VOLGOGRAD, Russia — In the lean years of Icelandic soccer, roughly defined as the years before 2011, it was hard to get anyone excited about the national team. Icelanders tend to be phlegmatic. Their idea of an anti-government riot is getting together and throwing yogurt at the Parliament building.
The soccer team’s terrible record did not help, even on the rare occasions when things went from bad to less bad. Arni Thor Gunnarsson, a longtime fan, remembers a match with Germany in 2003 that ended in a 0-0 tie — a miracle in a season in which Iceland eked out a single win, against the Faeroe Islands.
Gunnarsson was thrilled, but his fervor was drowned out by the sound of 7,000 fans not cheering in Reykjavik’s stadium.
“I was standing up and yelling and trying to get people involved,” he said recently. “One guy said: ‘Can you sit down and not make so much noise? We’re trying to watch the game here.’”
How that changed — how a few outliers in plastic Viking helmets chanting by themselves amid a sea of lassitude grew into a thousands-strong force of cheering, singing, thunder-clapping Nordic people with near-South American levels of enthusiasm — is also a story of how a nation’s view of itself, and possibly the world’s view of it, has changed in the last half-dozen years.
Iceland is the smallest country by population ever to qualify for the World Cup. The team, which pulled off an elegant 1-1 tie against Lionel Messi and some other people from Argentina last week and faces Nigeria in the group stage here Friday, is strong, disciplined and hard to rattle. It is also unusually close to its fans.
“Everyone in the whole country feels like a participant,” the national team’s goalkeeper, Hannes Halldorsson, said recently.
In a country of fewer than 350,000 people, most everybody either knows someone on the team or knows someone who does. There is no celebrity culture. Sports stars are not insulated from the public and do not have to be rescued from scandals by crisis managers.
One of the team’s starting defenders, Birkir Saevarsson, who plays for Valur in the Icelandic league, also has a day job, packing salt in a Reykjavik factory. Soccer is great, but it is not real life, he told a reporter recently, and he likes to keep busy in his downtime. “I didn’t want to get lazy before the World Cup,” he said.
Even the biggest stars on the team, like Gylfi Sigurdsson, a midfielder who plays for Everton in the English Premier League, seem to lead un-starry lives.
“If they’re here, you run into them in the street,” said Kristinn Hallur Jonsson, the secretary of the supporters group that is called Tolfan, or 12th man, the idea being that the fans are an invisible extra member of the lineup. “I’ve seen them walking around. It’s Iceland. It doesn’t matter if it’s Bjork or them — you see everyone.”
The fan group was virtually moribund when Heimir Hallgrimsson, now Iceland’s head coach and then the assistant, started his famous practice of meeting fans at a local pub to unveil his strategy before home games. The news media was barred, enhancing the sense of occasion.
The first such meeting, before a match in 2012 against the Faeroe Islands, once one of Iceland’s main competitors, has achieved the mythic “I was there” significance of the Sex Pistols’ seminal appearance in Manchester in 1976. Even bona fide participants can’t settle on how many people attended: seven, 15, 20?
But as Hallgrimsson told them, “It doesn’t matter if we have one person in the room or 1,000 people in the room — we’re all in this together.”
The meeting had a galvanizing force. “It really molded and validated the supporters’ culture,” Jonsson said. The coach encouraged them to be bigger, bolder, louder.
“He was basically motivating the supporters to do more, to bring more support into the stadium so that the players would feel the atmosphere,” Jonsson said. “He gave us a little ownership, a sense that there is no football without the fans.”
Iceland’s fan culture may be louder and more raucous than it used to be, but it is still peculiarly Icelandic. There is no tradition of hooliganism. “We call ourselves Ruligans — follow the rules,” said Sveinn Asgeirsson, Tolfan’s vice president. If fans start using ugly chants, such as the one encouraging an injured opponent to “go home in a body bag,” they are ignored and isolated until the chants fizzle out.
“I do not feel it is fair to wish somebody dead,” Gunnarsson said.
When their team loses, Iceland’s fans might feel devastated, but they do not feel angry at the world or filled with fury at the players who have made mistakes. So far, it has been enough for them that Iceland has gone this far — first to the 2016 European Championship, where it reached the quarterfinals before losing to France, and now to the World Cup.
“When you keep defeating the odds, you can’t be too angry,” said Cristian DeFrancia, an American lawyer who lives in Vienna and is a passionate Iceland fan. “We’ve come so far.”
Drinking is another thing that seems to set the country apart. Drunken Icelandic fans are not likely to, say, break things, light stuff on fire or attack other fans. “The worst-case scenario is they pass out somewhere and miss the game,” Asgeirsson said.
A bunch of fans once flew to a match in the Czech Republic. “The flight was at like 6 in the morning, and everyone woke up at 3 a.m. and got hammered even before they got onto the plane,” Asgeirsson said. “At least five guys missed out on the second half because they passed out in the stadium.”
Along with the team, Tolfan came into its own at Euro 2016 in France. It was the first time so many fans had traveled to an away game, and the first time so many Icelanders had been seen outside the country in one place at the same time.
In France, Iceland’s fans seized the public imagination with the unlikeliness of their existence, while intimidating opponents with their trademark Viking thunderclap, a wordless, drum-led clapping chant that starts out slow and gets faster and faster until its powerful climax. Watching the players perform it on the field, which they do sometimes, is nearly as impressive as watching New Zealand’s rugby team perform the haka.
When Iceland’s team came home from Euro 2016, about 100,000 people — nearly a third of the population — gathered in Reykjavik to greet it. Last Saturday, 99.6 per cent of people watching television in Iceland were tuned to the match against Argentina, Iceland’s Football Association reported. (“The other 0.4 percent was on the pitch,” striker Alfred Finnbogason, who scored in the game, wrote on Twitter.)
“Soccer has unified the nation like nothing else,” Iceland’s ambassador to Russia, Berglind Asgeirsdottir, said the other day. She was wearing an Iceland jersey and hanging out with some fans in a Moscow pub.
Tolfan has come a long way in the last six years. Thousands of fans are traveling to Russia for the World Cup matches. Back home before games, upward of 400 people now pack sweatily into the pub to hear Hallgrimsson’s pre-match presentations.
News reporters are still barred, and the audience still follows the sacred rule: no Facebook, no Instagram, no Twitter, no Snapchat. No photographs. No phones.
Even when Englishman Stan Collymore, a former Premier League player, received special dispensation from Hallgrimsson to attend a session while filming a television segment on the Iceland team, he had to leave his camera crew outside and follow the same rules as everyone else, with the same potential penalty.
“I said, ‘Stan, you’re a nice guy, but if you come in and take your phone out, I will throw it down the toilet,’” Gunnarsson said.