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Birgir Baldvinsson takes on a Kentucky player during the Badgers' upset win.
September 26, 2023

Baldvinsson carries engineering, soccer pursuits from Iceland to Madison

Written By: Tom Ziemer


On a mid-August night, more than 4,000 miles from Madison, Birgir Baldvinsson felt the ire of nearly 17,000 Belgian soccer fans while playing in the biggest game of his life. The 22-year-old, representing his boyhood club from the northern fjords of Iceland, had managed to draw a foul against Club Brugge, one of the most storied teams in Belgium and a regular in the upper echelons of European men’s professional soccer.

“I almost got a headache, it was so loud,” Baldvinsson recalls, the memory a treasured souvenir from his final appearance—for now—with Knattspyrnufélag Akureyrar, a 5-1 defeat in the third qualifying round of the UEFA Europa Conference League. The tournament, two rungs below the glitzier UEFA Champions League, brings together clubs from all over Europe.

Two nights later, he was landing in Chicago and driving north to start his American adventure as a master’s student in industrial engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a member of the Badgers men’s soccer team.

Birgir Baldvinsson

And a few weeks after that, he was sitting in a classroom on the third floor of the Mechanical Engineering Building, listening to Professor Shiyu Zhou outline ISyE 510: Facilities Planning.

“It’s been an adventure for sure, coming to a new country,” says Baldvinsson, who was born and raised in Akureyri, a city of roughly 18,000. “I’m adjusting really well.”

Baldvinsson is part of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering’s accelerated master’s program in systems engineering and analytics; he’s particularly interested in applying optimization techniques and managing data. He earned his bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, balancing school and playing soccer in the Icelandic second division with a pair of clubs. Soccer in Iceland remains semiprofessional, with day jobs the norm for many players.

“I kind of have to grind in the evening, which is just something I’ve been doing for the past three, four years,” he says. “So I’ll just keep doing that. It probably won’t even change when I get older.”

When he started considering American college opportunities, he wanted a university that offered both high-level soccer and academics. It helped that he knew fellow Icelandic player Aron Eli Saevarsson (MSIE ’23), who started for two seasons at UW-Madison while pursuing the same graduate program. Not only do the two both play left back on the soccer field; Baldvinsson, it turns out, even took Saevarsson’s spot at his Icelandic club team (UMF Afturelding) when the latter came to Madison in 2021.

(After graduating, Saevarsson is now back in Iceland, working as a project manager at an engineering consultancy and captaining Afturelding toward promotion to Iceland’s top league.)

“Maybe he was biased, but he was saying he really loved being here and recommended it,” says Baldvinsson, who’s quickly bonded with teammates like roommate Eliot Popkewitz, a senior civil engineering major. “I think UW was the perfect match, because I also wanted to do good academics.”

Baldvinsson has also quickly settled in on the field, establishing himself as a starter at left back and playing 799 out of a possible 810 minutes for the Badgers, who have made a promising 4-2-3 start under second-year coach Neil Jones, including a 1-0 upset of then-second-ranked Kentucky on Sept. 1. Baldvinsson scored his first collegiate goal in UW’s comeback 2-2 tie against Northwestern on Sept. 19 in Madison.

He’s hoping it’s merely the start of a fruitful two-year stay in Madison that will net him a graduate degree and enhance his professional opportunities—on and off the soccer field.

“First and foremost, I really want to do well here with Wisconsin,” he says. “If you do well here, other opportunities will come.”

Photos courtesy of UW Athletics