As an Englishman who decamped to Iceland permanently several years ago, the question of “but… why?” has been a fixture in almost every first-meeting conversation I’ve had in that time. I’ve developed a stock answer, accordingly: “You know what? I just really like the place. It makes me happy.”
Rarely has this answer proved satisfactory. People prod for a better one, asking whether there was some romantic interest involved, or whether I’d found work here. Sometimes, I’ll do an exploratory ramble, trying to satisfy them by talking about the warm and welcoming artistic community, walking out of the front door in the morning and being amongst the mountains and sea, the fresh air, the clean water, the pools, the people, the nightlife, the sense of space that individuals are afforded, the low crime, the lack of oppressive policing, or advertising, and the “clean”-feeling psychological environment. The answer is never tidy. It cannot be put simply—I have never successfully crystallised it, even to myself.
Howay the lads
But never has my motivation for moving here and my odd, instinctual, deeply felt allegiance to the place come under such scrutiny as during Euro 2016. This football tournament—and, specifically, the flashpoint of England vs. Iceland—created a national identity friction point that seemed to demand an answer.
Because football, for better or worse, runs in English blood. I’ve supported England since boyhood, and, as someone with a Geordie family, idolised players like Peter Beardsley, Paul Gascoigne and Alan Shearer (who I would, ironically, end up arguing with via the Grapevine’s Twitter account after the game). I watched England crash out of the Italia 1990 semi-finals with my heart in my mouth, and shed tears again when they lost in the semi-finals of Euro ’96.
But back then, the English game was different. The players didn’t seem like a privileged millionaire elite—they felt like “our lads.” They fought, they bled, they won and lost, they celebrated and cried alongside the supporters, and we knew as we watched in the living room, the pub, or on an outdoor screen, that they were with us, and we were with them.
Playing for the people
That’s no longer the case. For a complex menu of reasons, there’s a national identity crisis taking place in England. It’s been a long time coming. We don’t feel represented by our politicians, leading to both apathy and bitter internal division. We’re not sure of our place in the world—as illustrated by Brexit 1—and we live within the pervasive legacy of a heavily stratified class system culminating in an egregious North/South wealth divide. Unlike France, or many former English colonies, we never had a revolution or “declared independence” from our own objectionably hyper-privileged monarchy. And we sure as hell don’t feel represented by our sportsmen, who, for the most part, live the kind of showboating, blinging lifestyles that invite either jealousy or derision, depending on your point of view. As someone who never really “felt English” in the first place, it’s enough to finalise my personal Brexit.
So when the first whistle blew for the beginning of Iceland’s tournament, I knew right away where my heart lay. The spirit, togetherness, and ability of the Icelandic team has been spectacular. They play international football how it should be played. They play for the people of Iceland, because they are the people of Iceland.
And even as an English immigrant, I’m very proud to cheer them on.
Also read: Match Review: BREXIT2—The Smiting