With the 2018 World Cup about to begin, expectations are high for the usual teams, like Brazil and Germany. (Sorry, Spain.) But one team, ranked No. 22 by FIFA, is getting more than its fair share of attention: Iceland.
Like every great underdog story, Iceland's improbable run has less to do with sports and everything to do with team work, heart and a certain degree of surprise.
With a population of around 334,000 — Honolulu's population is about 350,000 for comparison's sake — Iceland is the smallest country to ever qualify for the World Cup, but it may also be one of the countries most dedicated to pushing soccer in recent years, making huge investments in the sport on a national and local level.
And that investment is paying off. Even before making it to the World Cup, Iceland stunned soccer fans in 2016 during the UEFA Euro tournament by knocking out England and going on to the quarterfinals. England's manager, Roy Hodgson, resigned following the defeat.
Soccer from the ground up
Coach Bjarki Mar Sverrisson (center) gives instructions to 12- to14-year-old boys in 2016 outside of Reykjavik. Iceland has invested heavily in soccer programs around the country. (Photo: Karl Petersson/AFP/Getty Images)
Iceland has spent the last 20 years weaving soccer into its culture, as Time magazine explains. New, affordable facilities have been made available to young players, including 13 indoor arenas. Another 150 smaller artificial pitches have been created near schools, with many of those equipped with heating systems to melt snow.
It doesn't stop with indoor pitches, however. Young kids are trained by coaches certified by the Union of European Football Associations through a year-long process. These coaches — there are 716 of them — aren't just for the top jocks or the kids whose parents have the most cash; any kid playing soccer has access to these coaches for only $600 a year, and the Icelandic government subsidizes the cost, covering between a third to a half of the fee.
And the coaches work together on a national level, too.
Players belonging to the mixed football team Grotta attend training in June 2016, west of Reykjavik. (Photo: Karl Petersson/AFP/Getty Images)
"The connection between the coaches is quite good. When a new thing comes, it quickly spreads around," Heimir Hallgrímsson, the national men's team coach, told Sports Illustrated. "You know this guy is doing it, this girl is doing it, so I'm going to do that too. We kind of push each other step by step. It's easy when you have close connection lines between people."
The access to quality coaches isn't limited to the men and the boys, either. Men's and women's teams train next to each other, and girls get just as much practice time as the boys do. Indeed, the national women's team beat Germany in a World Cup qualifying match, putting the women in position to be in next year's tournament.
This 20-year commitment to developing a well-rounded and well-funded soccer program has helped the country on the national level, too. Iceland has benefited from a strong group of players who have grown up in this environment — and one without a massive professional league that can easily burn out players. While some do eventually sign deals with other leagues, particularly those in Scandinavia, the Icelandic soccer mentality, as described by sociologist Vidar Halldórsson, is professional "but not too professional."
The heart of the team
Iceland fans celebrate victory following the World Cup 2018 qualifying match between Iceland and Kosovo in October 2017. (Photo: Haraldur Gudjonsson/AFP/Getty Images)
That mentality is evident on all levels, including how Hallgrímsson engages with the fans.
Hallgrímsson joined the national team in 2011 as an assistant coach, the same year Lars Lagerbäck, the man who coached Sweden to two World Cups and Nigeria to one, came on as head coach. (Lagerbäck left in 2016, following the already-mentioned surprise defeat of England, pleased at how far the team had come.) When Hallgrímsson first came aboard, one of his priorities was engaging members of the Tólfan, the national fan club of Iceland, which roughly translates as "12th man."
At the first meeting Hallgrímsson held with the Tólfan — one in which he would share the starting lineup and provide (and be willing to receive) tactical advice, including any secret plans the team had — a whopping seven people were there.
It's seven years later, and Hallgrímsson continues the practice. For two hours before every home game, Hallgrímsson goes to a popular soccer pub near the national stadium in Reykjavík and shares the same information he shared seven years ago. The only difference is that now, 700 people crowd into the bar to hear what's in store for Iceland's opponents.
Fans of Iceland gathe in Reykjavik for a public screening of the UEFA Euro 2016 match between England and Iceland in June 2016, which Iceland famously won. (Photo: Halldor Kolbeins/AFP/Getty Images)
This is pretty wild, especially for a team set to make its World Cup debut, is No. 22 in the world and has to play Messi. And, yet, nothing has ever been leaked from these town halls.
"I think you gain respect and trust by being open and honest," he told Sports Illustrated. "We always say to the supporters how we are planning to play. When you do that, you're judged just on what you're trying to achieve. It's the same with the media here. We like to be really honest with the media. Then you get criticized for the right reasons."
And embraced. Iceland's fans have a deep bond with their team. The team is nicknamed Strákarnir Okkar, or "Our Boys," and fans bought 27,000 tickets to the 2016 Euro, which is 8 percent of the country's population. As Time pointed out, flying to Russia for the World Cup may limit Iceland's presence, but the Viking clap will be almost certainly heard.
As the video above shows, the chant starts of slow, building in rhythm, which is the key to the whole thing. Iceland started doing it 2014, adapting it from the Scottish Premier League club Motherwell, according to the Telegraph. The chant caught public attention during the Euro 2016 tournament, and other teams in the competition started doing it after Iceland lost in the quarter finals. Still, the chant is associated closely enough with Iceland that the video game studio EA included it in a free 2018 World Cup expansion for "FIFA 18."
Much in the same way the chant has caught on, the national men's team hope they can catch on with soccer fans outside of Iceland, particularly U.S. fans. (Which shouldn't be difficult since the U.S. men's team failed to make it to the World Cup for the first time in more than 30 years.)
"We need the numbers. All Americans like a story like this. It's an underdog story, a Cinderella story," Hallgrímsson told Sports Illustrated. "You go in to meet the big guns, the Argentines that normally win the World Cup, and you go in there for the first time coming from a country of 330,000 people. I think it's an American story. Even if it's 1 percent of Americans who support Iceland, that's still more than we have, so we are open for applications for support!"
You have until Saturday to learn the chant.* * *
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