He’s started the season in among the goals, he was in the squad for his country’s first ever World Cup – now he’s got a baby on the way with his other half. It has been a hectic few months for Jón Daði Böðvarsson, but he’s loving every second of it!
The Iceland international striker has scored three times in as many starts at the beginning of the new season, off the back of a long summer with the national team – starting a game at the biggest tournament of them all as he took to the field against Nigeria in June.
In moving to the Royals last summer, Böðvarsson became the latest in a line of Icelandic footballers to ply their trade in RG2 – with Iceland internationals having a remarkably high rate of success in the blue and white hoops of Reading!
The tall but pacey forward became an instant hit with Reading fans for his incredibly high work-rate, tenacious attitude and, most importantly, his attributes in front of goal. After coming joint-top of the goalscoring charts with Mo Barrow in 2017-18, Böðvarsson hopes to continue his productive start to the season in front of goal.
From humble beginnings to the world stage in Russia, the striker sat down exclusively with The Royal to talk about his journey so far in 'The Long Read'…
After living in the small town of Selfoss as a kid, around 45 minutes outside Reykjavik, the Royals’ striker spoke of a football-obsessed mindset that existed in the town and the whole of Iceland itself while he was growing up.
As a confident youngster, Böðvarsson revealed that his early footballing exploits were done by testing himself at a much higher level than he was used to!
“The first time I started kicking a ball was when I was probably 6 years old. You had a lunch break at school and the 10th graders would always go and play football for those 20 minutes. I was always watching them play, I was 6 and they were 16, but they always saw me watching and one day they just let me play with them!
“That’s when my love for football started. I moved to Selfoss at the same age as well, it’s a very small town but football is incredibly popular there – everybody loves the sport. That’s when I started training officially.
“I think I’ll always be thankful for these guys who were 16 years old, it was in the countryside so maybe they’re a bit more care-free, they don’t care if there’s a little kid with them playing!”
“They were just happy to have me being there with them all the time, in a way that helped me get better at football – co-ordination, technique and everything else came faster and that’s how, from 6 to 16 years old I was getting better and better.
“I think that’s also an important factor for kids today, it’s not enough just to train and go home. You need to do it yourself as well at home, have a play even if you’re not in training. That’s one of the biggest aspects that has brought me to here.”
Growing up watching the Premier League ignited his love of football even further, even taking notice of the Icelandic contingent with the Royals during our spell in the top tier!
“It’s the most popular sport in Iceland by far, it’s the first sport almost every child tries to play when they’re young and looking for activities,” he continued. “It’s always on TV as well – especially the Premier League, it’s huge in Iceland.
“You just grow up in this football fever the country has, that’s the kind of vibe it’s been for as long as I can remember. It’s just been getting bigger and bigger with the success of the national team as well.”
Despite having Icelandic representation with the Royals, Böðvarsson said his early loyalties lay elsewhere!
“I was basically just told to support Man United, so that was the first team I supported when I was young," he revealed. "You grow up watching all these retro players like Beckham, Scholes, Giggsy – very, very good players.
“It was always a dream for me to play in England from that moment on, it has always been a goal of mine and now that I’m here, it’s a dream come true.
“I remember watching Reading play in the Premier League too. I can remember Brynjar Gunnarsson and Ívar Ingimarsson when they were here, then Gylfi came and I remember when they played against Liverpool in the cup – Gylfi scored a penalty and he won the game.
“I knew a lot about the club before I came here and I’m just really happy to be here.”
With his dream to play in England achieved by signing for Wolves back in 2016, he admits that it took him a little while to adjust to the rigours of Championship football.
A 46-game season is one of the longest anywhere in the world, with the relentless schedule taking Böðvarsson by surprise, but he says he has now settled into life in England after moving from Kaiserslautern in Germany.
“Obviously England is called the home of football, so the atmosphere is a bit different – louder!
“It’s also very physically demanding, especially the Championship. That was very different for me, playing so many games.
“Especially in the first year, it took probably the whole season with Wolves to adapt to the physical aspect of it all.
“Now coming into the third year here, I know it now, feeling very settled and just loving life.”
After a hectic time of his life with a solid first season as a Royal capped off with a World Cup to play a part in, he has hit the ground running at the start of this season.
Böðvarsson scored three times in as many starts in August, and recently revealed with his partner, Maria, that they are expecting their first child.
He is in an exciting time of his life professionally and personally, and Böðvarsson spoke of the vital role Maria has played in his success on the pitch during his career.
“For us to have a baby on the way means there’s a lot of changes coming up in our lives – but we’re really excited!
“We’ve been together for six years now, she’s been incredible with me as well.
“She’s travelled to all these different countries with me and never complained, she’s always with me no matter what. She’s a big part of my success, without a doubt. The good thing is she really likes it here as well! If your family is feeling good then you play better and you feel better.”
For any footballer, leaving home and that family security can be a daunting prospect – and Böðvarsson admits it took time for him to adjust after moving to Norway for his first professional contract at Viking FK - where countryman and Royals team-mate Axel Andrésson is currently on loan.
The striker also spoke of the influence of his parents growing up, allowing him to be himself and channel his energy into sport.
“In Iceland, I was kind of a wild kid!” He smiled. “My parents didn’t have a hard leash on me all the time, they let me be free because I was a bit all over the place, so they knew that football was a way for me to escape everything and express myself.
“The funny thing is my family isn’t really a sport family in general, so their knowledge of the game isn’t that great. They don’t know how it is to be a professional player until maybe now.
“The biggest step in my career so far was at my first professional club, which was in Norway. All of a sudden you’re at a higher level and you have more expectations and ambitions coming all at once.
“It took me maybe a year to get used to that, I was so happy to have taken that step in my life and I still have that experience today.”
After impressing for his hometown club, Selfoss, prior to making the move across Scandinavia, it wasn’t long before he was given his first call-up to the full Iceland squad – which ironically stopped him from taking another path in his football career!
“I had just finished my last season in Iceland before I went to Norway, I had a really good season there and I was on trial at a club in Sweden.
“I got a call in the middle of the trial there that I was in the Iceland squad and my head just exploded with excitement!
“So I couldn’t finish the trial and I went off to the national team. I was only on for the last five minutes of the game but it was a very proud moment in my career. From that moment, I made a goal to play more for the national team and have a bigger part.”
He has certainly played a bigger part in the success of the national team after making his debut in 2012, playing almost 40 times and scoring against Austria at Euro 2016 – as part of their remarkable run to the quarter-finals of the competition.
After exceeding all expectations to make it to the Euros, attention quickly turned to the ultimate aim – playing at the World Cup in Russia two years later. Böðvarsson didn’t hesitate in saying what drove the team on to make their biggest footballing achievement as a nation.
“The mentality of the team is just so high, the standard is so high, we just don’t accept losing!” He reasoned.
“I remember after the Euros when we came out of the group to play England, Eiður Guðjohnsen stood up and said to the team: ‘We’ve reached our goal, but are you satisfied? Are you just going to go into the game and have fun or do you want to go even further?’ – He set the mentality of how the team was in general.
“We won against England, which was an incredible achievement, but then we lost against France which was, in my opinion, the best team of the competition.
“After that game, that’s when I knew we were going to reach the World Cup.
“Aron [Gunnarsson] our captain just said ‘Right, World Cup next!’ – People were laughing but he was serious.
“People took a note of that and we were just so focussed on not making the Euros a one-time thing. We wanted to go to the World Cup as well and, when we made it, it was just incredible. When the final whistle blew, you just couldn’t believe it!
“That’s when you get flashbacks to your younger times in your garden, imagining things, and to have it as a reality is something we’re really grateful for.
“It was amazing. We went to the changing room and everyone was just screaming and shouting, then we were told we could meet up with our families at the hotel and eat together.
“Then we took a bus to the centre of Reykjavik and we got up on a stage, the whole of Reykjavik was celebrating with us! A band was playing and we were just jumping around, having fun. It was a night to remember, it was incredible.”
Fast forward to the World Cup starting in Russia, Böðvarsson was among the substitutes as his countrymen earned a famous 1-1 draw against Argentina in their opening group match.
But against Nigeria, he was given the nod to start on the biggest stage in football – but he says he somehow didn’t get affected by nerves ahead of one of the most important matches of his career!
“I was kind of calm – it’s crazy to say it but, when you reach it, you’re almost used to it,” he explained ahead of his 39th senior cap.
“It was just like it was the normal thing, you’re not getting ahead of yourself because the mentality and success of the national team has been so good – so you do believe it, because you know what we can do.
“You’re focussed but, of course, very proud and excited for the opportunity. Just to be at this stage is something you need to cherish for the rest of your life. It’s not something that every player experiences in their career, so it was really nice.”
Iceland are followed by a very vocal set of supporters, their fans are famous around the world of football for making themselves heard in a stadium! The ‘Thunder Clap’ is something that fans of clubs and countries around the world have tried to replicate, but they could never match the original.
Böðvarsson says the connection between Iceland’s players and their fans goes deeper than simply sport, with the collective community getting behind the team.
“The population in Iceland is just ridiculously small, around 330,000 or something, so there’s a good chance you’ll see somebody you know in the stands when you’re celebrating with them!” He continued.
“The beautiful thing is just the nation is so small, so the togetherness is special and maybe a bit bigger than usual. There’s just something about it, playing for your nation and in front of people from your own nation as well, there’s a strong bond that creates and it’s very special.
“I think Icelandic people realise that we are a small nation, we realise that we’re not getting ahead ourselves so the connection is really good.”
When Iceland beat England at Euro 2016, record TV ratings were posted for the game – with 98.1% of the entire nation’s population said to be watching that famous moment in Icelandic sport.
Among that vast audience would have been plenty of young fans, and inspiring the next generation is something Böðvarsson takes very seriously. Despite not even being in his peak years as a player yet, he hopes to be a part of a legacy that spans down the generations of future footballers in his homeland.
“Aside from everything else, personal success, national team success, how far we reach in everything, put that aside.
“The most important thing for me, the thing I’m probably proudest of is the effect we’ve had on the kids in Iceland and the football people in general,” he said.
“That’s something that I wish I had when I were a little kid in Iceland because the national team’s success wasn’t that big.
“Just knowing that we’re bringing little kids on a little island called Iceland hope that they can reach that far, that’s the real winner for me and something I’m really proud of.”
The Long Read is a series of exclusive feature-length interviews to be featured regularly in issues of our matchday programme, The Royal, this season.
Pick up your copy on a Madejski Stadium matchday for just £3!