Who are all these Iceland supporters?
For a country with so few people, Iceland’s soccer team has a lot of fans.
“A thousands-strong force of cheering, singing, thunder-clapping Nordic people with near-South American levels of enthusiasm,” according to Sarah Lyall of The New York Times.
Everyone has been writing about Iceland’s rise since the 2016 European Championship, when the team from a country with only 340,000 people tied Portugal, beat Austria and ousted England on its way to the quarterfinal.
Iceland also won its World Cup-qualifying group from super-competitive Europe, and became the beloved underdog — a tournament debutant and the smallest country ever to compete.
Did you know the ruggedly handsome coach is a dentist and meets with fans in the pub? The goalkeeper is a film editor who makes music videos.
Here’s the thing though: the team is really good. And I'm impressed with how Iceland got so good.
The team lived up to the hype by stifling Lionel Messi and stymieing Argentina in the teams’ Group D opener. It was a tie that felt like a win for Iceland — and a loss for Argentina.
Iceland was beat 2-0 by Nigeria (population 186 million) yesterday, but can still theoretically advance. (Watch highlights.)
For me, Iceland is that indie darling that got too popular, too quickly. I remember when a couple of knowing friends and I would see them in small clubs, but now everyone has concert T-shirts from the arena tour.
Also, there are other small countries (Costa Rica) that made the World Cup for the first time (Panama) with stronger ties to the United States. Why didn’t more Americans adopt those teams after the U.S. team’s failure?
I went looking for Iceland fans in New York — the people lured aboard the viking ship by stylish marketing. I expected to find soccer neophytes and American fans who are more comfortable rooting for a European underdog with whom they have no ties than a more familiar Latin American rival.
What I’ve found in my completely unscientific and probably biased field research of craft-beer bars in Brooklyn are four types of Iceland fans with whom I want to drink cold Einstök Ölgerđ beer on Tuesday and cheer their boys on to the round of 16 at Argentina’s expense.
And they all seem to know each other. Karl Gudmundsson went to the same high school as Emil Hallfredsson, a midfielder on the national team. And Gudmundsson’s youth coach on Vestmannaeyjar Island, where he grew up, was the local dentist, Heimir Hallgrimsson, now the coach of the national team.
Gudmundsson, who has lived in New York for seven years, was watching the Nigeria match at Clinton Hall in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with his wife, their two children and other friends from Iceland now transplanted in New York. They were all wearing Iceland jerseys and the kids had their faces painted with the flag.
Gudmundsson said it’s easy for neutrals to root for Iceland because the team is fun, the country has never been at war with anyone and there are so few people, every fan of the team can feel special.
People Married to Icelanders
Paul Weil can not only tell you that Gylfi Sigurdsson is a midfielder, Ragnar Sigurdsson is a defender and Bjorn Sigurdarson is a forward, he can tell you what role they play in Iceland’s well-practiced counter-attacking 4-4-2 lineup. Weil knows soccer, and as the son of the Johns Hopkins University women’s coach, he appreciates Hallgrimsson’s strategy and finely honed tactics — effective team soccer that earns results better than the individual talent on the field may deserve.
Weil is also married to Johanna Methusalemsdottir, an Icelander, and they live in Brooklyn with their daughter Lola. Weil’s love of soccer and Johanna couldn’t be more convenient. After watching their enthusiasm during the Argentina match and listening to Weil’s in-game analysis at the Black Horse Pub in Park Slope, I’m pretty sure he’s eligible for Icelandic citizenship and a spot on Hallgrimsson’s coaching staff.
People Who Have Been to Iceland
Kenny Burtner looked nervous at the bar tugging on his Errea Iceland jersey (the Euro 2016 edition) before the Argentina match. He was invested, for sure. I asked him where he was from and his accent gave it away: Fresno, California. But he studied abroad in Iceland, in high school, from 2006 to 2007. He lived with a host family in the small town of Selfoss (pop. 6,900) and he and his host brother went to see Iceland play Denmark and Burtner was hooked.
Former Teammates of Icelandic International Soccer Players
Emmet Austin and I enjoyed a cold Einstök at Clinton Hall yesterday, and he’s my kind of soccer fan. He sort of drops his shoulder or torques his torso while watching, as if he’s the one trying to get past Victor Moses to the endline, or fight off Ahmed Musa. But it wasn’t to be for Austin, whose professional soccer career was ended by injury shortly after a spell with West Ham United in the early 1990s. Still, he stays close to the game, and roots for Iceland because his old teammate from Columbia University, Rikki Daddason, played for Iceland 40 times, scoring 14 international goals, and Austin said he’s friendly with members of the Iceland technical staff.
Maybe I Can Root for Iceland, Maybe
Costa Rica is out, and Panama has no chance. I’d like to see Mexico do well and I’m enamored with Iran. Still, I can see Iceland’s appeal.
I asked Kaslyn Bos, the bartender at Clinton Hall, how it became the Iceland bar in Brooklyn. “Because we’re showing the game,” she deadpanned.
But the bar had a flag, and Einstök, a white ale made with coriander and orange peel.
“This morning we were the Brazilian bar,” she said, holding up a bottle of Leblon Cachaca.
Brazil beat Costa Rica, 2-0, with two dramatic late goals in extra time, restoring order to Group E with Brazil on top. Watch the highlights.
I thought about maybe sticking around for the Serbia-Switzerland match (which the Swiss won solidly, 2-1) and asked Bos what was on offer.
“Just our normal Icelandic beer,” she said.