Welcome to the Greenlandic championship: Soccer at the edge of the world

A view of the soccer stadium, an artificial pitch surrounded by a metal fence, in Sisimiut, where  Greenland crowns its national soccer champion in the shortest season on earth. Photograph: Kieran Dodds/New York Times

The boat journey along Greenland’s wild, rocky coast lasted three days. It was long and slow, calling in at what felt like every village on the way to pick up passengers and drop off supplies.

The scenery was spectacular: sheer, snow-capped mountains rising from the sea, fjords cutting into untouched wilderness. After a while, though, Inuk Mathaussen found even that started to pall. It was, as he remembers it, pretty “boring.”

All that time at sea was not Mathaussen’s only sacrifice. He had left his partner and their one-year-old at home for a couple of weeks. He had cashed in valuable vacation time. He had spent hundreds of dollars, too: for transportation and accommodations, for equipment and membership fees.

In return, once the boat reached its destination, he would have the dubious pleasure of spending seven nights on a mattress in a school gymnasium, struggling to sleep in a room filled with a few dozen friends and strangers.

Yet he had not thought twice about any of it, and nor had his team-mates from the soccer club Equaluk-54, who were embarking on this odyssey with him.

After a couple of days, the boat reached Nuuk, Greenland’s capital. There, two more teams came onboard. Together, the players endured the final stretch – eight more hours at sea – to the town of Sisimiut, a couple hundred miles farther north.

There, they encountered a few more of the six teams that would contest this year’s Greenlandic soccer championship. It is, almost certainly, the shortest such competition in the world: just six days of play, starting on Monday and ending on Sunday.

As Mathaussen and the others know, though, it may also be the most intense: an entire season’s worth of physical exhaustion and mental strain, of drama and intrigue, rivalries and controversies, transfer wrangles and internecine squabbles boiled down into one draining week. Just getting there is exacting enough. But that is only the beginning.

Fog, and controversy, descends

Fog from the sea covers Sisimiut, the site of this year’s Greenlandic soccer championship. Photograph: Kieran Dodds/New York Times
Fog from the sea covers Sisimiut, the site of this year’s Greenlandic soccer championship. Photograph: Kieran Dodds/New York Times

There is a lot of pride in hosting the Greenlandic championship, and a lot of pressure. All of the games are broadcast on Greenland’s national television network. For a week, the country’s eyes – Greenland is home to 56,000 or so people, spread across the world’s largest island – are locked on Sisimiut.

For René Lennart Frederiksen, it is crucial it all runs smoothly. A director of the local team, which failed to qualify this year, he has spent the last few weeks making sure everything is ready for those that did: checking the artificial turf field, arranging where the teams will stay. Before a ball has been kicked, though, there is a problem.

With such a short window to play the championship, and with such a packed schedule, the six teams to qualify generally leave plenty of time for travel. Mathaussen’s team, Equaluk-54, has travelled the farthest, from Greenland’s southern tip to its western coast. Teams from Ilulissat and Qeqertarsuaq sailed south through iceberg floes on their way to Sisimiut.

It has been an unusually balmy summer – the warmest, many said, that they can remember, and there are wildfires burning on the hills outside town – but it is still Greenland; the weather remains unpredictable. The night before the tournament, with five of the six teams safely present and the first game less than 24 hours away, the fog rolled in.

It does so every few days: a low-slung white cloud, hanging above the sea, inching inexorably closer to the coast. When it makes landfall, it turns everything – horizon and landscape and sea – the same milky grey. Visibility is reduced to a few yards. The temperature drops, and the airstrip, a few miles outside town, shuts down.

An aerial view of the soccer stadium in Sisimiut, Greenland, a town of about 5,500 people that lies 50 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Photograph: Kieran Dodds/New York Times
An aerial view of the soccer stadium in Sisimiut, Greenland, a town of about 5,500 people that lies 50 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Photograph: Kieran Dodds/New York Times

This time, the fog has caught out not only a group of referees and a delegation from the KAK – the local federation – but an entire team. And not just any team. Greenland is not a member of Uefa or Fifa; its teams are amateur, and they do not compete in international competition. But in its isolated ecosystem, B-67 – the reigning champion, the winner of eight of the last 10 Greenlandic championships – is its Brazil, its Real Madrid.

B-67 inspires a begrudging awe in its opponents. It has the most generous sponsors, so takes the best rooms every year. It tends to be the best-prepared team. It attracts the finest players. “They are the most professional,” said Hans Brummerstedt, who spent several years playing for the club before moving to another Nuuk team, GSS.

Its planning this time, though, has been less than perfect. B-67 was still in Nuuk when the fog rolled in. The team did not arrive on Sunday. It could not get through on Monday, in time for its first game – there are only so many planes in Greenland – and the match had to be postponed.

At a meeting that night, the five other teams are unflinching: B-67, they say, should be forced to forfeit the game. The KAK disagrees. It rules the game will instead be made up on Saturday, ordinarily designated a rest day before the final.

But even before the decision is reached, B-67 has decided not to take any chances. It charters a boat from Nuuk, rather than wait for the flight backlog to clear. It arrives at 3am on Tuesday, with only a few hours to get some sleep before it begins the quest to retain its title, its air of supremacy.

It is not an auspicious start to the championship, but Frederiksen, the local director, is unperturbed. “It’s Greenland,” he says with a shrug, his eyes not shifting from the field.

A week is a long time

René Lennert Frederiksen, one of the soccer tournament’s organisers, calls for an ambulance after a GSS player is injured. Photograph: Kieran Dodds/New York Times
René Lennert Frederiksen, one of the soccer tournament’s organisers, calls for an ambulance after a GSS player is injured. Photograph: Kieran Dodds/New York Times

The voice that answered the call at the hospital was brusque. The hospital had received two calls in quick succession, two more injuries at the soccer field. Patience was wearing thin, and sympathy was running out.

“They said they do have other patients to treat,” said Kuutak Olsen, a player and coach for GSS, who placed the second call. “They said they would send an ambulance down this time, but from now on they’re only coming out if something is broken.” This was Tuesday afternoon. It was only day two.

Playing an entire season in a single week, then, is a test of endurance for all involved.

There is Hans Frederik Olsen, sent from Nuuk to cover the tournament as a commentator. It is, he said, his boyhood dream, but it is a demanding one: commentating duties on three games a day have him on the air from 3pm to 9pm. “It is harder for him,” said Andreas Paulsen, his co-commentator. “I don’t have to talk as much.”

There is Kasper Bro Rasmussen, a Danish physiotherapist who moved here a year ago – it sounded, he said, like “an adventure” – and serves as one of the event’s four referees. There should have been more, but two others were delayed by the fog and never arrive. Rasmussen finishes his shift at the hospital at 4pm, cycles to the field, changes into his uniform, officiates one game and serves as an assistant for the next.

There are the local volunteers, filling every role imaginable, whether selling acrid coffee and home-baked cakes to the fans, acting as pitchside announcers, recording official statistics or hanging Greenland flags and advertising banners from the fencing erected to keep sled dogs and snowmobiles off the field during winter.

And there is the town as a whole: the families who provide food for the teams, the overworked receptionists at the hospital and the staff at the bakery slammed at lunchtime.

It is the players, though, who feel it most. The games, five in five days, are fast and uncompromising. Injuries are common, unavoidable, treated with whatever is available – painkillers, bandages, a makeshift ice bath in the Arctic waters of Baffin Bay – and then mostly ignored. Only the most serious are considered worthy of bothering the hospital.

One of the players injured on that second day was Mathaussen. It had been his first chance to start a game in his first taste of the national championship, one that it had taken him three days to reach and that would require two weeks away from his family. He was hurt after only a few minutes.

When he arrived at the hospital, he was told his injury was serious. His leg was immobilised, and he was given crutches. His championship was over. He could not get home until his team was finished, though, and besides, he said, he wanted to stay and support it. “I will stay and watch,” he said. This is what it is like, playing soccer at the edge of the world.

A prize worth keeping

Fans watch from the top of a cliff that serves as a grandstand as players on the team G-44 (blue) celebrate a goal against IT-79 (pink). Photograph: Kieran Dodds/New York Times
Fans watch from the top of a cliff that serves as a grandstand as players on the team G-44 (blue) celebrate a goal against IT-79 (pink). Photograph: Kieran Dodds/New York Times

At night, Hans Brummerstedt sleeps on a mattress on the floor of a gymnasium, curled up in a sleeping bag, surrounded by his GSS team-mates. He puts his earbuds in. Everyone is so tired after a few days of games that it is quiet by midnight, but there are always whispers, coughs, splutters.

Even then, though, he hears a sound. “Pick pock, pick pock,” he said. It is the noise of a ball bouncing back and forth across the net of a table-tennis game that someone has – regrettably, Brummerstedt quickly realises in the dark – left in the gym and where the teams pass the hours.

The players here have been preparing for the championship for a couple of months. Most play futsal during the long, dark winter – the style of play here is surprisingly technical, a testament to the players’ familiarity with futsal’s smaller, heavier ball – and come together in the spring to train outdoors.

There are tryouts for players, all of whom must pay a membership fee, typically around €70, to join their club, then a few weeks of practice before regional qualifying tournaments, organised geographically, in July. For many, championship week, in August, is the highlight of the year. “It is,” said Pauli Thomsen, a player for IT-79, one of the three teams from Nuuk, “the World Cup.”

That is not quite how GSS is treating it. “We did not come expecting to win,” said Kuutak Olsen, one of Brummerstedt’s team-mates. “We don’t even really have any sponsors because we were not expecting to qualify.”

The coach of the team G-44 heads to the postgame meal in Sisimiut. Photograph: Kieran Dodds/New York Times
The coach of the team G-44 heads to the postgame meal in Sisimiut. Photograph: Kieran Dodds/New York Times

They say they came largely to enjoy themselves. Their ambitions stretch no further than avoiding last place. Their days echo that: They wake late, between 9 and 10am, sleeping off the fatigue of the previous day. They have breakfast together in the school opposite the gym where they sleep, and then have a few hours free. After lunch, they will change, have a brief team meeting and then head to the field.

GSS is, though, an exception. Most teams are more regimented. IT-79, the champion two years ago, is staying in a kindergarten not far from the gymnasium. The bottom floor serves as sleeping quarters; upstairs, a classroom is used for tactical discussions. A printed schedule is pinned to the wall, telling the players their plans for every day. It is divided into half-hour increments.

Each day has a slot set aside for a team lunch and a group walk through Sisimiut, before the players get changed and head upstairs to listen to their captain and coach, Kaassannguaq Zeeb, walk them through the day’s tactics. As the meeting ends, they gather in a huddle, arms draped over shoulders, to bellow a war cry.

They know how high the stakes are. They know their friends are watching back home. They can see how their Facebook feeds are full of videos from broadcasts. Clips of a player being embarrassed, or falling over, or an outstanding piece of skill, are quickly and widely shared.

“If you play well, people will come up to you on the street and congratulate you,” said one player, Inuuteq Kreutzmann. “And if you become champions, even more.”

They also know the ultimate prize is a more lasting reward than viral fame. As well as a medal, each player on the team that claims the championship receives a gold harpoon point, an honour granted by Greenland’s sports association. “It is a big thing to have,” Brummerstedt said.

Back home, he has two, picked up when he was playing for B-67. He knows what it takes to earn one. He knows what they mean. After this year’s championship, he will move to Copenhagen with his girlfriend, for college. He is not taking much. He will, though, take his harpoon points. “They are special,” he said.

Dedication

Nikki Jensen watches a match from his family’s kitchen above the soccer stadium in Sisimiut, Greenland. Photograph: Kieran Dodds/New York Times
Nikki Jensen watches a match from his family’s kitchen above the soccer stadium in Sisimiut, Greenland. Photograph: Kieran Dodds/New York Times

Helga Zeeb is wearing a red-and-white T-shirt, a red-and-white hat and a red-and-white scarf as she hurries down the cliff. Her earrings are embossed with a red-and-white crest. She rushes through the marquee that serves as the referees’ changing area and the snack bar and toward one of the dugouts. She immediately bursts into tears.

Zeeb describes herself, with a smile, as a “G-44 hooligan.” She has travelled with the team from Qeqertarsuaq for the week, and has taken up a place on the rocky cliff that serves as the grandstand for every game. Her incessant chanting – “G-44, G-44” – in both Danish and English has proved so catching that locals have started to join in.

Once on the sideline, Zeeb seeks out players from the scrum of bodies on the ground and offers them warm, congratulatory hugs. A victory, in the final game on Friday, has confirmed that G-44 will be in the final on Sunday. It is only later, sitting on the porch of her sister’s house here while the team eats reindeer steak inside, that she recovers her composure. Zeeb’s devotion to G-44 is absolute: Her father was one of the club’s founders, and three of her nephews play for the team.

All that is left to decide, now, is who will play G-44 in the final on Sunday. There is only one game remaining: Saturday’s fog-delayed fixture between B-67, Greenland’s Real Madrid, and N-48, the team it defeated in last year’s final. It is a game that, to some of the teams involved, should have been declared a forfeit. Now everything rests on its outcome.

Those involved prepare as best they can. Rasmussen, the referee, heads out of town to feed his pack of sled dogs. N-48’s players eat a dinner of seal on Friday – it is “good for energy,” according to Frederiksen, the organiser – and then take a gentle stroll to the foot of Nasaasaaq, the mountain that looms over Sisimiut, on Saturday morning. The team has not been Greenland champion since 2007. This is its chance.

Players from the team G-44 dine on reindeer after claiming a place in the final. Photograph: Kieran Dodds/New York Times
Players from the team G-44 dine on reindeer after claiming a place in the final. Photograph: Kieran Dodds/New York Times

Frederiksen and his team of volunteers have gone all out for the occasion: Ennio Morricone’s theme from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” blares from the public-address system, as do songs from the Greenlandic band Chilly Friday. Most of the other teams in the competition have come to watch, taking up positions on the cliff in club-branded gear.

The game, one that might have been a forfeit, proves one-sided: N-48 runs rampant, winning, 4-0, and denying the vaunted B-67 a place in the final.

Slowly, the crowd begins to disperse, clambering down the cliff, drifting back to town, to normal life. N-48’s players cram into cars and head to the beach, to dip their legs in the cold water, to try to recover. For them, and for all the teams, there was one more night to spend on mattresses in makeshift lodgings. One more game to play.

N-48 beats G-44 in the final. IT-79 rallies to claim third, holding off Greenland’s Real Madrid. Brummerstedt’s GSS does finish last. Everyone will soon be on their way home, at sea again, ready for their lives to start again.

It had been only seven days since the tournament began, but it feels far longer. A season that lasts just a week is still a season; it still contains months.

Patrick Larsen of N-48 is overcome with emotion after his team beat favourites B-67, known as Greenland’s Real Madrid, to advance to the final. Photograph: Kieran Dodds/New York Times
Patrick Larsen of N-48 is overcome with emotion after his team beat favourites B-67, known as Greenland’s Real Madrid, to advance to the final. Photograph: Kieran Dodds/New York Times

Before the final day, on Saturday night, Frederiksen and one of his volunteers went out to sea. The fog was descending again, but they wanted to hunt seal.

It had been a tough week for Frederiksen, and he wanted to relax. “When I am out here,” he said, leaning back, his gun cocked, “there is nothing else.” With the boat rocking with the motion of the water, and a radio tuned to soft Greenlandic ballads he admitted he was pleased with how the week had gone, but he was pleased it would soon be over, too.

It asks a lot of everyone to help soccer flourish here, at the end of the world. While he was at the field, his partner was looking after their three children. He said he would make it up to her.

“I have said I will not have so much time for football next year,” Frederiksen said. He paused, looking out at the waves, looking out into the fog. “Except for playing.” – New York Times