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Iceland Wins Hearts at Euro 2016 as Soccer's Global Underdog

Jun 27, 2016

A sea of blue swallowed Stade Geoffroy-Guichard. As the Icelandic hordes descended on St. Etienne in eastern France to watch their heroes play Portugal, it was one of the largest ever gatherings of Icelanders outside the island: more than 30,000, a tenth of the population, had bought tickets for UEFA Euro 2016. Families with strollers, teenagers and middle-aged men with plastic Viking helmets marched down the streets, chanting in unison: ”áfram Ísland!” (Onward Iceland!)

There were no hooligans, yet eight officers from the Icelandic police force, world famous for posing with ice-cream and kittens on their official Instagram, had been flown in. Unarmed, they shrunk next to a wall of French riot forces, specially trained for bombs and chemical warfare. But the June 14 game went off without a hitch, Iceland's fans offering a correlative to the fan violence elsewhere at the tournament.

Iceland’s very presence at the Championships came against all the odds. A volcanic island blanketed by year-round glaciers, the nation has the world’s shortest soccer season: even the national stadium’s designer pitch grass, handpicked to withstand Arctic winds and snow, occasionally froze to death. Four years ago, Iceland, which has a beer named after 1967’s disastrous 2-14 defeat to Denmark, had been ranked no. 131 worldwide by FIFA .

But on Monday, Iceland could make football history as the smallest country to ever reach the quarterfinals of the European Championships. Having beaten the Dutch team to get a place in France, t he team began its Euro 2016 tournament with a ’crushing 1–1 defeat’ of the Portuguese, made even sweeter by the sulky response of captain Cristiano Ronaldo who dismissed it as a "lucky night." In Marseilles on June 18, the day after Iceland celebrated their Independence Day from Denmark, the team secured another 1-1 draw, this time against Hungary. Then, on June 22, Strákarnir okkar (”our boys”) defeated Austria 2-1 in a last-gasp win to guarantee a game in Nice against England on June 27.

" We’re the underdogs, so everyone’s here to support us,” said a supporter named Katrín, who wore faded flags — blue for the sea, white for snow and red for lava — on each cheek. " Will we win?” she asked, rhetorically. ”No... And I don’t f--ing care.”

Iceland's enthusiastic invasion of France is a welcome distraction from issues at home; earlier this year protesters pelted Reykjavik’s parliament with bananas, calling Iceland a “banana republic” after the Panama Papers exposed prime minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson’s offshore tax evasions and drove him out of office. Many citizens had yet to forget and forgive 2008’s financial crisis, when all three of the country’s major banks defaulted as one of the largest banking collapses in modern history ravaged the island.

The country's progress at Euro 2016 has allowed the country to rediscover a little lost Þjóðernishyggja (”nationmindedness”). A s one football fan put it, "the inferiority complex became a little easier to live with.”

In France, Iceland's Viking warriors have received a warm welcome — not just because soccer fans love an underdog, but because they possess something exceedingly rare in today’s Europe: passionate patriotism that has not spilled over into extremism. Haukur Jóhannsson, a project manager at the Red Cross, says Iceland’s "positive nationalism" is rooted in isolation and a constant struggle against the elements. "We’re just proud to be from Iceland -- because Iceland is a really hard place to live in.”

It's also a very hard place to play soccer. In the 2000s, a defiant government initiative rolled out geo-thermally heated stadiums for year-round practice nationwide. UEFA’s expensive licenses were virtually subsidized; with 700 certified trainers, Iceland had the highest per capita worldwide. A coach, Lars Lagerbäck, was recruited from Sweden (and later elected ”Icelandic Person of the Year”). Today, 10% of the population regularly play football, and the national team was picked from a pool of 100 full-time professionals playing across Europe.

Whereas most European teams reflected increasingly multicultural demographics, Iceland’s emerged from a gene pool so homogenous that it had become ground zero for mapping the human genome – and even had an app promising to prevent ‘accidental incest.’

And yet the ugly side of nationalism is still hard to find in Iceland; last year, over 11,000 Icelanders offered to take Syrian refugees into their homes in response to a government pledge of only 50 individuals. With fewer than 1,000 Muslim residents, Iceland still sees the occasional hate crime but is the only Nordic nation without an Islamophobic party.

In France, by contrast, the evidence of tensions are everywhere — from St. Etienne’s mayor pledging to accept only Christian refugees, to clashes in Marseille following a burqa ban. " You see what’s happening in this county: they’ve done everything wrong.” Jóhannsson said. “But who’s gonna listen to little old Iceland? [National Front leader] Marine Le Pen isn’t going to listen.”

Iceland's geographical and institutional isolation means it has been cut off from the current, economic turmoil in continental Europe. The country withdrew an application for entry to the E.U. last year, and after Britain's vote to leave, the idea of Iceland pivoting towards the continent seemed more distant than ever.

And Iceland's boisterous, good-natured presence in France could be an inspiration to other fans whose countries are struggling with divisive, nationalist politics. Tonight, as the sea of blue descended upon Nice with Europe at a crossroads, Icelandic coach Lagerbäck joked that England faced another, far less dangerous, Brexit.

"If you combine this good feeling and this stay-together-ness and give it to the politics, it can change something,” said Andreas Brenner, an occupational therapist from Austria as he celebrated with Icelandic fans after his country's loss. ”So Europe sticks together, again. If we divide now… I'm really afraid of the next year.”

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