“I try to attend all games, it doesn’t matter who they are playing. You see, this place is my second home and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world,” an elderly man tells me as we stand next to the football field in Frostaskjól, watching a game in the women’s champions league. Referring to the Reykjavík F.C., or KR as it is usually called, he tells me that he has been a member since 1934 and that, although his age prevents him from kicking some opponents asses, it doesn’t stop him from cheering his team week after week in Vesturbær.
“Can you imagine anything better than this neighbourhood? Anything greater than this team? Are you from Vesturbærinn by the way?” he asks.
– Well no.
“Too bad for you,” he adds as he turns away to chat with his local friends.
Yes, too bad indeed. Within the Vesturbær postcode of 107 there’s something unique to be found about the people. Much like a religious group, they are devoted to a team of football players rather than a single leader. So proud are they of their neighbourhood and their sports-related pseudo-religious beliefs that when they talk about the area it sounds like some paradise isolated from other parts of the universe. And, truthfully, they have every reason to be so happy.
Being one of the oldest and most well-established neighbourhoods in the city, with one of the oldest and biggest sport clubs in the country, some call Vesturbær the only true Icelandic empire while others hate the grass they walk on. Vesturbær has all that is needed for the community’s daily self-sufficiency: four elementary schools, the University of Iceland, the Vesturbæjarlaug swimming pool, the grocery store Melabúðin, classy restaurant Grillið, Háskólabíó cinema, Neskirkjan church, the scouting society Ægisbúar and even a local pub, Rauða ljónið, where KR supporters gather for beer after the game. It is a neighbourhood known for its charm and quiet, family-friendly atmosphere, old and solid houses, student dormitories and newly renovated apartment buildings. It is an area frequently turned to for housing by immigrants wanting to start a family in a safe environment. At the same time, when the mood for partying strikes, the noisier city centre is only a few minutes’ walk away.
The locals are also usually very cool folks. They are nice people, especially if you catch them after a victory at their stadium in Frostaskjól, where the heart of the western part of Reykjavík beats. The sports club rules its kingdom, gluing the Vesturbær locals together with collective pride in a team they call their own, whether residents can kick a ball or not. For kids, being from the west side means something. Rivals are… everyone else. Those feelings don’t change upon finding oneself all grown up, dressed in fancy suits with business cards that read bank president or Idol judge. All those titles will mean is better seats to games than the rest of the crowd.
The one thing that will always unite all Vesturbær’s residents, and KR fanatics in particular, is a loyalty to their team and neighbourhood. They’re like Liverpool fans; they stick with their players whether they suck or not.
“Either you are with KR or you are against it” I heard repeatedly when I spent a day there. The sentiment is as black and white as their traditional colours.
The KR sports club was founded in 1899 by a couple of enthusiastic youngsters who wanted to play football together. A lot has changed since then and a sparse coalition of friends has turned into a large company counting 2,210 members in various divisions with a devoted fan club of 600 people and Bubbi Morthens as their premier songwriter. Where once was a wet and grassless area, now an impressive gym dominates the surroundings and the KR stadium stands as a centrepiece. Although initially founded as a football club, all kinds of sports are practised under the same flag: badminton, basketball, bowling, handball, table-tennis, skiing, swimming, chess and wrestling, with training facilities located in many places in Vesturbær.
“The place wakes up at eight o’clock in the morning and usually doesn’t calm down before eleven o’clock at night.” Stefán Arnarson, the sports representative of KR, tells me while guiding me around the building. I pass some nine year olds who are too busy shooting baskets to notice my presence, while outside a group of girls the same age are practising their football skills.
“Here kids learn discipline; the club has immensely positive effects on them as they are less likely to start drinking, smoking and using drugs. We are doing an important job, which could be better appreciated by local authorities. If we are going to achieve something greater in the future we need more money,” Arnarson says.
That is a dilemma all Icelandic sports clubs are facing. Here, they practise sports at the amateur level, teammates don’t get the big bucks for practising their sport and the coaches aren’t earning any super salaries either. Each member has to pay annual fees, the clubs get the same amount each year, but now those fees are becoming too expensive for some families. In the end, the clubs don’t make a fraction of what is needed to improve their facilities. Although the clubs get funding from the city and the majority agrees on their importance, it is far from being enough. With donations from loyal fans and by collecting cans or selling pancakes, for example, clubs are trying to make ends meet. The lack of value the local authorities place on the functions of the clubs has been disappointing all around.
After school lets out, the sports clubs are second homes to kids until their parents come to pick them up. Today, KR is a healthy hangout for kids in the neighbourhood. KR, besides having a traditional training program, also cooperates with the primary schools in Vesturbær. It has its own radio station, houses the music school Do-Re-Mí and operates as a community centre for teenagers. Here, active youngsters are not only able to get fit in a country growing fatter by the second, but are able to learn teamwork and build friendships. It is a community in its own right, helping to rear Icelandic youth. This is true of sports clubs throughout Iceland.
I realised that the club is just one big family: everyone knows each other by name and the coaches serve as role models for the youth with whom they interact. The staff is all former teammates; their kids practise various sports and continue their duties by working for the club after practise. KR families raise money by selling all kinds of goodies; grandparents come to the stadium to support the players while forming strong ties with generations of other KR folk.
“The bond you make with the team is impenetrable. I have been a KR-ingur from 1937. I started playing football when I was seven and later worked as a coach at when my kids started training. Now my grandkids are becoming members,” a man sitting with a group of senior citizens tells me. He sums up the sentiments I had been hearing all day. In a corner of the community centre dedicated to Þórólfur Beck, one of the best players KR has raised, the group relaxes with a cup of coffee before their daily walk around the neighbourhood.
“I was once asked if I was a member of a cult. I answered, ‘Yes, I’m in KR,’” the man continues and the group nods in agreement.
“Once in KR, always in KR,” his seatmate adds.
“It’s the best company a man can ask for.”
When the conversation switched to a recent game in the Icelandic Cup in which KR played against Þróttur in the semi-finals I said my goodbyes.
“It wasn’t luck, we were just that much better,” I hear in the distance, a comment everyone in the nearby area would agree upon. As for the rest of the city, I’m not so sure. The undeniable fact is that nothing will stop this community from growing or cause its loyalty to fade.