Michael Pavitt

"Before the game, when you are saying something stupid, I said, 'Maybe if we win we might get into the Olympics'. Now you are sitting here,"

Atli Gregersen manages to draw a few more laughs during his explanation of the Faroe Islands away win in Greece during the Euro 2016 qualifying, believed to be the biggest shock result in terms of the FIFA’s world rankings.

The Faroe Islands captain, speaking with a Scottish twang picked up during a spell at Ross County, recalls the team being taken on trip to Olympia by the national coach in the build-up to the match.

"We were standing in small field and he was talking about the Olympic spirit," Gregersen said. "I kept thinking, ‘Why are you showing me this, we are not competing at the Olympics'.

"But we can say it might have helped us beat Greece as it gave us something to hold onto."

The victory over Greece, the first of two over the birthplace of the Olympic Games in a short space of time, was arguably the most high-profile result since the Faroe Islands 1-0 win over Austria in September 1992.

It marked the country’s first official competitive match, following on from gaining UEFA membership earlier that year, with FIFA having accepted their application two years prior.

Jens Martin Knudsen was the Faroe Islands’ goalkeeper. He gained fame for wearing a bobble hat on his head throughout his career due to a head injury and remembers heading into the match hoping not to suffer an embarrassing defeat. 

Due to not having any grass pitches, the tie was played away in Sweden. There was reportedly surprise back home when the television flicked on 10 minutes in to the match - owing to the electricity having gone down - to discover the score was still goalless.

It would ultimately end up with an even better result.

Faroe Islands made an impact on Euro 2016 qualifying by beating Greece twice ©Getty Images
Faroe Islands made an impact on Euro 2016 qualifying by beating Greece twice ©Getty Images

The triumph has been viewed as having a greater significance, following a 15-year battle to achieve membership of FIFA prior to being accepted. It has been claimed the result helped boost the mentality of the Faroe Islands, a self-governing region of Denmark since 1948.

"It was a much bigger step than we realised at the time," said Knudsen. "When we entered for the first time, the possibility was shown to us and it has run from there. We want to create something here and that is important, there is only one home for everyone."

Both Knudsen and Gregersen point to the development of the game in the country in the years since as proof that recognition helped grow the sport and encourage players to achieve a higher level. The Faroe Islands achieved nine points in their 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign, their largest haul to date. UEFA’s Nations League has also increased hopes of potentially reaching the European Championships for the first time.

The potential to compete internationally has also been reflected in the Faroe Islands’ facilities. A total of 22 synthetic pitches have sprung up serving both Faroese football clubs and local youngsters, with the surfaces appearing in almost constant use. The number and quality of facilities are impressive, particularly when you consider the population is roughly 51,000 people - roughly the same size as Canterbury in England.

It has been argued that the pathway being open to competing at the top level of football has boosted both the elite side of the sport in the country, but also inspiring young athletes who believe they can achieve the same feat.

Support from UEFA has proved invaluable according to the Faroe Islands Football Association, who have upgraded their headquarters significantly in the last 20 years and are currently in the process of rebuilding their national stadium.

The Faroese Confederation of Sports and Olympic Committee claim this could be the same in more sports, with FIFA one of only eight International Federations to have given their national governing bodies membership. The obstacle is a lack of Olympic recognition, they believe.

The Faroe Islands believe UEFA and FIFA recognition has boosted facilities and athletes' prospects ©ITG
The Faroe Islands believe UEFA and FIFA recognition has boosted facilities and athletes' prospects ©ITG

It is claimed that many talented young athletes have been forced to abandon their sporting ambitions, due to realising there would be limited or no option to compete at a higher level internationally.

In the sports where the Faroe Islands do have recognition - archery, badminton, football, handball, judo, swimming, table tennis and volleyball - they are unable to compete at the Olympic Games.

It differs from the Paralympic Games, where the Faroe Islands are able to compete having been a founding member of the organisation.

Some athletes have opted to switch nationality to represent Denmark in a bid to reach the Olympic Games. 

Swimmer Pál Joensen, introduced as the country’s most successful athlete, was faced with the proposition. Joensen had claimed a 1500 metres freestyle bronze medal at the 2012 World Short Course Championships in Istanbul for the Faroe Islands and also secured European Championship success representing the nation.

An agreement was reached between the IOC and the International Swimming Federation to allow Joensen to compete as a Danish athlete at the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games in London and Rio de Janeiro respectiely, while representing the Faroe Islands at all other competitions.

The 27-year-old believes not competing under his own flag could have had some impact on his performances at the Games, which he considers disappointing, having hoped to clinch a medal.

"Representing Denmark was great, I now live in Denmark and if there was another country I had to represent, I am proud it was them as it is a great country," Joensen said. "However, it was hard to pinpoint the exact emotional issues involved with going to the Olympics and representing another country.

"Our sport federation were determined to make it as Faroese a project as possible, as I trained in the Faroe Islands, lived in the Faroe Islands and was funded by the Faroe Islands, but I just had a Danish sticker on."

Swimmer Pál Joensen represented the Faroe Islands at international competitions but was forced to compete for Denmark at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics in London and Rio de Janeiro ©ITG
Swimmer Pál Joensen represented the Faroe Islands at international competitions but was forced to compete for Denmark at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics in London and Rio de Janeiro ©ITG

Joensen views the solution found as a "quick fix" to the issue and admitted to having felt as they he had to "sell out" to compete at the Olympics, despite support from back home in the Faroe Islands.

"As I sportsperson, I feel like it was unjustified to make me make a decision like that and not focusing on my sport," Joensen reflected. "In the end the debate turned into political issues and being a part of that was not fun. These decisions effect on a micro-level. There are exceptions and similar stories, I can represent the Faroe Islands in everything else but not the most important one, which feels grossly wrong."

Joensen offers the repeated refrain when asked about representing Denmark. The locals insist they are not Danish, pointing to their own language, political system and also that the flight time between both destinations is over two hours. They are keen to point to the Faroese Confederation of Sports being established in 1939 as proof their system runs entirely separate from Denmark, which they believe should be reflected on an international level.

While Joensen does not expect to compete at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, he hopes the IOC will listen to Faroe Islands athletes and come to a decision on the issue to prevent a similar situation impacting on upcoming athletes.

Signhild Joensen is one of the athletes who could face the prospect, with the teenage swimmer having achieved a qualifying time for Tokyo 2020. Currently, she would need to secure one of the top two times in Denmark to secure a place at the Games but admits it is "awkward" with Danish athletes to be competing against them for a place.

She highlights the experience of competing at the 2015 European Games in Baku as being typical of the conundrum faced. While the European Championships - run by the European Swimming League (LEN) - allow the Faroe Islands to compete under their flag, the event in Azerbaijan’s capital city was run the European Olympic Committees. That led to Joensen competing under the LEN flag.

"We had our name read out but without the nationality," Joensen said. "It felt a bit like a punishment because we wanted to show where we come from. But did not have the chance for that. I have trained here for the whole of my life, I know I belong here, so to be under another flag I would not feel 100 per cent myself, as I am also there for my country."

The Faroe Islands believe the inconsistency in the process is impacting both on athletes and sport in the country. Despite having made no progress regarding IOC recognition since initial overtures in the 1980s, FCSOC hope they will be able to persuade the organisation through their campaign.

"We feel like we have our face pressed up against the glass, we are so close, yet so far away," Jon Hestoy, FCSOC vice-president and spokesman for their efforts, claimed. 

He hopes to have the opportunity in future to discuss the merits of their case with the IOC and dissuade them from the idea that granting recognition would be a political move.

Jon Hestoy, left, Faroese Confederation of Sports and Olympic Committee vice-president, hopes athletes' stories will help convince the IOC to recognise the Faroe Islands so they can compete in the Olympic Games ©ITG
Jon Hestoy, left, Faroese Confederation of Sports and Olympic Committee vice-president, hopes athletes' stories will help convince the IOC to recognise the Faroe Islands so they can compete in the Olympic Games ©ITG

Kosovo and South Sudan are the most recent countries to have been granted Olympic recognition, in 2014 and 2015 respectively. Unlike Faroe Islands, though, they are considered fully independent countries by the United Nations or, in Kosovo's case, by over 100 of its members.

Faroe Islands' case is made more difficult by an Olympic Charter change in 1996 which ruled that NOC recognition can "only be granted after recognition as an independent state by the international community".

Hestoy is hopeful a solution can be found for their predicament, either through a rule change or allowing an exemption.

"For us, to secure a straight avenue for Faroese athletes to start as a kid and develop all the way to the Olympics and participate under the Faroese flag is a must," he said. "We feel an IOC recognition would be in the real Olympic spirit."

The former swimmer’s main argument centres on the impact on athletes, with young athletes claimed to forced to halt their participation in a sport due to having no federation and prospects to pursue it on an international scene.

Rowing is cited as an example, with Faroese rowing considered to be the national sport. Recognition from the IOC and the subsequent establishment of a federation, it is claimed, would result in many athletes continuing the sport and moving into the Olympic disciplines. 

Hestoy believes being able to tell the story of their athletes would help to convince the IOC, with the modernisation of football viewed as a an important one to tell. Without recognition from UEFA and FIFA, the Faroe Islands believe they would still be competing in the Island Games in football, along with the likes of the Isle of Wight and Shetland.

Instead, they have been able to take on some of Europe’s best in competition.

"We beat Greece twice, so I think we deserve something in return," national captain Gregersen joked. "Give us the Olympic recognition."