Jon Dadi Bodvarsson has developed a knack for slaying English giants. He is far too genial to brag about it but the facts speak for themselves: he was part of the Iceland team who defeated England at Euro 2016 and part of the Wolves team who knocked Liverpool out of this season’s FA Cup at Anfield. Now his sights are set on the Premier League leaders.
Defeating Chelsea at Molineux is a tall order but Bodvarsson has plenty of inspiring memories to draw on before Saturday’s fifth-round tie. It would be understandable if the sight of him triggered harrowing flashbacks for Gary Cahill, the Chelsea defender who has probably been trying to flush Iceland and Euro 2016 from his mind. Bodvarsson will never forget the proudest moment of his career, nor the pep talk his country’s manager gave before the England match.
“Lars Lagerback is one of the best coaches I’ve had in my short career and with all due respect to England, he told us he thought they were the most overrated national team he had ever played against,” says the 24-year-old. “So that kind of got us going. We knew we were the small team and they were the huge team so all the pressure was on them to perform and win.
“It didn’t start well for us because the last thing we wanted was them scoring an early goal but we managed to answer back in about a minute or so and then it looked to me that made them a little unbalanced. Then we scored a second and after that it was a really hard for England. You could see in the players’ faces that the pressure was on. We were defending really well so we made it hard for them. In a way I felt really sorry for England but also really happy for us.”
Bodvarsson is so amiable it is easy to believe him when he says he almost felt like consoling Roy Hodgson’s players as they trudged off in Nice. “They were in shock, or really disappointed,” he says. “I hear people saying they didn’t care or something but of course they cared. It’s hard to be an England player with the media and everything so I just decided to walk up to them and shake their hands.
“I think people misunderstood that the Iceland national team has a lot players in strong European leagues so the media built it up and wasn’t helping the England team. But for us it was an unbelievable achievement. I remember when we went to the changing room after the game it was kind of quiet, we didn’t really celebrate. We were just kind of in the moment, realising what had happened. It was great.”
What had happened, in Bodvarsson’s case, was that a young man who emigrated at 18 in pursuit of an unlikely dream had helped pull off a feat few thought possible.
Bodvarsson grew up in Selfoss, a small town 50km from Reykjavik best known as the burial place of the former world chess champion Bobby Fischer. “It’s a nice place to grow up,” says Bodvarsson, whose mother was a nurse and his father a teacher. “It’s the kind of town where if you go to the local shop you know everybody. Really peaceful, really friendly.” But not really the ideal place from which to launch a professional football career.
“The facilities weren’t great, to be honest, although I was lucky that when I was around 13 or 14 artificial grass came. But we still had to spend an hour digging snow off the pitch before training. I think that also helped me come even further in my career, because nothing is given, you have to work for it. So when you get the first step in professionalism you just have the mindset that you want to go farther, not to go back.”
Bodvarsson’s first step came at the age of 18 when he left his local club for a loan spell with Aarhus in Denmark. A groin injury forced him to return within four months but when he reached 20 he earned another move abroad, this time a full-time switch to Viking Stavanger in Norway. After three seasons there Kaiserslautern, evidently in need of a technically deft forward with exceptional running power, brought him to Germany.
He was there for only eight months before Wolves signed him, Euro 2016 having confirmed their good impression. He is loving life in the Championship and in Wolverhampton.
“I was told the Championship would be very direct, physical and fast and that’s exactly what it’s been,” he says. “There are a lot of games as well so it’s really physically demanding but that’s something I was prepared to do. I love the English environment too. The culture is so easy, simple, and the humour is similar to the Icelandic one. England and Iceland are kind of similar culture-wise.”
Wolves fans have developed a real fondness for Bodvarsson. The introduction was helped by a fine goal on his debut, against Rotherham, and he scored again two weeks later in a 3-1 victory at Birmingham. After each of those matches Bodvarsson led the crowd in a jubilant rendition of the “thunderclap” made famous by Iceland at Euro 2016. “It’s just a great way to connect with the fans and I think that’s really important,” he says. “I hope there will be more of that in the last games of the season.”
The goals have evaporated for Bodvarsson since then but supporters still admire his selfless, dynamic performances and they seemed as pained as he was when Liverpool’s Loris Karius made two fine saves to prevent him from scoring after coming off the bench at Anfield. “That was great game, you ran on adrenaline and passion really, it was such a fun game to be part of,” he says.
“It would have been nice to score that goal but it’s coming, I’m very close to my next one. This goal drought is frustrating but I think it’s important to see the other aspects of the game and how close you actually are to scoring the next goal. Patience is key.”
Saturday would be an excellent time for the wait to end. “Of course it will be tough, Chelsea have been dominating the Premier League but me and the guys are very excited. You always want to test yourself against the highest level of players.” His record in such tests suggests Chelsea will need to be vigilant.