To the south of Streymoy, the largest of the Faroe Islands, and across the narrow strait of Skopunafjordur, lies the quiet islet of Sandoy. Largely bereft of the dramatic cliffs that characterise this rugged archipelago, Sandoy is a land of glittering lakes, sprawling beaches and windswept basalt dunes. Upon this island sits the village of Sandur. It is a restful, charming and whimsical place that is home to fewer than 600 people, most of whom rely on the Faroe Islands’ principal trades of fishing and tourism.
Sandur boasts a number of tourist attractions – a 20-year-old church, an art gallery and museum among them. One of its lesser-known curiosities lies two-and-a-half miles north of the village: Inni í Dal, an all-weather football pitch that has been the home of Sandoy’s one football club, B71 Sandoy, for its entire 50-year existence.
It is a place Eli Hentze knows well. “I played at senior level from 1986 until 2007, and again in 2008 as player-manager, and played my last game for the senior team in 2011. I suppose you could say I know the club inside out. I’ve been coach for various teams, player-coach for the first team, and I’ve been a board member for a number of years. I’ve been involved with everything.”
Despite its small population and remote location, the Faroe Islands have a long football history, with the country’s oldest club, Tvoroyrar Boltfelag, dating back to 1892. “Football has great interest in the Faroe Islands, especially with it being a very small country,” says Hentze. “Communities are somewhat isolated and people know each other, so football has become part of the social fabric of every community on the islands. Particularly Sandoy.”
Though football had been popular on the island for years, Sandoy did not have a substantial club until 1970. Until then, locals had to settle for a rudimentary derby in which the two largest villages on the islet, Sandur and Skopun, competed in matches where goals were marked with rocks. The formation of B71 Sandoy along with a new school that boasted an all-weather football pitch, changed that though, giving locals a team to support. Unlike larger islands such as Streymoy and Esturoy – both of which boast multiple football clubs – Sandoy’s entire hopes rest with B71.
Upon entering the league, B71 spent nearly two decades in the third tier, playing against reserve teams from bigger clubs. It was an unfulfilling existence. “We never won anything,” says Hentze. Things began to improve in 1986, when the club won the third division title. It was the tiniest of ripples in the already small pond of Faroese football, but that triumph set in motion a chain of events that would end up defining the club.
At the beginning of the 1980s, a wealth of exciting youth players had emerged at the club at the same time. After years of dormancy, B71 were kindled into life by effervescent talents such as Hentze, Torbjørn Jensen, and brothers Róin and Jóan Petur Clementsen. They excelled in the youth divisions and started to filter into the senior team. After winning the third tier in 1986, B71’s youngsters secured the second division title in 1988. In the space of three seasons, the club had emerged from obscurity. “The team was lucky because it had players from different age groups, all of them good players with different characteristics; the mix was perfect,” remembers Hentze.
As they progressed to the top flight, the club appointed a new Polish head coach in Jan Kaczynski, who brought midfielder Piotr Krakowski and goalkeeper Wieslaw Zakrzewski with him. “This was almost unheard of in the Faroe Islands at the time,” says Hentze. “Those players came straight from top-flight football in Poland, which at that time did not allow players to leave the country before the age of 30 or 31. These were experienced players and are probably still the best foreigners to ever play in the Faroes.”
Sandoy entered their maiden season in the Premier League in high spirits. “This group of players loved to train to play,” says Hentze. “They lived for football. There was no talk about relegation or winning the championship, other than simply going for it. We just wanted to play.”
Play Sandoy did, unburdened by expectation, unfazed by the might of the teams from Tórshavn, the capital city of the Faroes. After securing a draw in their opening fixture against B68 Toftir – who had won the title in 1984 and 1985 while B71 were still languishing in the third tier – B71 were expected to come crashing back down to the artificial turf upon which they played when they travelled to 15-time champions Klaksvíkar Ítróttarfelag in their second fixture. The young upstarts, however, beat their illustrious opponents 3-0. Much to everyone’s surprise, Sandoy made it through their first five games unbeaten.
May gave way to June and Sandoy continued their streak, picking up points and growing in confidence. Looming on the horizon, though, was the considerable spectre of Havnar Bóltfelag, the reigning champions and one of the big clubs from Tórshavn, the capital city of the Faroes. For 90 minutes, Havnar Bóltfelag mustered all their might, but Sandoy were resolute, holding on for a 0-0 draw. Sandoy had reached the halfway stage of the season without losing a game.
Not that they were getting carried away. Hentze, who played in all of those games, recalls: “When the results came our way against the big teams, we saw that we could compete. As time went on and we kept winning or drawing, as we were unbeaten we felt it was possible. Obviously, confidence was very high, but it was so surreal. This tiny club from Sandoy atop the league. We gradually believed we could win.”
The previous two championships had been close affairs, with both victors crowned by a single point, but Sandoy, quickly garnered a reputation for the unexpected, were opening up a sizeable lead at the top of the table. After the 0-0 draw with Havnar Bóltfelag, Sandoy recorded three straight victories on the bounce. They were not as prolific as other clubs but, with the imposing figure of Wieslaw Zakrzewski in goal, they were hard to score against. At the other end, goalscoring duties were shared between Páll á Reynatúgvu, Torbjørn Jensen and Eli Hentze.
From thereon in, Sandoy were insatiable. Five wins and a draw followed, and, with a game to go, the club were champions. It was a feat beyond the wildest expectations of even their most optimistic fans, but there was an added bonus, the glittering sheen of perfection, that could still yet be added. The final fixture pitted the club once more against the might of Havnar Bóltfelag, who had surrendered their crown and were ravenous for vengeance. The incentive for both clubs was enormous: B71 wanted to finish the season unbeaten and Havnar Bóltfelag were coming to Inni í Dal to stop them.
On 24 September 1989, B71 Sandoy realised their finest achievement on their very own pitch. With the score tied at 2-2 midway through the second half, Sandoy unleashed an onslaught. Hentze scored twice as B71 put their rivals to the sword in an exhilarating 6-2 win. As a scarcely believable season came to a close, B71 Sandoy were crowned unbeaten champions in their first ever season in the top flight. In four short, wild years, they had risen from the third tier to the top of Faroese football.
The accomplishment still resonates around the Faroe Islands. “Without doubt it is still referred to as one of the biggest upsets in history,” says Hentze. “It was enormous – not only in Sandoy, but throughout the entire Faroese footballing landscape. That a small team could come up through the ranks and then, in their first year, win the league unbeaten. Unbelievable. It is remembered fondly. Very fondly.”
That 6-2 victory would be a fitting end to the tale of B71 Sandoy, but the story did not finish with the unbeaten season of 1989. Unfortunately for B71, they kept making history the following year, becoming the first club to win their national league unbeaten only to suffer relegation the very next season.
“The relegation was obviously a huge disappointment, but it was really strange as well,” says Hentze. “The 1990 season was very, very close. In 1989 we won the league nine points clear of second place and back then we only had two points for a win. But in 1990, at the end of the season, the top and the bottom places in the division were separated by only 10 points. Had we won the last game that year, we would have come third. If we lost, we were relegated. The margins were that fine. League champions one season and third place the next season doesn’t sound too bad, but it all came down to the last game and unfortunately we lost.”
Why did Sandoy struggle so badly after winning the league? “Our captain broke his leg in the final game in 1989 when we beat Tórshavn and was out for the 1990 season. It was a blow. Then, when results didn’t go our way, the board didn’t think Kaczynski could turn it around. He was sacked before we were relegated.”
B71 made short work of returning to the top flight, even reaching consecutive cup finals in 1993 and 1994, but recent decades have not been kind to the plucky outsiders, who are now in the second tier. “The landscape has changed dramatically,” says Hentze. “Money didn’t used to play such a vital role. It used to be an even playing field, but not so much these days. Obviously, with the amount of money coming in from Europe, a small team like Sandoy winning the league is unlikely to be repeated. It would be easier to see Sunderland winning the Premier League if an Arab owner came in. It was difficult then, but it is more difficult now.”
Despite it all – the implausible unbeaten title win and the subsequent relegation – what matters most to Hentze is the indelible mark Sandoy made in their small corner of world football. “I was hugely surprised last year. I was at a match up north and I saw a few spectators. The day after, there was a game after in Sandoy and I saw these guys again. I was curious, so I went to speak to them and, oh my god, they came from England! I asked them why they had come from England to watch football. Faroes is such a small league. People constantly travel to England, but it is nice when it’s the other way around.
“It’s amazing and fascinating that people out there show interest in something that happened 30 years ago in one of the smallest footballing nations in the world. You do not have to dig for gold only in bigger environments. If you look closely you’ll find it everywhere.”