Everyone loves an underdog. Luckily, every big sports tournament has at least one improbable team, the Cinderella who really shouldn’t be there by any laws of nature or logic, but is there anyway. For most, it’s a case of “just being nominated is the real victory,” but for some, the dream is a gift that just keeps giving.
Welcome to the story of Iceland at the UEFA Euro 2016 soccer tournament in France right now.
Iceland is the smallest country to qualify for a major soccer tournament in the history of ever – and they have quickly become everyone’s favorite team to cheer for.*
What does Iceland’s run at the Euro 2016 tournament tell us about the country? Let’s find out.
Iceland is a very small country.
It’s one thing to say it’s the smallest to ever be in a soccer tournament, but big numbers can be hard to grasp without context. So, here’s some context:
Being a small country means that every Icelander is pretty much expected to wear many hats. It goes with the (very small) territory. Case in point:
England manager is the highest paid manager ($4.6m a year) in Euros
Iceland manager is a part-time dentist. pic.twitter.com/4mbN7JhZdX
— Football Funnys (@FootballFunnys) 28 June 2016
Not only that, Iceland’s goalkeeper, Hannes Þór Halldórsson, is a director and left a full-time gig at a film studio in Iceland in order to play in the tournament. He was behind the video for his country’s entry into the wildly weird Eurovision Song Contest in 2012:
The studio says they’re holding Halldórsson’s spot for him, should he want to return to work after the tournament is over.
So, how did such a tiny nation manage to put together a team good enough to beat England? Simple:
Icelanders are tough.
The weather in Iceland is such that playing on outdoor soccer fields is impossible most of the year.
In 1998, the Icelandic team’s training ground was inside a building primarily used for horse shows.
“We were playing on gravel, in horse s—, all that,” says Gunnleifur Gunnleifsson, an Icelandic goalkeeper. “It was just once or twice a week. And when we weren’t there, the horses would come in.”
Two years later, the country opened its first indoor soccer field. Today, there are 30 such facilities.
Don’t think that has made Icelanders soft, however. Here, for instance, are some average Icelanders headed to the beach in summer.
(At least that’s what we can assume is happening, right? I mean, why else would they be wearing bikinis in the snow? Unless they’re just seriously hardcore? Except for the guy in the back. Maybe he’s English?)
Icelanders are proud.
During the early games, the commentators for the tournament were fond of saying that more than 8% of Iceland’s population was in France to watch their team play. That amounted to something like 27,000 people, which – if you apply those same numbers to the United States – would mean more than 25 million Americans traveling to watch their national team play.
Unheard of. Unreal.
“It’s like having your family at the game,” Iceland defender Kari Árnason said. “I know probably 50 percent of the crowd – or at least recognize them!”
No one who isn’t Icelandic (or strangely proud of being able to pronounce the name of That Volcano) can speak the language, but you don’t have to understand a word of Icelandic to completely understand the unbridled, unexpected elation that this commentator feels as he watches his team win.
— salim baungally (@salimbaungally) 27 June 2016
And hey, if it’s not enough to just hear him, you can watch his excitement, too:
— FUMS (@fums_magazin) 23 June 2016
How can you not cheer right along with him? Or scream, or wail, or whatever it is that he’s doing?
It’s hard to imagine that many of the Icelandic supporters who booked trips to France, painted their faces with the national flag, donned Viking helmets, and stood to chant and clap for their boys in blue thought they would win a single game in this tournament. I’d be surprised if you could have found more than a handful of folks who, prior to the start of the first game, would have thought the team could get out of the group stage.
And that didn’t stop a single one of them from showing up in droves to support Iceland at the Euro 2016 tournament.
They’ve been cheering for their team for a good long time now, and – finally – the world is watching. We’re all rooting for Iceland now, if only so that we, too, can feel a part of arguably the coolest moment of the Euro 2016 tournament thus far:
Watch out, France. The Vikings are coming. And now they’ve got the support of the world behind them.
* Or at least second-favorite, if you happen to be a European whose country is also playing in the tournament. Unless, that is, you’re England, in which case you might well have been cheering for Iceland by the end of Monday’s game, too.
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