How Hilmar Leon Jakobsen went from handball star to international striker in months

By Michael YokhinBBC Sport
Hilmar Leon Jakobsen in action
Hilmar Leon Jakobsen (number 22) made his Faroe Islands debut in a friendly against Lithuania

When Hilmar Leon Jakobsen started 2020 as a Faroe Islands handball national team player, he could not have imagined he would end it representing his country at football.

The Covid-19 pandemic has influenced the lives of billions of people around the world. In Jakobsen's case, it led to a change of career.

"I have always wanted to be a footballer but doctors advised me to stop at the age of 17 because I had to undergo an operation on my hip," says Jakobsen, now 23.

"They said playing handball would be better for my health. That was extremely disappointing at the time."

Jakobsen was considered one of the best footballers in his age group as a youngster, and even made his First Division debut for HB Torshavn as a 16-year-old in 2013.

He used to play in midfield, and Steven Gerrard was one of his favourite footballers, which was a natural choice for a Liverpool fan. "I aspired to have a professional career abroad as a footballer but had to abandon that dream and switch to handball," Jakobsen remembers.

He turned out to be very good in the other sport as well. "I joined H71, who are the best club in the Faroe Islands, represented the under-20 national team, and was later called into the senior national team," Jakobsen says.

Left-footed on the football pitch, he is right-handed on the handball court. "I started playing on the left wing and then was converted into a left-back," he says.

Whatever the position, the results were magnificent: "I won three championship titles and two national cups with H71. I was fully focused on handball and didn't dare to think of football again."

Hilmar Leon Jakobsen celebrates handball success
Jakobsen says his handball team-mates understand his decision

In January, Jakobsen took part in the World Cup qualifiers, but then the pandemic struck and handball activities were stopped.

"In those circumstances, I decided to play football a bit with the reserve team of HB, in order to stay fit. I scored twice on my debut and then suddenly the head coach got in touch with me," Jakobsen recalls.

Jens Berthel Askou, the former Norwich City defender who is now in charge of HB, wanted Jakobsen to join the senior squad. "Initially, I refused because it seemed like a bad idea, but then I thought about it for a while and changed my mind," Jakobsen says.

That was the decision that changed his life completely.

The Faroe Islands Premier League was well under way at the time, yet Jakobsen was immediately thrown into the starting line-up as a centre-forward. "I never played in that position before as a youngster but the coach thought I should be used in the penalty area," he says.

Askou was right. Jakobsen scored in three consecutive matches in July and was even more prolific in the autumn, finding the net in five games in a row. He contributed 12 goals and five assists in just 17 fixtures, helping the team to win the title comfortably.

In 2019, he won the double in handball with H71. In 2020, he was a champion in football too.

Last Saturday, the team celebrated the triumph after a 1-1 draw at KI, when Jakobsen received some breathtaking news.

Hilmar Leon Jakobsen in handball action
When Hilmar Leon Jakobsen played handball for the Faroe Islands in the World Cup qualifiers

"The coach entered the dressing room, asked everyone to be quiet and announced that I had been called up for the national team. That was quite amazing. My team-mates were jubilant and poured a bottle of champagne on my head," Jakobsen says.

In January, he faced Lithuania as a handball player. On Wednesday, he played against the same nation, but in a different sport. The coach, Hakan Ericsson, used Jakobsen for the full 90 minutes, signalling that he could be the Faroe Islands' new target man.

"This is definitely the best year of my life," he says. "Suddenly, I am a footballer again, winning titles and representing my country in my favourite sport. Liverpool won the title in England too, which makes it even better. I wasn't born when they did it in 1990.

"From now on, I am fully dedicated to football. My handball team-mates might have been a bit sad to see me go, but they fully support me and understand.

"As for my new team-mates at HB, I have known some of them from the youth teams. They can't stop laughing when they think of what happened to me this year.

"Now, the target is to play abroad. That's what I wanted as a kid and I can think about it again. Maybe I would be able to move to Denmark, Sweden or Norway, and go to an even bigger league from there.

"Who knows? Life is full of surprises."

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