Could a Faroese club really advance to the Europa League group stages? Or will Irish champions Dundalk secure their only second-ever tilt at the European group stages?
Both equally unlikely scenarios but one will happen his evening.
Clearly the bigger fairytale would see KI (Klaksvíkar Ítróttarfelag) progress, but equally for Dundalk, arguably Ireland’s most successful club in European competition, it’s a huge deal.
The Lilywhites have been forced to move the game away from their basic Oriel Park stadium to the Aviva in Dublin, quite the most spectacular arena KI will have ever played in.
There will, unfortunately, be no fans present at the 52,000 capacity venue. KI are more used to playing home games in their little 2,600 capacity (524 seats) Vio Djupumyrar stadium.
The Faroese from the small fishing town of Klaksvik (pop. 5117), the nation’s second town after Torshavn the capital, had a lucky break in the 1st Qualifying Round of the Champions League, when Slovan Bratislava were forced to forfeit due to players testing positive for Covid-19.
They lost 1-3 to Young Boys Berne in the next round sending KI into the Europa League qualifiers. But this is where the fairytale really began to take hold. Not many would have given them a chance over once-mighty Dynamo Tibilisi, playing in its 100th European tie.
But KI demolished the Georgians 6-1, a result that had the rest of Europe rub its eyes in disbelief.
So clearly this will be no pushover for Dundalk, who because of home advantage and the fact they were over this same course four seasons ago, are installed as favourites to prevail.
There’s a huge €2.9m windfall minimum, for this evening’s winners, an amount that would sustain either of the protagonists for a few seasons. To add perspective, KI’s annual budget is about €1.1m.
Several of Klaksvik’s first-team hail from the small football-daft town, but there’s a foreign legion too, as others hail from Denmark, Montenegro, Slovenia, Serbia, Poland and Norway. There’s also Abubakar Aliyu Ibrahim, a five times capped Nigerian international.
It’s recognized as the fishing capital of the Faroes and production rates in the local fish factory tend to fluctuate dependent on how their team performs each weekend.
Unsurprisingly there is unprecedented excitement in the town around this evening’s big game.
“You meet people on the street everywhere, when you go for a walk, and everyone is talking about football,” says team captain Jakup Biskopsto Andreasen. “People here are very excited about seeing their team making an effort to get into the group stage.”
Last season as they jousted with B36 in a title decider all roads led to Torshavn. Klaksvik emptied, as around 3,500 travelled to the capital for the game.
For Dundalk the season so far has not been one of plain sailing, even allowing for the inevitable Covid disruptions. Despite an efficient start to their title defence, form soon dipped and manager Vinnie Perch was fired following an inglorious Champions League exit at the hands of Cejle (Slovenia).
Now new head coach, Italian Filippo Giovagnoli stands 90 minutes away from becoming the third manager to take an Irish club into the group stages of European competition, after Michael O’Neill and Stephen Kenny.
Says Giovagnoli, “KI are a dangerous team. They don’t need control of the game and don’t need possession. They play a certain way and we have prepared for that. I am sure that we are going to perform to a high level.
“The focus is on the club and it presents us with an amazing opportunity. It’s about the club and the players and what can happen. It’s for the entire football nation in Ireland. It’s important for everybody.
“This game is a final. You can say so many things but this is a final. When you are in a final, you deserve to be there, it is important to them [KI] and important to us. We are here now and we want to get to the group stages.”
It’s a huge opportunity for both clubs. Whichever wins, victory is likely to introduce a financial gap between themselves and the rest of their domestic opposition.
Neither will want to miss out on the comparative riches available, but Dundalk’s experience and home surroundings should tip the balance in favour of the Irish, even if inspirational captain Chris Shields is missing. Shields, scorer of the winning penalty in the last round at Sheriff Tiraspol, is serving suspension after collecting three yellow cards.