The spectacle of it—just outside the picturesque town of Ísafjörður in the West Fjords, there are hundreds of locals dressed up in Halloween style outfits covered in mud, shivering, drinking from large cans of beer in the rain. To pull up to this, passing a dozen teenagers limping and splattered with mud walking down the highway away from the event, I think at first there has been an accident, that something has gone horribly wrong.
This is Mýrarbolti, or Swamp Soccer, the phenomenon that has taken over the West Fjords during the holiday that the rest of Iceland dedicates to music, sing-alongs, and dating rituals that won’t be explained here.
I have returned this year to see how far Mýrarbolti has come. Three years ago, the event was the domain of a few maniacal souls, among them a leather pants-wearing, trash-talking guitar player and singer for the band Nine-Elevens. Three years ago, this gentleman, who looked and smelled as though he’d just left a ritual sacrifice, escorted me to a hilarious six-hour tournament of running in deep deep mud and drinking heavily.
Three years later, my old host lives with a modern dancer in the Netherlands. I think he smokes a tobacco pipe and wears a hat without irony. I’m told he even bathes in water instead of the blood of rams.
And three years later, I am told Mýrarbolti has changed. As I arranged to fly in for the event from Seattle, I am told this is now a three-day tournament. A worldwide phenomenon. When I say I’d love to get into a few games, I’m told this is nothing to take casually.
When I arrive, I am ushered to an hour-long organised presentation of the rules of Mýrarbolti, complete with Microsoft PowerPoint slides.
Standing among neatly-dressed, athletic Icelanders in a large ballroom at the Edinborg House before PowerPoint slides, I die a little on the inside.
I have travelled 3500 miles to support mayhem and madness. I’ve landed in what looks like a Microsoft morale event.
Then magic happens. Okay, liquor happens. From 9 PM to 4 AM, my Icelandic compatriots shed their facade.
I have the following conversation with my old goalie just before I leave to go to bed to get three hours sleep:
“You are here again. You are here for a fucking dirty party.”
“Yeah, I guess I am. Are you playing?”
“Hell yes. You are too. You are playing. You’re playing.”
“They said I should sit this out.”
“No. You’re playing. You are going to get dirty. It is a dirty weekend. Everybody is going to be dirty and horny. So fucking dirty!”
And so it goes.
All the buttoned-down planning is a show with limited correlation to the actual tournament. In fact, most of the people I meet at the pre-tournament party don’t get to Mýrarbolti itself. Even my editor reacts with “You’re seriously going out there?” when I leave a house party a few hours after sunrise.
Closing my eyes for sleep, hearing the screaming through the streets of Ísafjörður, I am positive of one thing: Mýrarbolti will always be exactly as it was on day one. Gloriously dirty and stupid. Ecstatic and subverbal. Bukowski said sex is like trying to climb a muddy hill. The Mýrarbolti tournament in Ísafjörður is custom made by people who deeply sympathise with that analogy.
I drive in early with a car full of Reykjavík natives who shake their heads at the sight. It is 8 degrees and raining and muddy.
There is, as I said, the spectacle. There are costumes, cheers, and mud. But walking from team to team, nobody has anything to say about Mýrarbolti as a sport other than “it is very very cold.” One man says he’ll feel better when he gets another beer and warms up, but as he is getting his beer, I am slammed into and covered with mud by a large, angry woman in a pink cape who is looking for Hilmar.
As I leave the Mýrarbolti tournament, a team of mini-skirted women is shouting “Are we men, or are we WOMEN!” and beginning their penalty phase—they have committed a foul and are now wearing black bags over their heads, charging at women in black tights, in the mud, before a cheering crowd of grandparents in rain gear.