Travel: Where they dream of losing by fewer than 10 goals

The Faroe Islanders are obsessed by football (as well as sheep). They played their first international in 1990, and have never looked back since.
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THE MAN of the House looked somewhat abashed. He glanced over at the Woman of the House. She was sitting at the head of the dining-table, where a full complement of guests were happily gorging themselves on the delicious meal she had prepared. But she was ignoring the lamb and potatoes congealing on her plate. Instead, she was consuming the event being shown on the large colour TV placed to the left of her chair. Lowering his voice, the Man of the House murmured reverentially: "You see, it's Football Night."

You may think Brits take football seriously. Well, Faroese football fans make us look as devoted to our national sport as my vegetarian grandmother is to duck a l'orange.

Let me explain. First, where are the Faroe Islands? Draw a triangle with Norway, Iceland and the Shetlands at the corners, and you'll find the 18 Faroe Islands smack-dab in the middle of that frigid, North Atlantic triangle. Your basic land of astounding beauty, the Faroes are all wind- swept mountains, breathtaking cliffs, sheep, wave-lashed beaches, more sheep, picturesque turf-roofed fishing villages and 43,000 football-obsessed sheep owners.

Irish monks lived there before - presumably punishing themselves for some terrible sin they had committed - but the Faroes were settled in earnest only in AD825, by Norsemen on their way west towards Iceland (and Newfoundland). The Faroese will tell you that all the smart Norsemen got off in the Faroe Islands, leaving the dumb ones to continue on to Iceland.

The Icelanders say that the seasick ones got off in the Faroes, leaving the strong ones to travel on to Iceland. Personally, I think the Faroese- to-be saw a black-and-white sheep on a wind-swept mountainside, mistook it for a football, and jumped ship.

The Faroese founded their first football club in 1892. You would hope they founded their second one soon afterwards, or else matches might have been a bit boring. Faroese football really took off during the Second World War. Stopped from practising their traditional livelihood (fishing) by circling Nazi U-boats, the young men found themselves playing endless football games against the British soldiers posted to the Faroes. Rumour has it, they played mostly to keep the soldiers too busy to steal their women. By the end of the war, football was a national obsession.

By the Seventies, the Faroes, which have home rule from Denmark, wanted to field a national team. In 1988, it happened. With the support of all the Nordic countries, the Faroe Islands joined Fifa. Their first official match was to be on 12 September 1990, against Austria. Since the Faroes didn't have a proper pitch, the game would be played in a neutral country, Sweden.

The boys trained hard. Not easy, since, unlike the professional Austrian players, the Faroese were all amateurs. There was a postman, a baker, a bank clerk, several mechanics, and a quality control expert from the local fish plant. The team was nervous, to say the least. But that didn't stop the team captain from recording a football anthem. In Faroese. It was a hit.

The Austrians declared that they would win by 10 goals. So the Faroese decided that if they lost by anything less than 10 goals they could consider the game a success. Fans who travelled to Austria to cheer on their boys (and cousins and nephews...) joked cheerfully that they were there to help keep count of goals against. In the days before the Big Game, the Faroese studied the pitch and tried to focus, vacillating between embarrassment, excitement and horror. The Faroese national journalists were out in full force, all dozen or so of them. The entire country tensed for battle. The Austrians were nowhere to be seen.

Then it was game time. The country listened in, cringing. Ten minutes went by. Then 20. No one scored. It was a miracle. Better than anyone could imagine. Goalkeeper Jens Martin Knudsen, a fork-lift truck driver in real life, was managing to keep the big-shot Austrians at bay. The Faroese team gained confidence. They pushed their advantage. Then the impossible happened. Torkil Nielsen, a timber merchant, scored for the Faroes.

For the remainder of the game, every Faroese held his breath. The seconds ticked, slowly, slowly. Some couldn't bear the stress and had to look away. At last the clock ran out. The Faroe Islands had beaten Austria 1-0 in their first real international match.

It was nation-defining. Something no one could ever take away from them. It had given the Faroes credibility on the world stage. They may not have played a glorious role in a big war or hosted peace conferences or produced Bjork, but they weren't a far-flung bit of Denmark any more; they were the FAROE ISLANDS, a real country with a real football team. The party lasted for days.

Football has been good to the Faroes, and so the Faroese are fanatically devoted to football. They no longer think losing by fewer than 10 goals is good. They now aim to lose by no more than four. For a recent game, 800 Faroese (more than 5 per cent of the population) flew to Scotland to cheer on their boys. They lost to the home team 2-1, a respectable score. Things are improving. The women's team is coming along well and the training programmes now make army training look like a walk with the sheep.

Back at the dinner party, we had moved on to dessert by the time the game was over and the Woman of the House had switched off the TV and rejoined us for tea and cake. She was in a good mood. The Faroes had played Lithuania. And tied. An excellent result.

Getting there: The best plan is to wait until the spring of 1999, when the Faroes-based airline Atlantic Airways (00 298 333900) will re-introduce direct services from Aberdeen and Glasgow; fares are likely to be around pounds 275. Until then, the most convenient approach is on Maersk Air (0171- 333 0066) via Billund or Copenhagen in Denmark