Category Archives: iceland

Iceland’s soccer referendum on England: Leave

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Dateline LONDON.

Now does not appear to be England’s finest hour. Apart from the obvious—the so-called Brexit vote to pull Great Britain out of the European Union, rattling the world’s financial markets and unleashing political chaos within the United Kingdom—there is the matter of football. (Soccer, to us Colonists.)

England is the Motherland of Soccer, the sport’s original superpower, and Monday’s staggering upset loss in the European Championships to historically insignificant Iceland has contributed to a sense of England’s fading global influence. The 2-1 loss to Iceland, just days after filing for divorce from the E.U., loosed a soul-searching anguish in a nation so long convinced, as Shakespeare wrote, that it was “the envy of less happier lands.”

“Less happy” would be an understatement for England’s general mood right now. Prime Minister David Cameron is resigning, his opposition party has declared an overwhelming lack of confidence in its own leader, European bigwigs are taking a good-riddance stance on the Brexit vote….and the soccer loss is being cast as a “disgrace” and “pathetic failure.” “Stiff upper lip” does not appear to apply.

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It happened that I arrived here for a brief holiday just in time to read the supremely self-assured pre-match analyses of the Iceland duel, with English fans—and especially English bettors—certain there was “no way,” an one pundit put it, “that a major footballing force like England should be losing to a country you could make disappear with a hairdryer in about four hours.”

Normally, I could work up a reasonable passion for England’s endeavors. This is a polite, civilized nation of diversity and gumption, the land of Churchill, the home of the Beatles, the team of David Beckham. But  Iceland’s rollicking advance into the Championships’ knockout round, against all odds—coinciding with My Fellow Americans’ semifinal loss in Copa America—had moved me to declare a week ago that Iceland is my new favorite team.

When the big game arrived Monday evening, we were strolling through Leicester Square in search of theatre tickets, while pubs overflowed with fans straining for a glimpse of TV sets inside. That included a pair of policemen, who informed my wife—not too long after kickoff—that Iceland had a one-goal lead.

Iceland! The tiny Nordic island with more volcanoes than professional soccer players! The smallest nation ever to qualify for a major soccer tournament! My new favorite team!

For the last 20 minutes of action, my daughter and I strained for a glimpse over jostling patrons, beers in hand, on the fringes of Philomena’s Irish Sports Bar and Kitchen in the Holborn district. The end left muttering fans dispersing into the night, and the next morning’s papers raged at the players’ bewildering lack of offensive pressure and English goalie Joe Hart’s “huge blunders” after he had gotten only his fingers on the decisive goal.

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English manager Roy Hodgson immediately fell on his sword, quitting in shame even faster than David Cameron had over the Brexit vote. There was much angst over England’s training deficiencies and the poor investments of the national soccer federation. “English coaching is rotten to the core,” one headline declared.

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Even some of the art at the Tate Britain gallery seemed to address England’s current misery. But, too, this is the home of Monty Python, and The Times of London showed the good humor to run a large feature headlined, “So we all want to be Icelandic now, ja?” Because, the piece pointed out (among other things):

—The men are beefcakes (citing “Game of Thrones” bad guy Gregor Clegane, who is played by Icelander Hafthor Bjornsson)…

—They have magnificent beards…

—Iceland is the third happiest country in the world, according to a U.N. survey (behind Switzerland and Denmark. (Take that, Bill Shakespeare.)

—Plus, the Times writer added, “Did I mention they’re good at football?”

Ja, and that’s my new favorite team. But I’m not worried about England. Churchill said, “If you are going through hell, keep going.”

 

My new favorite team

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Iceland has become my default position in this Summer of Soccer. Now that My Fellow Americans have been eliminated from Copa America, thrashed by world No. 1 Argentina in that major tournament’s semifinals, Iceland’s compelling—shocking—advance into the knockout round of the European championships has my full attention and rooting interest.

This hardly is a renunciation of citizenship. And certainly not a dismissal of the Yanks’ decided progress over the past generation, from Third World to Emerging Nation to legitimate international presence in the sport. While countless pundits in my chosen field of sports journalism continue to dismiss U.S. proficiency and—especially—U.S. fan interest in soccer, the Americans in fact are one of only seven nations to qualify for the past seven World Cups. (Only global powers Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy and Spain—plus Far East regional force South Korea—have equaled that.)

Furthermore, there hardly was shame in the Yanks’ 4-0 loss in the Copa semis to Argentina and its Messi-merizing superstar, five-time world player-of-the-year Lionel Messi. Despite the embarrassing admission recently by New York talk radio blowhard Mike Francesa—who claims to speak for mainstream U.S. fans—that he and his listeners never had heard of Messi or Copa America, a sizeable chunk of the populace long ago came to realize that there are few displays in sports to equal the cool, lyrical expertise of Messi and his mates.

Still, I must move on. And what better spectator value than a classic case of unexpected overachievement against great odds and established potentates? The Washington Post precisely summed up matters with a headline labeling Iceland “your new favorite team.”

More than the team, which never had qualified for a major soccer tournament in 23 previous tries and has levitated more than 100 spots in the sport’s world rankings over the last three years, is the appealing mash-up of Iceland’s distinct culture, geography, language and people.

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Of course it is ironic, as a native of the land that celebrates Christopher Columbus, to be discovering Iceland at this late date. Icelandic explorer Leif Eriksson found us first, 500 years before Columbus. Iceland also beat the United States to the punch by (at least) 36 years with a female head-of-state. In 1980, Vigdis Finnbogadottir became the world’s first democratically elected woman to the presidency, and served for 16 years.

Bezoek president IJsland, mevrouw Vigdis Finnbogadottir inspecteert met Koningin Beatrix erewacht op Rotterdam Airport *19 september 1985

Now, with its soccer team threatening to pass the Yanks in the world rankings—Iceland began the month No. 34, the U.S. No. 31—the only reasonable thing to do is get aboard the bandwagon and embrace an appreciation of the tiny Nordic Island, where everybody literally is known as someone’s son or daughter.

The traditional Icelandic system of naming children discards surnames with each generation. If I were Icelandic, for instance, I would not be John Jeansonne, taking my father’s family name, but John Fredsson—because my father’s given name was Fred. And my daughter would not be Jordan Jeansonne, but Jordan Johnsdottir. “John’s daughter.”

(The full name of Bjork—the singer-songwriter who possibly is the most widely known Icelander in the world—is Bjork Guomundsdottir.)

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Isolated up there at the juncture of the Norwegian Sea and Atlantic Ocean, just south of the Arctic Circle, and 1,000 times smaller than the United States in population, Iceland is easily (and logically) overlooked. At least until its national team pulls the rug out from under Hungary, Portugal and Austria with two ties and a win on the big stage of the European championships. Then, we begin to notice that roughly 10,000 of its folks, among a population of 330,000, are merrily chanting and wearing Viking helmets in the crowd in suburban Paris, while the players put on an a stirring show.

The country is so tiny—60 U.S. cities have larger populations than all of Iceland—that Iceland defender Karl Arnason considered the crowd in France and estimated that “I know probably 50 percent of them. Or at least recognize them. It’s like having your family at the game.”

The Iceland fans are “Tolfan,” which translates to “Twelve.” As in the “12th man” moniker famously adopted by U.S. football fans of the Seattle Seahawks and Texas A&M Aggies. Johann Olafur Sigurdsson, blogging for the Euro2016 Web site, declared upon Iceland’s conquest of Austria that “June 22 should be a national holiday from here on.” Exhibit A of that day’s outrageously unlikely success can be found on the Internet in the shrieking, enraptured (and unintelligible) reaction to Iceland’s last-second winning goal by Iceland broadcaster Guomundur (Gummi Ben) Benediktsson.

Tolfan refer affectionately to their players as Strakarnir Okkar—“Our Boys”—and American-born, Iceland-raised soccer pro Aron Johannsson recently offered a translation of the compliment “duglegur” that is being lavished on those Iceland lads.

“You know how, in the United States, you say ‘good job’ or ‘good boy’?” Johannsson was quoted. “In Iceland, we say, ‘Hard work! That was some hard work you did there!’” Duglegur!

At 8 p.m. Monday, local time in France, Iceland will play England—the nation that merely invented soccer—in Nice, for a ticket to the Euro quarterfinals. I’ve got to get hold of a Viking helmet to show some solidarity.

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