudjohnsen would have made an excellent addition to my team, Tottenham, who are notoriously weak and lacking in creativity in the centre of midfield). However, plagued by a niggling injury, no move materialised, and Gudjohnsen kept his head down, trained hard, offered few sound-bites to the media and waited for his chance.

Just ten days after having broken Ríkhardur Jónsson’s record of 18 goals for the Icelandic national team — a record which, being a veritable team player, Guddy admitted was tainted by the fact that Iceland had lost the match, 4-2 at home to Latvia — Gudjohnsen made his first appearance of the season for club, in a Champions League tie against Rangers on the 23rd of October. Although his performance was far from polished, Guddy was one of the few players to come out of the match with any significant amount of credit. Coupled with his silky passing and excellent movement, Gudjohnsen offered steel, resolution and heart: in short, he was a midfield general. Gudjohnsen has since played a further six games for the club (in which the club is undefeated), and capped his personal comeback by grabbing the third goal in Barça’s destruction of Valencia last week.

Whilst I am not confident that Gudjohnsen will retain his place in the starting eleven for any great length of time (especially if Rijkaard continues to bow to the Ronaldinho statue), the former Chelsea man’s role in steadying a slightly sinking ship must be recognised. For me, the truly great redemption story of Barcelona’s good but not brilliant success this season (alongside the oft-commented accomplishments of Abidal and Yaya Touré) — a story which seems to have been swallowed by the bowels of Barcelona’s greedy, all-consumptive Ronaldinho-camâ„¢ – concerns not the return to the fold of the charismatic Brazilian, but rather the gain in favour of FC Barcelona’s very own warrior, the ice-cool finisher that is Eidur Smari Gudjohnsen.

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