Monday, June 27, 2016

Plucky Iceland taking EURO 2016 soccer competition by storm

In the wake of Leicester City's improbable achievement in the English Premier League, I have to  make mention of an equally improbable run by little Iceland in the EURO 2016 soccer competition. The plucky Icelanders beat their idols England today in the Round of 16 after the best run in their history, and now find themselves in the quarterfinals.
I was brought up obsessively following club football, as almost all British kids do, but my interest in the professional sport did not outlive my childhood. Even international soccer started to pall for me after the Brazilians, Portuguese and Italians discovered diving and the professional foul in the late 1970s (at least that is how I remember it). But I do still follow, with varying levels of enthusiasm, big international competitions like the World Cup, the UEFA European Championships (or EURO) and the Olympics, even though I stopped playing the game myself a few years ago now.
In the absence of a Canadian team in any of the above, I usually throw my support behind underachieving England, for lack of a more logical alternative, even if I don't really like their style of play. But in any individual match, my support is firmly behind the underdog. And there can be few underdogs quite as lowly as Iceland. This is the first time the country has qualified for the EURO, or for any major international competition for that matter, and they really should not be there, least of all riding high in the quarter finals. But there they are, and they have done themselves proud.
The total population of Iceland is about 330,000, equivalent to a town the size of say Coventry or Sunderland in England, or say Victoria or Windsor in Canada, or a bunch of places you have never heard in in America like Aurora, Colorado or Corpus Christi, Texas. Given that about 20% of the population is under the age of 14, 25% is over the age of 55, and almost half is female, that leaves a total eligible pool of about 88,000 from which to choose a soccer team. A squad of 23 of them are in France right now, after beating the Netherlands both home and away during qualification games (preventing the European greats from qualifying in the process). Most of the squad play their football in little-known Scandinavian leagues, with a precious few having experience in the upper leagues (although not the elite teams) of Italy, Germany and England. The national team co-manager/coach is a practising dentist on the tiny Icelandic fishing island of Heimaey, for God's sake! The Icelandic premier division is a part-time league, and most players have day jobs outside football, making the national side's progress at the EURO finals all the more astonishing.
But, make no mistake, football is huge in Iceland. Year-round all-weather pitches have only been available in Iceland since about 2000, but their youth program is already enviable, and their national team has seen more success in the last few years than in all their history to date. An estimated 10% of the entire Icelandic population have been in France cheering their team on with their Viking helmets, their choreographed chants, and their renditions of romantic Icelandic ballads. Of those remaining at home, over half of all Icelanders are estimated to have watched the Iceland vs. Austria game last week, representing 99.8% of the nation's television audience. You can get some idea of just what this competition means to them by the positively unhinged reaction of the Icelandic commentator to Arnor Traustason's winning goal in that game.
Part of what makes soccer still fun to watch for me is the possibility of a Leicester or an Iceland story. EURO 2016 will no doubt go down in football history, and my support is now firmly behind little Iceland when they play hosts France later this week.
Mention should also be made of fellow overachieving dark-horse team, Wales, which has just powered its way into the semi-finals of the same competition. While admittedly not as ridiculously tiny or isolated as Iceland, Wales (pop. about 3 million) is also celebrating its first time qualifying for the UEFA Championships by smashing all preconceptions and predictions, topping its qualifying group, and overcoming powerful Belgium (a team which has, in turn, beaten its own unlikely path into the elite of European football) on the way to reaching its first ever major football semi-finals.
I have never really understood why Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland merit their own teams in soccer, rugby and cricket (but very little else as far as I am aware) - it is rather like Sicily or Catalonia fielding their own teams, separate from Italy or Spain. But all power to them as they as they face perennial underachievers Portugal in the semis this week.

Iceland's unlikely dream came to an abrupt end in the quarter-finals, as they went down (hard) to tournament hosts France, by a score of 5-2. Hordes of blue-festooned fans, however, remained in their seats cheering long after the game finished, leaving the rest of Europe with fond memories of Iceland's giant-slaying run, and adding a new word to the lexicon of many a European language: duglegur (an Icelandic word roughly translated as "industrious", but with a strong sense of having accomplished something beyond normal capabilities).
Wales also fell, losing 2-0 to my pet hate Portugal in the semi-finals, but their team spirit and their spirited fans will also leave a glowing legacy, and can only add to their confidence for the future.

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