Soon after the Euro 2016 match between England and Iceland in the idyllic French coastal city of Nice ended on Monday, the Iceland team made its way to the corner of the field where its supporters were concentrated, and faced them. Led by captain Aron Gunnarsson, the players spread their arms out and brought them over their heads in a slow clap, with the thousands of enthusiastic fans following suit. Once. Twice. Again. Faster and faster — until they finally broke their composure and let out jubilant whoops, jumping up and down.
The tiny island nation of 330,000 people — and there is no doubt that it is united behind its soccer team — had a good reason to be as giddily joyous as it was. The team had just stunned England, a powerhouse boasting some of the biggest names in the sport, to continue a fairytale run into the quarterfinals of its first-ever major tournament. To put that another way, England coach Roy Hodgson — who stepped down immediately after his team’s 2-1 defeat — earns about $4.6 million a year and is reportedly the highest-paid team manager at the Euros. Iceland’s co-coach Heimir Hallgrimson, who will take full charge of the team after the tournament ends, is a practicing dentist.
About 10% of the Iceland’s population has descended on France for the tournament, but contrary to the unsavory fan incidents that have dogged other teams, the Icelanders are just reveling in their team’s exploits — whatever those may be.
“Will we win?” a fan recently wondered aloud to TIME. ”No… And I don’t f–ing care.”
They’re just happy to be in France at all and their team has given them a lot to be happy about. Improbable 1-1 draws against Portugal and Hungary were followed by a euphoric last-gasp victory over Austria that led to Monday’s giant-killing of England.
The Icelandic ethos at Euro 2016 is exemplified by an entity that isn’t even there. A small lifestyle magazine called the Reykjavik Grapevine is gaining a Twitter following (44,000 and counting, to be exact) for its hilarious, over-the-top tweets about “Norse hellfire” and “smiting” the opposition. They’ve been rivaled for Internet fame only by Icelandic TV’s soccer commentator Gudmundur Benediktssonor, who has repeatedly lost his voices while yelling himself hoarse from excitement.
Iceland now face tournament hosts and heavy favorites France in the quarterfinal, but no matter what happens, their resilient and resolute display has already made them the people’s (and not just their people’s) champion.
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