Inside the Champions League 2023 preliminaries in Iceland

KOPAVOGUR, Iceland — Antonio Barretta had just realised a childhood dream. The delivery driver from San Marino, playing for the country’s league champion, Tre Penne, had scored in the Champions League under leaden skies, in an Icelandic downpour, in front of 621 supporters. But his moment was missing something.

“It’s a little bit disappointing because there was no Champions League music before the game, you know? ‘The Champions!'” Barretta told ESPN, mimicking the Champions League anthem. “I think UEFA can improve that for us, but for sure, it was a great sensation to score in the Champions League.”

Tre Penne lost 7-1 to Breidablik, the champions of Iceland, in their preliminary round tie at Kopavogsvollur, the home team’s neat-but-tiny 1,709-seat stadium in a town of 38,000 just five miles outside Reykjavik. Six hours earlier at the same venue, FK Buducnost Podgorica of Montenegro defeated Andorra’s Atletic Club d’Escaldes 3-0 in the first Champions League fixture of the 2023-24 season. Their reward? A decider against Breidablik three days later for the prize of facing the Republic of Ireland’s Shamrock Rovers in the first qualifying round later this month.

The glamour and riches of the Champions League group stages are far away — that’s when the music starts. After the preliminary round — two 90-minute semifinals and a final — there are four more qualification rounds before the possibility of facing Real Madrid, Barcelona or Premier League giants. For the teams doing battle in Iceland, such a distant prospect must feel like standing on the surface of Pluto waiting to catch a glimpse of the sun.

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Yet less than three weeks after Manchester City had beaten Inter Milan in Istanbul in the final of the 2022-23 Champions League, this season’s competition rolled into gear at Kopavogsvollur.

The stars of Europe’s top clubs are enjoying their summer, recharging after the longest season in history thanks to a midseason World Cup in Qatar, but the Champions League must start somewhere. It might feel out of sight and perhaps out of mind for the larger football world — only 103 spectators saw Buducnost beat Escaldes, a crowd consisting of officials, scouts and a handful of locals given free admission — but every player and supporter involved has their own Champions League dream. Barretta realised his, while Buducnost’s Balsa Sekulic claimed the distinction of scoring the competition’s first goal of 2023-24.

“We have only seven days’ rest after the season,” Buducnost captain Petar Grbic told ESPN. “Some of our team played in the internationals last week, at the end of the last season, and now we start before the start of the new one. But this is football.”

When the final is played at Wembley on June 1, 2024, somebody else will play out their dreams, but whether they are a delivery driver from San Marino or a superstar from the Premier League or LaLiga, the Champions League matters just the same.

UEFA live-streamed the draw for the Champions League preliminary round on June 13 — three days after City beat Inter in Istanbul — and viewing figures on YouTube peaked at a mere 55 as Tobias Hedstuck, UEFA’s head of club competitions, plucked the balls from the glass bowls at UEFA HQ in Nyon, Switzerland to complete the formalities.

With Breidablik selected by UEFA as the host team — they are the highest ranked of the four sides in the coefficient table — the challenge for the clubs involved was not just a football one. They had to get to Iceland; part-time players needed to book time off work and the clubs had to pay for it, with some help from UEFA towards operational expenses. Forget the VIP travel enjoyed by the elite clubs: this is travel as experienced by the rest of us.

“We spent 22% of our budget to come to Iceland just to make this happen,” Escaldes director Ignacio Moratal told ESPN. “Iceland is the most expensive country in the world, and we have been helped by the Andorra football federation, but it has not been easy. Our problem has been to find a hotel of the standards needed for a football team, but the KSI [Iceland Football Association] have done an amazing job to help us with that and things like training facilities.”

Iceland is expensive. In a Yahoo Finance study in 2022, the North Atlantic island was ranked as the world’s third-most expensive country to live in, behind Switzerland and Singapore. A room at Reykjavik’s leading hotel, The Edition, was priced at £768 per night ($974) last week, while a 40-minute taxi ride from Keflavik Airport to downtown Reykjavik is an eye-watering £140 ($177).

The country attracts wealthy tourists from the United States and Europe keen to explore the volcanic landscape and thermal spas and lagoons, but for some of the smallest clubs in football, Iceland is the worst possible place to stage the Champions League preliminary round.

Buducnost stayed at the Grand Hotel, a £300-a-night location, but their first night probably merited a discount after the team’s flight, from Podgorica via Frankfurt, was delayed and did not land until 2 a.m. local time the day before the first game. Some of their bags were lost in transit. The Montenegrin champions were joined at Frankfurt by the Tre Penne squad, who had taken a two-hour bus journey from San Marino to Bologna, and then a short flight to Germany, before flying north to Reykjavik, where they also stayed at the Grand Hotel.

Despite the difficulties and the reality that comes with a sporting life outside the privileged bubble of the top teams, the players aren’t complaining.

“Of course, it was a very difficult trip,” Tre Penne defender Andrea De Falco told ESPN. “But we need to focus on the positive aspects of it. We bound together, we stay together, we see places that maybe we would have never seen in life. So even if wasn’t easy, we are here. We are happy to be here.”

To underline the sense of adventure, the Tre Penne players spent the morning of their game against Breidablik by riding around the narrow streets of Reykjavik on electric scooters. Not quite the typical preparation for a Champions League fixture.

FK Buducnost are a proud club. The six-time winners of the Montenegrin First League are accustomed to being the big team in their country, and they carry themselves like a club with expectations and ambitions to fulfil. Their squad is fully professional and their recently built training ground is equipped with the technology you would expect at a Premier League team: all players wear GPS training vests, training is filmed via drones and one official tells ESPN that Buducnost had just invested in a “camera that follows the ball everywhere.”

Retired Champions League-winning players Dejan Savicevic (Red Star Belgrade and AC Milan) and Predrag Mijatovic (Real Madrid) started out at Buducnost, and there’s a sense that the club really shouldn’t be in the preliminary round. Buducnost are here because Montenegro is in the bottom four of UEFA’s national co-efficient table, so success for Buducnost matters beyond club pride.

“This is the first time a team from our country plays in the preliminary round,” Grbic, the captain, said. “It’s a surprise for all of us, but football is about money now and any good young player in Montenegro, aged 18 or 19 — they are signed by teams from other countries very fast. Our clubs must take the money. This is our reality. We produce very good players, but they leave, so that is why our clubs have not done so well in UEFA competitions. So our objective is to do well and get the points for Montenegro teams to start higher next season.”

But what about the dream of progressing deep into the qualification rounds and maybe the group stages?

“The Europa Conference League group stage would be like the Champions League for our fans,” Grbic said. “Maybe it is unfair to start here because I am a champion of my country — a small country with good talent — and I don’t feel like a champion starting the competition now. But I hope this year, something will change. I hope we go like winners and everything is like a movie, everything is possible to be perfect.”

You can’t miss Kopavogsvollur from Route 40, the main road into Reykjavik. The stadium is small, but Breidablik’s sporting complex resembles a Premier League training ground. There is a vast, modern indoor pitch, 10 full-size outdoor pitches and an athletics field adjacent to the floodlit stadium in which a running track surrounds the artificial turf playing surface.

Breidablik is a multi-sport organisation for men, women and children covering football, basketball, cycling, athletics, taekwondo, e-sports and other sports. The football team has reached the third qualifying round of the Europa Conference League in each of the past two seasons — a first appearance in the Champions League since 2011 is a big deal.

“We played European football for the last three years and it’s an unbelievable experience,” Breidablik coach Oskar Thorvaldsson told ESPN. “But the difference between the best teams in Europe and the teams from the smaller leagues and smaller nations is quite big. We found that especially last year when we played a very strong Turkish team [Istanbul Basaksehir]. The difference was big, but something we have to strive to get closer to.

“For us to progress and have a chance of the group stages, you have to be unbelievably lucky with the draw and also you have to be at the very, very top of your game.”

Thorvaldsson’s team are all part-time. Iceland’s national team is made up almost entirely of players who have earned moves to England, Italy, Denmark or the Netherlands; Breidablik are a side of experienced players who have either returned from overseas or are youngsters aiming to follow in the footsteps of local hero Eidur Gudjohnsen (formerly of Chelsea and Barcelona) by making it big in Europe.

Team captain Hoskuldur Gunnlaugsson spent two years with Halmstads in Sweden before returning to Breidablik in 2019. These days, the 28-year-old midfielder combines his playing career with running a bakery in Reykjavik.

“Football is my main job,” Gunnlaugsson told ESPN. “I would say that other things get shaped around my football schedule. My bakery is busier during the winter — we specialise in Christmas cakes and pastries — so I can focus on the football. But when our season finishes in October, that’s when I put on my bakery gloves and go all into that side of it. For the guys at Breidablik, this is by far the most exciting period of the summer. We’re in the Champions League path, so for us, it doesn’t get any bigger than this.”

There is an acceptance that Icelandic teams will not be facing the cream of the Champions League crop anytime soon, but the attraction of the Premier League is clear. When fans arrive at the game, youngsters are wearing Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham shirts, and the players share the same excitement for the top English clubs. Gunnlaugsson is an avid Man United supporter, keen to know what is going on at Old Trafford and asking, “When will they be sold?” Club official Kalli Magnusson talks of “at least 30 trips to Liverpool” to watch games at Anfield.

It is a two-tier football world in Iceland: passionate support for the local teams, with the Premier League offering a glimpse of fantasy football.

“Thunderstruck” by AC/DC booms across the stadium speakers as Atletic Club d’Escaldes and FK Buducnost walk onto the pitch in the pouring rain. Kopavogsvollur is virtually empty, save for the 103 spectators. It’s actually 101 people at kick-off: Shamrock Rovers manager Stephen Bradley and the Irish club’s sporting director, Stephen McPhail, arrive at half-time following their delayed flight from Dublin.

“We thought we’d come out on a scouting trip,” Bradley told ESPN. “We get to see all four teams in the space of a few hours at the same ground, so it’s perfect for us. It means we will have seen our opponents in person.”

Despite the absence of supporters, the kiosks are open and two stadium workers are grilling burgers. The smell of charcoal drifts through the stand as Buducnost make easy work of the game, which is enlivened only by the use of VAR early in the second half when one goal is ruled out for offside and another awarded by the VAR officials.

(Yes, even at this early, remote stage of the Champions League, there is VAR. The VAR officials typically operate from a central location in Switzerland during the regular season, but because the preliminary round fixtures are not “centralised,” the VAR team is onsite, operating out of a small commentary box on the opposite side of the stadium.)

Meanwhile, each Buducnost goal is greeted with loud cheers by their travelling contingent of officials. This matters. Every win at this level helps Montenegro escape the ignominy of being so far down the UEFA coefficient rankings.

Escaldes are the first team to be eliminated from this season’s Champions League, though they can at least look forward to a Conference League third qualifying round tie later this month against the losers of the Champions League first qualifying round tie between Albania’s FK Partizani and BATE Borisov of Belarus.

“We are super happy to be here,” Escaldes director Moratal said. “We appreciate and are very thankful. We came and we tried to enjoy the journey. That is the most important thing.

“We always say that you never know if this is going to happen again, so we have to live the experience. We are now going to work hard and work on our budget to be able to make it happen again next year. But at the end, this is football. We only live once, so we enjoy the moment.”

Daniel in the stands is a Newcastle United supporter, but he is wearing his green Breidablik shirt as the Icelandic champions prepare to face Tre Penne in the evening game. He is with his friend Simon, a Manchester United fan, but Daniel does all the talking.

“This is a huge game, really big,” he tells ESPN. “It’s the Champions League and we know we will play FC Copenhagen if we get through the preliminary round and then beat Shamrock Rovers. FC Copenhagen. That’s amazing for us. But first, I want to go to Dublin for the Guinness.

“We went to watch the game in Andorra last season [against UE Santa Coloma], but Dublin and Copenhagen? Wow!”

It takes just six minutes for Breidablik captain Gunnlaugsson to open the scoring against Tre Penne and their 7-1 win is never in doubt, although Barretta’s goal on 31 minutes makes it 2-1 to give the San Marino champions hope. Barretta slides in at the far post to score an unexpected goal — one that prompts celebration similar to those around Rodri‘s winner for Manchester City in last month’s final against Inter. Barretta is mobbed by his teammates, including goalkeeper Mattia Migani, who races into the Breidablik half to join the fun.

“It was a sensation, emotional even,” Barretta said. “It was the goal of 2-1, so we had the chance to come back in the game. Unfortunately we lost 7-1, which is tough to deal with, but we did a good game. Many of us are workers in our lives and football is a passion, so having the opportunity to be here, to feel like being a big competition, is really great.”

For De Falco, the 37-year-old Tre Penne midfielder, the game will be the final one of a 19-year career that has seen him play for 17 clubs, including Fiorentina, Benevento and Siena. De Falco postponed retirement to finally play in the Champions League.

“It was a dream come true for me, having the opportunity to play this competition,” De Falco told ESPN. “It was my dream since I was a child and I feel very proud. Now I will go into coaching, but I have played in the Champions League.”

As De Falco and his teammates leave Kopavogsvollur, a group of school kids are waiting in the rain, asking for autographs and pictures. They high-five every player. “Good game, bro,” they say as Tre Penne head to the team bus for their journey home. Reykjavik to Zurich, onto Florence and then a three-hour bus journey to San Marino.

Friday night’s match between Breidablik and Buducnost is the big one: a winner-takes-all tie for the prize of facing Shamrock Rovers in the first qualifying round — and these two clubs have history.

The two teams met in the second qualifying round of the Europa Conference League last season: Breidablik won 3-2 on aggregate, but only after two Buducnost players were sent off in the second-leg at Kopavogsvollur. Two late goals — one in the 88th minute and a penalty six minutes into stoppage time — won the tie for Breidablik, but local police were forced to intervene when travelling Buducnost fans threw flares onto the running track in protest at the end of the game.

“It was like the Wild West,” Breidablik captain Gunnlaugsson told ESPN.

Mindful of the events of last July, UEFA delegate Paul Tompkins asked Breidablik to relocate the fans’ band from behind the opposition dugout. The band, made up of schoolkids aged between 10-11 years old, made a constant noise during the win against Tre Penne, but Tompkins tells ESPN that he wanted them moved as a “courtesy” to Buducnost.

Polish referee Krzysztof Jakubik wishes the two teams good luck as he leads them out of the tunnel before the game, but luck is nowhere to be seen for Buducnost. They concede the first goal on five minutes and are down 4-0 when Gunnlaugsson scores from the edge of the penalty area on 33 minutes.

The Buducnost officials in the main stand quietly disappear at half-time, avoiding the canapes and drinks laid out by their hosts before returning to take their seats for the second-half to see out the lost cause. By the end, it is 5-0 to Breidablik and Buducnost end with 10 players after midfielder Momir Durickovic is sent off for hauling Agust Hlynsson to the floor by the neck.

Within 20 minutes of the final whistle, Buducnost are out of the building, their players and staff heading to the coach and a 9 a.m. flight home the following morning. They have been in Iceland for five days, but their dream of success has been brutally ended.

“It was very tough,” captain Grbic told ESPN as he left the stadium. “Very difficult today, but that’s football my friend.”

European football is still on their agenda — Buducnost will get a Conference League second qualifying round tie against Zalgiris Vilnius or Struga of Macedonia later in July — but it is Breidablik who march on in the Champions League.

“[Our next opponents] Shamrock Rovers are a very strong team,” Breidablik coach Thorvaldsson told ESPN. “They played in the group stages last season, so they will be an extremely tough opponent.

“Being champions, we’ve lost a little bit of our edge in the league and we rediscovered that against Buducnost. It’s the Champions League, it’s just the occasion, but you can’t choose the matches you perform in.”

A crowd of 845 have seen Breidablik cruise into the first qualifying round — at an admission price of 2000 Icelandic Krona for adults (£11.60 or $14.70) and 500 for kids (£3 or $3.80) — and they will break the 1,000 mark against Shamrock Rovers. If they make it through to face FC Copenhagen in the second qualifying round, it will be a sellout. But Breidablik don’t see the Danish champions as the end of the road.

“Shamrock Rovers are the best team in Ireland, but it will be a 50-50 match,” Gunnlaugsson told ESPN. “If we get through and face Copenhagen, yes, it would be massive for us, but if we get there, we won’t want to stop there. We are footballers, we go into every game with belief and it would be the same against Manchester City.”

Pep Guardiola’s Man City team are a speck on the horizon right now, but the journey from Kopavogsvollur to Wembley has begun and for now, at least, Breidablik can continue to dream.

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