The success of the Icelandic national football team at Euro 2016 last summer was far from victimless. Roy Hodgson had to resign from his post as England manager and English fans were left with scars on their confidence that will probably never fully heal.
Another victim of the team’s famous campaign is the Icelandic national handball team. Most Grapevine readers probably have little clue what handball is. But here in Iceland, handball has long been considered our “national sport.” For the uninitiated, to cut a long story short, handball is water polo without the water.
Since our independence in 1944, handball has consistently been the only team sport in which we stood a reasonable chance of beating another nation. The greatest achievement of the handball team was winning a silver medal at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, where the mighty Icelandic team brushed aside great nations like Spain, Germany and Russia on their path to second-place glory.
In those days the Viking clap was nothing more than a particularly nasty STD. The Icelandic football team would regularly lose to the likes of Liechtenstein and Malta and we sat firm in 112th place in the Fifa ranking. But those days are long forgotten…
At the time of writing, the Icelandic handball team is competing at the handball World Cup in France. As recently as a year ago, this would have meant planes crowded with Iceland supporters intent on urging their team to become World Champions (or at least runners-up).
Instead, flights intended to get the supporters to France were cancelled, with the airline citing a lack of interest as the reason. It now looks like the opportunistic Icelanders feel they’ve bigger fish to fry on the football field than the handball court.
This reveals, of course, that Icelanders don’t really care which sport they watch, as long as there’s the promise of a large scalp they can hang above their mantlepiece when the final whistle is blown.
So in the end, it’s more about bragging rights than sporting glory. And, well: I’d be the first to admit that bragging to foreigners about Iceland’s handball achievements just wasn’t satisfying when met with the inevitable question: “What is handball?”