By Steve Menary
For the Zeeb family, the 2009 Greenlandic national championships will be a competition they never forget.
G-44 coach Gunnar Zeeb picked four of his sons for the final with Uummannaq’s FC Malamuk for the final, but no-one could accuse him of nepotism after his side ran out comprehensive 3-0 winners in Qeqertarsuaq and claim the national title for the first time.
Right midfielder Hans-Jørgen Zeeb put G-44 1-0 at half-time before two goals from his brother Zakorat Zeeb sealed a win. Goalkeeper Johan-Frederik Zeeb kept a clean sheet, enabling his brother and G-44’s captain, Nuknnguaq Zeeb, to lift the trophy.
Only 800 people live in Qeqertarsuaq but a crowd of 600 turned out for the final, which was played on a pitch only 70 metres from the sea.
“There is a wonderful view from the football pitch,” says Jens Tang Olesen, manager of Greenland’s national team, who was in Qeqertarsuaq. “You can always see a lot of icebergs, and many times you can see whales swimming around this iceberg. Sometimes you can see a very special experience, when a big iceberg turns round – that happened this year [during] the national song before the final.”
With no roads between any of Greenland’s towns, teams only play locally except for the national championships, when eight sides emerge from regional qualifiers and converge on one town for a series of play-offs.
G-44 from Qeqertarsuaq qualified as hosts but holders B-67 and K-33, the losing finalists at the 2008 finals in Qaqortoq, were both eliminated in the qualifiers, which saw FC Malamuk emerge as northern Greenland’s representative and E-54 qualify from the south.
ATA qualified from east Greenland along with two sides from the middle of the island, NUK and SAK. From Disko, N48 qualified along with regional rivals KB-84, who won a play-off against another side from northern Greenland.
G-44 topped their group with two wins and a draw to qualify for a semi-final with Sisimiut team SKA, who were dispatched 3-2. FC Malamuk lost their opener to NUK by two goals to one but recovered to win their next two games before thumping E-54 from Nanortalik by 4-0 in their semi-final.
Jens Tang Olesen adds: “There was a lot of talented players on both finalists, who tried to play organized football despite the pitch of sand.”
Qeqertarsuaq had never hosted the national finals until this year and footballers travelling to Disko Island are all aware that the area is the scene of Greenlandic football’s greatest tragedy.
On August 8 2004, three Greenlanders, Karl Olsen, aged 35, Martin Larsen, 40, and 43-year-old Kristian Davidsen set sail from Aasiaat across Disko Bay to play in a veterans’ game in Qeqertarsuaq – but never came home.
The trip only takes an hour or so but Disko Bay is littered with smaller islands and after playing the game, the trio got lost. A massive air and sea search ensued but the three players, who were all married with children, could not be found. The hunt was called off on August 16 only for the three players to be found the following June on Hareoe Island, where their boat had got stuck.
The players had written SOS in stones on the side of the island and built a rough shelter from driftwood but had little chance of survival in Greenlandic winter and froze to death all for a game of football.
Football in Greenland is an isolated, hard game. Not just the short season – May to August in the warmer south, even shorter further north – and the rough sandy pitches that make wearing shorts impossible but also the lack of recognition from the rest of the world.
Like Greenland, the Faroe Islands are semi-autonomous members of the Danish Commonwealth and the winners of the Faroese league title get a share of the €10.3 million pot of cash put aside annually by UEFA for teams eliminated in the early rounds of the Champions League.
G44 will enjoy no such luxury. Unlike Greenland, the Faroes got into UEFA and FIFA before the door was slammed shut in a fudge to keep Spain on side.
Seeing the Faroes gain entry into FIFA in 1988 and the U$D1 million every four years that comes with membership of the world body, the British colony of Gibraltar tried to follow suit in the late 1990s.
Spain pledged to quit every single UEFA and FIFA competition if Gibraltar was allowed to join so the rules were conveniently changed – now all new UEFA members need to be members of the United Nations.
The new rule was not retrospective to ensure that the four Home Nations, England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, retained FIFA membership. The Faroes stayed in too but Greenland, who only wanted some help like a first artificial pitch for their 5,000-plus players and not to join the World Cup gravy train, were shut out.
Greenland’s national team has a shirt sponsorship deal with Coca Cola but is limited to games in the bi-annual Island Games, a sort of bi-annual Olympics for islands, but after playing in every tournament since 1989, the Greenlanders missed the 2007 event in Rhodes due to lack of money.
The team did play in this year’s event in the Finnish isle of Aland but two key Danish-based players, Aarhus Fremand’s Niklas Kreutzmann and Pelle Mortensen, who is on the books at Odense, were missing. Kreutzmann was doing his dental exams and Mortensen had gone traveling.
Greenland went down 4-0 to Aland then lost 6-0 to Menorca before an encouraging 3-1 win over 2005 winners, the Shetlands, only to lose a play-off to 11th place to Gotland. “We have no more plans for the Greenland national team just now,” sighs Jens Tang Olesen.
Some Greenlandic footballers wanting to better themselves have gone to Denmark like national team captain Jan Nielsen, but like many of their compatriots from an island with a population of just 55,000, they found it hard to fit in.
Nielsen had trials with top Danish side Brondby and played in the Icelandic first division for KR Reykjavik but today can be found playing for FC Nanoq, a Copenhagen-based team playing in regional Danish football. Nielsen says: “Talented players come here from Greenland but they get homesick and go home, there’s a big cultural difference. FC Nanoq is to make them feel at home.”
For those Greenlandic footballers still back home like the Zeeb brothers, there is only next year’s finals and the possibility of a place in the squad for the next Island Games on the Isle of Wight in southern England in 2011.
Steve Menary is the author of Outcasts! The Lands That FIFA Forgot (Know The Score Books 2007), which was shortlisted for the 2008 National Sporting Club football book of the year award. More details at the Outcasts book website. Steve has also written about Sami football, and readers might like to read this excellent article from the Guardian.