Iceland’s Long Trek to the World Cup – A Tale of the Nordic Nerve

Even with Iceland’s elimination from their maiden World Cup, their tale of fearless Viking vigour rising up from the ashes of past anonymity has been the talk of world football, very deservedly.

“An earthquake, 4.2 on Richter, shook the earth in Vatnajokull glacier last night. The might of the glacier continues to be felt and and there are indications that an eruption could come soon. A condition of uncertainty has been declared.”

— Narrator, Jökullinn Logar, directed by Saevar Gudmundsson

The 2016 documentary showcasing a little island’s unimaginable jaunt to reach the UEFA Euro 2016 finals drew parallels with the harsh climate and topography of the nation, very aptly named, Iceland. And why shouldn’t it? From the nation’s capital, Reykjavik to a small town with just 18,000 people in Akureyri, the scenario is the same —  snow-covered roads, uninhabitable stretches of land, fields of gravel and a constant windchill which sustains itself in single Fahrenheit digits for about three-fourths of a year.

The rumble caused by the daunting spirit of a meagre 330,000 people and just hundreds of footballing professionals in the summer of 2016 has maintained its aftershock, charting a course to the largest country in the world in order to participate in the largest arena of football, the FIFA World Cup, for the first time. This impending sense of eruption, even after their exit, associated with Iceland’s might and togetherness joins a narrative having a dentist, indoor stadiums, powerpoint presentations, the Eurovision Song Contest and a Viking Clap, still reverberating in many English ears, together.

The World Cup in Russia is in full swing, with own goals and screamers from outside of the box the usual protagonists. Amidst all of that though, disappointments have held a place of their own, most recently in Iceland’s defeat to a well-structured Croatia, who topped the group thanks to a well placed Ivan Perisic’s left-footed strike.

Going into the game, Iceland didn’t lose hope because they don’t do pessimism. When Ahmed Musa obliterated a defence with Saevarsson, a salt factory worker whilst impersonating a road runner, he set the stage for Iceland to go through to the knockout stages in dramatic fashion — by defeating the same nation that impeded their trip to Brazil five years back in the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualification stages. Iceland accepted the challenge and took the defeat to their chin, because for a team ranked 133 in the world just six years ago, Iceland, now number 22, since the days of losing to Lichtenstein and being known only as home to Eidur Gudjohnsen. Come to think of it, a nation with the same population as Coventry losing to the Croatian Golden Generation by just a goal at their first ever FIFA World Cup is nothing short of an achievement. Now the question arises, how?

The answer lies in a national push to promote the sport from the break of the 21st century, encouraging new talent by properly accrediting more coaches and the building of indoor football grounds across the country. Seven major artificial grounds were constructed along with 200 smaller all-weather pitches, so boys and girls of all age groups didn’t have to suffer the ordeal of practising outside in minus 10 degrees or have playable pitches for just three months in a year. With more UEFA licensed and subsidised coaches, one per 550 Icelanders, football became installed as a culture which gave birth to the maturation of a core group of players post 2010, in the likes of captain Aron Gunnarsson, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Johann Berg Gudmundsson and Alfred Finnbogason.

Even after the financial crisis in 2008, the development of the nationwide system never faltered. It slowly made strides for the world to know their identity, which revolves around values deeply ingrained in a society of a small country — concentrating on the collective “us” rather than the individual “I”. For people who have carved out their own existence and destiny in a land which hardly seems habitable even without the countless volcanic eruptions and numerous Viking raids in their history, triumphing in the challenge of destabilising the footballing hierarchy hardly seems disconcerting.

But what shaped and guided the golden generation to be who they are, and become a beacon of optimism even for their president, Gudni Thorlacius Johannesson? The answer lies in who, not what.

“Success is not a destination. The rise and fall of Icelandic football is not connected to what happens in Russia in three games. It’s a continuous journey, which is why we would like to keep the momentum and understand that it’s not just this game or the next tournament. That’s the only way you can think when you’re an underdog.”

— Heimir Hallgrimsson

 

The disciplined approach to Iceland’s game was introduced in tandem with their characteristic resilience with the moment Lars Lagerback stepped through the door back in 2011 along with his assistant, Heimir Hallgrimsson. With their tactical nous installed in the team by early 2013 — a tight defensive team hitting on the counter attacks – the dormancy of the volcano that is Icelandic football began to change.

Iceland’s long trek (dawn). Art by Revant Dasgupta.

The duo’s contribution lies in the miracle of abolishing the mental block that every Icelander has suffered for years; the uphill battle of unifying the squad of unknowns, including film director, Hannes Halldorsson previously known for directing a music video of Iceland’s Eurovision Song Contest entry of “Never Forget” by Greta Salome and Jonsi. With the upsurge of ambitions in the camp soon after their failure to qualify for 2014 FIFA World Cup, Halldorsson even turned professional at the late blooming age of 29, thanks to which he has now saved Lionel Messi’s spotkick from twelve yards in Iceland’s first-ever World Cup appearance.

After the success story in France in 2016, when Lars Lagerback left to manage Norway, the entire responsibility of continuing the upward trek fell onto the shoulders of Heimir, who assumed the role of full-time manager from being joint-manager before. But it didn’t prove to unnerve the 51-year-old manager who has been handling the dreams of thousands because he tends to believe. He believes in the unwritten narrative of the underdog and in the virtue of being an optimist, something that he has been ever since his town survived the Eldfell eruption in 1973. Even at the helm of the greatest-ever Iceland football team in history, he still follows through with his dentistry while many others opt for shooting ptarmigans or playing golf.

That an uncomplicated man like him employs tactics that are equally simple doesn’t come as a surprise. From powerpoint presentations for sales conferences of team meetings to training sessions to humiliate the goalkeeper in a sporting manner to making new players sing in front of the entire squad — these uncommon techniques better unify the team who then reward him by playing without pretension. Hallgrimsson also made monumental strides by making a pub in Reykjavik, Sportbarinn Olver, his personal pilgrimage to connect with the fans, be it five or five hundred, thus successfully integrating the game with the people of the nation.

From tactical breakdowns among the common folk to the thunderclap sensation that has gripped the footballing world, this is the journey of a single man which remains of equal magnitude as Gylfi Sigurdsson’s goals in the qualifying stages for the World Cup last year. Talking about the possibility of beating Croatia and the seemingly boundless optimism of the tiny Nordic nation, he outlined the same Icelandic spirit that he has been a part of instilling, by saying, “If it’s Eurovision, we always think we’re going to win it. It’s the same here, even if we lose, we think we’re going to win the next one.” Unfortunately, they lost, but the tears in Rostov Arena told a simultaneous story apart from sadness — that of pride in their nation, and of hope.

This very ethos of the 330,000 people in Iceland makes them a story worth reading out loud in the same breath as Aesop’s Fables — a story of love, of grit, of determination, of passion and, of fearlessness. That is how they managed to upset teams like Portugal and Argentina in a space of two years, and how they have devised a way to trump higher powers that countries even a hundred times its size haven’t.

“There is a volcanic eruption in Vatnajokull. The great powers lurking under Europe’s biggest glacier are making themselves felt. The eruption is very powerful and the whole world has felt the presence of little Iceland.”

— Narrator, Jökullinn Logar, directed by Saevar Gudmundsson

 

Even though they were eliminated a few nights ago, their story of erupting after eras of dormancy will remain with the tournament. Because of the unwavering fortitude with which they will surely welcome their team at Keflavik International Airport at Reykjavik for making the first mark in their history books for the progeny.

Iceland serves as a reminder that the international game still holds importance in the current scenario revolving around the multi-dollar clubs, and how World Cup manages to invoke pride in one’s flag through such a story. The Panama supporters’ glee and ecstasy after witnessing their captain, Felipe Baloy beat Jordan Pickford in a lost cause of a match would surely confirm the aforementioned theory. And Iceland have done the same, by being the antithesis of the idea that money and stardom are the defining factors of the modern game.

The miracle which had caused major upsets in the qualifying rounds with a 3-0 victory over Turkey and a 1-0 win against Croatia itself, didn’t repeat itself last night, but it’s sure that it’s not going to deflect Iceland from the path that they are already on. Talking about their steely eyed resolve, captain Aron Gunnarsson said: “I see our style as a symbol of Iceland. Just look at some of our players — I mean, maybe we’re not the most technical. Maybe we’re not the prettiest to look at. But would you want to fight us? I don’t think so. We’re united. We’re tough. We fear nothing.”

Maybe that’s what’s supposed to be taken home from this story of the nation of gravel, glaciers and gallantry — that they fear nothing, and it’s only upwards for them from here.

 

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Debkalpa Banerjee

Loves the deft nutmegs, time travel paradoxes, existentialist films, scrambled eggs, and some unhealthy fanaticism of the boys in the Anfield red.