June 29, 2016 / By Bryan Harris
Iceland’s fans come together to cheer on their team.
Before Iceland’s soccer team scored a monumental upset over England in the European Championships the other day, the last time this little island near the Arctic Circle sent shock waves throughout Europe, the volcano Eyjafjallajokull was blowing its top and spewing massive clouds of smoke and angst across the continent. Air travel was disrupted for days, stranding people on both sides of the Atlantic, and Iceland’s reputation as a remote, mysterious and volatile patch of land just a chip shot from Greenland was no doubt further enhanced.
This time around, however, the Icelandic eruption was metaphorical in nature and brought only joy to its inhabitants and other soccer fans around the world — with the notable exception of the star-crossed Brits, of course, who clearly have a lot more issues to deal with than rubbishy soccer these days.
For a nation of 330,000, or roughly one third the population of Rhode Island, assembling a soccer team that now sits in the quarterfinals of one of the world’s most competitive tournaments is almost hard to fathom. In some respects, it’s even more stunning than Leicester City’s bucking of 5000-1 odds to win England’s Premier League title this year. At least the underdog English side had a country of 53 million with a rich tradition of soccer, not to mention many other soccer mad nations around the world, from which to mine its talent.
So where and how do you find such an assemblage of world class soccer talent in Iceland?
Last summer, upon arriving in Iceland for the first time, I looked around and thought: this feels like another planet. Beautiful and breath-taking, like nothing I’d ever seen. But very different. Unfolding before me were vast plains of volcanic rock, its moist porous texture feeding the green (or sometimes brown) moss that oozed along its surface. As I took in more of this fantastical countryside over the coming days, with its waterfalls, geysers, glaciers and geothermal pools, it became clear that Iceland was a great place to breed squat little sheep and miniature horses, but not much else along its other-worldly terrain. It certainly did not appear to be fertile ground for world class soccer players. When there seems to be more sheep than people, and more volcanoes than soccer fields, what can you expect?
The volcanic plains of Iceland, not exactly suited for a game of soccer.
That being said, I was faintly aware at the time that Iceland was a bit of an outlier when it came to the world’s most popular sport. They did unexpectedly well in the qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, coming up just shy of earning a spot in Brazil. Toward the tail end of a long yet fascinating day trip to the western peninsula of Snaefellsnes, our highly knowledgeable and engaging tour guide spoke softly yet proudly about Iceland’s modest sporting triumphs. He cited the nation’s success in Olympic handball, a sport little known to Americans but highly popular in Europe. He went on to reference the men’s soccer team and its flirtation with the World Cup. All in all, it was an almost inconsequential part (to all but me, it seemed, as most others on the bus were dozing off) of his day-long lesson on the history, tradition, economy, politics, agronomy, folklore, literature, music and food of his native land. But this week, I imagine, he is expanding his discourse on sport in Iceland, and perhaps even moving it to the front end of the trip, when his listeners are more alert and curious about the unique qualities of this northern outpost. I would guess he’s even traded in his flannel shirt for the blue kit of the national squad.
When I returned from my trip, in addition to an acquired taste for Skyr yogurt, I began to play closer attention to Iceland’s quest to qualify for Euro 2016 and was delighted, if not shocked, when they managed to do so. As the tournament began, I adopted them as my team, as much a gesture of my newfound pull toward this captivating land as it was a wanting to root for the biggest of underdogs.
Am I stunned that Iceland has come this far in France, a run that included an almost impossible-to- believe last second goal to eliminate a very good Austria side and advance to the knockout round? Very surprised, but not completely shocked. After all, any country as small, isolated and seemingly under-resourced as Iceland that can even send a team to the starting gate of the Euros has something very special going for it. Whatever that something is — and it no doubt includes great coaching and administration – I believe it is born in part of an attitude built over centuries of surviving and thriving in one of the most remote corners of the world. Just a few days of roaming around one corner of Iceland, which did include a large sample size of its people, about 2/3 of who are squeezed into its port capital of Reykjavik, convinced me that these folk march to a different beat – one reflected in the confidence and perseverance of their team. They fall down 1-0 to England in the second minute of the match? No big deal. They score two minutes later and take control of the match? End result: Brexit, Part 2.
If you really want to grasp what this spirited run by Iceland’s soccer team means to its people, however, just listen to this deliriously happy call by an Icelandic announcer, Gunnar Benediktsson, during the frenzied final seconds of the match against Austria.
Iceland’s Announcer Shares Our Enthusiasm
Oh, it may seem highly unprofessional by our traditional standards of press box etiquette, but who cares? You may not understand a word he is saying, but how can you not appreciate the sound of pure, unbridled joy and excitement. It’s as if he is shouting for an entire nation whose psyche is being lifted after a long, dark, cold winter – a winter that has lasted a lifetime, for many.
Now, imagine if Iceland somehow defeats the host French on Sunday to advance to the semifinals? Those roars you’ll hear from the North Atlantic will send billowing clouds of exhilaration across the continent like some magical volcanic eruption that only the Norse gods could conjure up.