Ken Early on that Euro 2016 phenomenon: Iceland
Clever management combined with unique Viking spirit has elevated this tournament
Iceland’s players celebrate their team’s win with supporters after the victory over England. Photograph: Getty Images
An hour after Robbie Brady’s goal against Italy, I bumped into an English journalist in the stadium media centre in Lille. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a roar like that for an England goal,” he said.
I wondered if this could be true. A few days earlier, I’d seen Daniel Sturridge’s last-minute winner against Wales in Lens and the roar from the England fans at that moment had been pretty big.
But when you think about it, it’s unlikely that Sturridge’s goal will echo through the ages in the minds of English football supporters as Brady’s will for their Irish counterparts.
For the English, football has never really been about the national team. On Tuesday next week, Jose Mourinho will be unveiled as the new manager of Manchester United. On Friday, Pep Guardiola will be unveiled at Manchester City. The semi-finals and finals of the Euros will be relegated to footnote status in the English media as the global circus of the Premier League seizes back the limelight.
The English can go and see English teams in top-class football every week. For the Irish, the chance to support an Irish team competing at the highest level of the sport comes, at most, every couple of years. So a moment like Brady’s goal means, relatively, much more.
And when you look back over the last few weeks, it’s plain that for the Irish, these tournaments are about more than just football. It’s not only the team that is competing. The Irish supporters actually brought back silverware in the form of the Medal of Paris, awarded jointly to them and the fans of Northern Ireland for the “outstanding sportsmanship” they displayed in the French capital.
Deep down, we all know there’s something a little weird about the ostentatious good behaviour of the Irish supporters on tour. Anyone who has walked around Dublin on Paddy’s Day knows that this isn’t what huge crowds of drunk Irish people are usually like.
Irish fans evidently feel as though they, no less than the team, are representing Ireland. In their slightly unnatural bonhomie you could feel that familiar Irish eagerness to be well thought-of by the rest of the world.
The contrast with the behaviour of many English fans, who plainly could not care less what foreigners think of them, is so striking that you have to suspect the Irish way of behaving at these events has evolved in reaction to the English way.
But a lot of it also has to do with the desire of the people of a small, isolated country to be noticed and respected by the outside world.
There may never have been a national cultural event as all-encompassing as Euro 2016 has been for Iceland. Almost 10 per cent of the population has travelled to France to support the team, and 99.8 per cent of Icelanders are reported to have watched the win over England.
Those Irish people old enough to remember Italia ’90 have some sense of the euphoria that comes when an outstanding national team seizes the attention of a world that never seemed to notice you were there.
Ireland is one of Iceland’s closest neighbours but even here we seldom think about them. In the imagination of Irish football, Iceland existed only as one of a range of sticks with which those of us who supported Roy Keane in Saipan used to beat Mick McCarthy (as in “What kind of idiot would play Roy Keane as a centre back against Iceland?”)
Twice in the last 10 years, Iceland has commanded international headlines. In 2008 they amazed the world with the spectacular scale of their banking crisis, and in 2010 one of their volcanoes shut down air travel throughout swathes of the Northern Hemisphere.
The Icelanders didn’t have much to do with the volcano, so we’ll leave that one aside. The banking collapse was an Icelandic creation, which was more surprising to the rest of the world, since the Icelanders were generally thought to be solid and sensible, when people thought of them at all. A wave of foreign correspondents descended upon Iceland to chronicle the disaster.
The best-known of these correspondents was probably Michael Lewis, whose piece for Vanity Fair caused outrage in Iceland, not so much for his argument that the Icelandic people had succumbed to collective mania and self-delusion on a world-historic scale, as for his offhand description of the Icelanders as “mousy-haired and lumpy”.
For Iceland, this was not really fame but notoriety. Yet even notoriety has its payoffs. Annual tourism to Iceland has increased by 250 per cent since 2006. The landscape’s starring role in Game of Thrones can’t have hurt, but you can’t ignore the bankers’ role in thrusting Iceland to the forefront of global consciousness.
Speaking for myself, the crisis sparked an interest in the country which culminated in a holiday there in November 2009. As the plane approached Reykjavik airport, my wife peered down from the window and asked: “where’s the ice?”
She had apparently been expecting a white expanse of frozen tundra, but Iceland actually looks more like the moon. My memories include Nordic twilights and gloomy hills, glaciers and waterfalls, the glow through the fogged-up windows of little pubs, the white silt at the Blue Lagoon and the weird sulphurous smell of the geothermal water. I was, sad to say, totally oblivious to the Icelandic football miracle which was then unfolding in the great soccer halls dotting the lunar landscape.
Now, thanks to the footballers who were training diligently in those indoor halls, the world is talking about Iceland again, only this time the story is all glory, no shame. The eve of Euro 2016 saw a second mass migration of foreign journalists to the lonely northern shores. In Lens, an American reporter joked that there was probably no group of people in the world better-informed about the current demographics of Iceland than the football journalists covering Euro 2016.
The structural factors believed to underpin the miracle have by now been well-established: they include grassroots investment in great facilities, enlightened coaching, clever team management and that incomparable Viking spirit, a unique blend of iron discipline and fearless adventure.
Iceland have justified all the pre-tournament hype. Their defeat of England was a multilayered wonder: not just the funniest tournament result for decades, but a genuinely inspirational sporting moment, and even a compelling morality play: the community values of the humble Icelanders against Raheem Sterling’s “vulgar glittering jewel-encrusted sink” (Daily Mail).
Like most real-life morality plays, it was actually more complicated than that: Iceland’s football halls were largely built with the silly money that was sloshing around the country during the fake banking boom, while Sterling had bought the house for his beloved mother.
Like all successful teams, Iceland have become a model to be followed – but how can you imitate a miracle? It’s hard to believe that the various structural factors highlighted in the coverage really explain what has happened here. The Dutch yield to nobody in the quality of their youth football facilities and they’re not at the Euros, because Iceland dumped them out. Lars Lagerbäck, the celebrated coach who has overseen Iceland’s campaign, was chased out of the Sweden job a few years ago after the Swedes got bored with the steady respectability of his results.
There’s nothing really logical about what Iceland have done. This success is not the inevitable result of the application of enlightened methods, nor is it a destiny that flows from some mysterious wellspring within their Norse national genius. It has something to do with each of these things, but it’s also a magical moment that might never happen again.
Neither can it ever be taken away. The sight and sound of ten thousand Icelanders doing the Viking thunderclap can’t be forgotten. The world knows now what it means to say the Icelanders are here. Sigurðsson and Sigþórsson and Arnason and the rest have pulled their distant island a little closer to the rest of the world.