With the new season having already begun, the summer’s Euros in France are slowly starting to fade. Except, perhaps if you are Portuguese. Or Icelandic.
When the final qualifiers were all put into the draw, debutants Iceland were seen as one of the tournament’s teams to watch. Yet not that long ago they were comfortably among the whipping boys. So much so that when a weak Germany side drew 0-0 in Reykjavík in a Euro qualifier in 2003, German coach Rudi Völler was criticised on live television – prompting him into making an infamous rant and laying into interviewer Waldemar Hartmann.
Roll forward sixteen years, and Iceland were in a major tournament for the first time. After a month of competition, they had made their mark. It remains to be seen just how far this development will continue, but following their quarter-final exit to hosts France they departed as everybody’s second-favourite team.
Well, unless your name was Cristiano Ronaldo.
Iceland’s ascent is all the more surprising when you look at not only the country’s football history, but the size of its population and the conditions its players have to put up with. Iceland has a population of just over 320,000 – that’s around four Wembley stadiums. Until recently, players had to play on weather-beaten pitches, battling rain, snow and fierce Atlantic winds.
Years of focused development has changed all that. Top coaches were brought in, special indoor facilities built, and young Icelandic kids were able to hone their skills in far more comfortable conditions than the generations before them. It was not warmth and comfort, however. Matches still had to be played outdoors, often in conditions that would make pampered superstars squirm.
The net result was that Icelandic players were able to train more intensively and improve their skills, but also retain a toughness that has made them competitive.
Iceland beat a number of good teams in making their way to the Euros. The Czech Republic, Turkey, and perhaps the most iconic – The Netherlands. There was no luck involved. Sticking to the basics, the team – co-coached by Swedish legend Lars Lagerbäck and local dentist Heimir Hallgrímsson – first beat the Dutch at Reykjavík’s compact Laugardalsvöllur ground before repeating the trick in Amsterdam.
It was the first time the fabled Oranje had been beaten both home and away by any team in international qualification competition, and when the final tallies were drawn up the Dutch found themselves languishing in fourth place – missing out on a premier tournament for the first time since the World Cup in 1986.
It is fair to argue that their fans would have preferred to have their teeth extracted by Mr. Hallgrímsson.
Rough around the edges
The Icelandic football team is much like the country. Rough around the edges, harsh and barren, but beautiful. The football that was played in France may not have been admired by the purists, but there was something mesmeric and compelling about it. It was beautiful, but in a completely different way. A team of Vikings playing their own way, and fans who brought their own special something to the stadiums in France.
You could not fail to root for them, in much the same way as one is immediately drawn to the waterfall at Gullfoss, the spectacular geysers, and natural volcanic springs.
I had always had a soft spot for Iceland, but truly fell in love with the country during a visit the year before the Euros. From the bright traditional houses to the imposing Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavík just had something special about it. Heading out of the city towards the interior, it felt like one was driving through Middle Earth.
A journey from the gentle Shire, past the deep mines of Moria and on towards the raging fires of Mordor.
Nearly everybody caught the Icelandic bug during the tournament, but I had started out with them as my second team. Their opening encounter with Portugal got them on the wrong side of Mr. Ronaldo and their hopes were seemingly dashed after conceding a last-gasp equaliser against Hungary, leaving them needing to avoid defeat in their final match against Austria.
Having missed out on Germany’s group matches, I immediately headed to the UEFA ticket portal. If I could not see the Mannschaft in action, I would become an Iceland fan for the day. Luckily there were a few tickets remaining. With the ticket reserved and my flight booked, I was off to the Stade de France.
After dropping my stuff at my hotel in the Paris suburbs, I took the suburban train back into the city to pick up my ticket at the Stade de France. When I arrived, there were more security staff and police than football supporters. Recent events in the city had changed the outward face of the tournament as a spectator; it was no longer a gentle walk to the stadium, but one defined by security cordons and bag checks.
Having planned in advance by arriving early, I was able to breeze past the police cordon after a simple pat-down. Having picked up my ticket, I headed to a small restaurant just outside the stadium area, where the atmosphere had slowly started to build. The majority were Austrian fans clad in red and white, but I soon began to see people in blue and white.
In tune with my decision to be an Iceland supporter for the day, I wore a t-shirt I had bought in Reykjavík – a simple affair that simply said ég tala ekki íslensku – “I do not speak Icelandic” in Icelandic. An Icelandic ice-breaker, as it would later turn out.
The Icelandic people are proud of their language, but unlike some they are happily able to blend this with an unique sense of humour. You can buy this same t-shirt from a website called idontspeakicelandic.com, as well as others that can help you pronounce the name of the unpronounceable volcano Eyjafjallajökull.
I made my way into the stadium, getting knowing looks and nods of acknowledgement from the folks in blue. Having taken my seat in the ground, I was soon chatting like old friends with a small group of them about the team’s hopes, and the situation in the group table. The general feeling was that the Austrians surely had to produce something after poor showings against Hungary and Portugal, but confidence was high.
As the ground filled up, the PA system in the ground started to play the Ferðalok, a traditional Icelandic song that over the years had been adopted by the country’s football fans. Unlike your usual tub-thumper, Ferðalok, or Ég er kominn Heim (“I am home”), is a melodious piece that can easily capture the soul – especially when it is sung in unison and in key.
Having heard the song before Iceland’s previous match against Hungary I had looked up the words, but nothing was quite like being there in that crowd. One could feel the obvious sense of emotion; I found myself more than slightly overwhelmed. Then came the Icelandic national anthem, Lofsöngur (“Song of Praise”), which was beautifully sung by everybody around me in a blue shirt.
After the match kicked off, I was given a very quick crash course in Icelandic football chants. Of course, the basic Ísland! (pronounced “Ees-land”) was easy, along with Áfram Ísland! (“go Iceland!”). Then there was the “Viking clap”. Oh yes. The Viking clap. The Icelandic supporters were fantastic, the perfect antidote to the actions of Russian and English “fans” in France.
Yes, I was right in with these guys now. The atmosphere was great, and it would get even better when Iceland took the lead through Jón Daði Böðvarsson after eighteen minutes. It might have already been 1-0 after Jóhann Guðmundsson and Gylfi Sigurðsson had both hit woodwork, but nobody was complaining about that now. It was a sea of delirious blue and white.
Iceland needed a draw to progress, but a win? That would have been phenomenal.
The Austrians had plenty of work to do, and after going behind the men in red started to dominate the possession and create opportunities, the best of which would come in the 38th minute. When David Alaba was fouled in the box, Austria finally had their chance to get off the mark from the penalty spot. Aleksandar Dragović stepped up, and hit the post.
Cue more delirious cheers, pumping fists and shouts of Afram Island! from the blue-shirted guys around me, including one who sounded like an Englishman as he shouted at the referee.
Austria started the second half as they had ended the first, and finally got their reward on the hour mark. Having come on off the bench, Schalke 04’s Alessandro Schöpf found the back of the Icelandic net with a sharp finish. There was a dip in the atmosphere, with people checking what was going on in the other match between Hungary and Portugal – where the goals were flying in from both sides.
The Hungarians were already through, but a point for Portugal and a defeat for Iceland would have been enough to turn what was all set to be a day of glory completely on its head. A win, and they could finish top. A defeat, and they would almost certainly be out. It was that close.
As it stood, at 1-1 Iceland were still very much in it.
Austria continued to press, and it was clear that the nerves around me were starting to fray. The shouts intensified, as I joined in willing the defence to keep their shape. An Alaba free-kick was turned over the bar by Iceland goalkeeper Hannes Þór Halldórsson, whose previous claim to fame had been directing the video for the country’s entry in the 2012 Eurovision song contest. You couldn’t make it up.
Try as they might, the Austrians couldn’t find a way through, and as they threw everybody forward were caught by the ultimate sucker punch. Iceland countered with pace, and Arnór Ingvi Traustason sent the fans into seventh heaven. There was a massive roar and another blue blur as the place erupted around me.
A bit like Eyjafjallajökull.
As the dejected Austrian supporters started to filter out of the stadium, I stayed back with the Icelandic fans to watch the team do a circuit of the ground, taking in the applause before setting off another rendition of the Viking clap.
It was, arguably, the greatest day in Iceland’s footballing history – and I was there to see it. Having started the tournament as rank outsiders, the debutants had made their way into the last sixteen.
After that, it would get better still. A 2-1 win against England sent Iceland into the quarter-finals, sending the entire country into delirium. It is possible to believe that every one of the country’s 320,000 population were out on the streets. The dream would end with a valiant display against hosts France, but history had been made.
Iceland had made their mark on world football, and we will surely see more from them. Their Euro 2016 journey for both the team and their wonderful supporters was phenomenal, and I am pleased to have been part of it.