We at Grapevine have a colourful international horde of writers, editors, and interns who’ll be covering the World Cup. Ahead of the tournament, we asked contributors from Iceland, England, Germany, Brazil and the United States to tell us what Iceland’s journey to the World Cup means to them. First up: John Rogers, Grapevine’s Managing Editor, and the voice of our #IcelandSmites Twitter commentary.
People around the world have been fascinated by Iceland’s unanticipated arrival on the world stage of football. The team’s success at Euro 2016 and their presence in this year’s World Cup has provoked bemusement, enjoyment and curiosity in overseas supporters and pundits. As a football-loving Englishman who made Iceland my home several years ago, this goes doubly for me.
There are many reasons for the noticeable swell of interest in the Icelandic game. For one, everyone loves an underdog—and Iceland is certainly that. People from countries that are a hundred or even a thousand times more populous than Iceland find it mind-boggling that such a sparsely populated place could field a world-beating eleven. Combined with stories of windblown practice fields on still-warm volcanic islands, and a manager who’s also a dentist… it’s just plain good fun to cheer on this improbable journey.
Then there’s the rise of awareness of Iceland in general. After producing some beloved and world-famous musicians, the Eyjafjallajökull eruption, the fabled jailing of the bankers, and the aggressive marketing of the island’s natural wonders, Iceland has become a dream destination for people all around the globe. Millions of visitors flood through each year, and most of them leaving with fond memories of the open lava fields, tiny villages, otherworldly glaciers and sweeping black beaches. The “brand” is strong with this one—so picking Iceland as an alternate team becomes easy.
Honest and impassioned
Iceland’s honest, impassioned, unpretentious playing style is also an anomaly. By contrast, people who watch matches every weekend have grown all too used to the downsides of the modern game. Supporters bemoan the pampered “footballer class” that’s seemingly removed from reality—permanent VIPs who haunt the tabloids in their blacked-out Jeeps and rich-person nightclubs. All the while, the supporters pay ever-inflating prices to witness stop-start form, constant injuries, and half-hearted performances showing frustrating psychological frailties.
Icelandic players, however, seem to be cut from a different cloth. They’re rugged, organised, impassioned and physical, and they defend and attack with a dogged, never-say-die determination. Iceland’s racing forward surges are often last-ditch counter-attacks after long periods of defending, provoking an almost feverish response from the crowd. When a 90th-minute goal somehow goes in from a long throw, even neutrals are left with their hearts in their mouths. It’s a style that comes as a welcome reminder of why we all started watching the game in the first place.
Finally, there are Iceland’s supporters. The team have become famous for celebrating with their fellow Icelanders, and especially for their inspired post-game chant, known as the “Viking clap.” Teams from bigger countries often have a torrid relationship with the fans, so it’s a beautiful thing to see Iceland’s players and supporters so completely unified, whether in victory or defeat.
These heartfelt celebrations are a moment of honest joy in the jaded modern game. And who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?
Viking-style portraits by Mink.