REYKJAVIK, Iceland — The 35-year-old hotel manager in her Viking helmet with the upturned horns and the Iceland flag painted intricately across her forehead has a best friend whose sister’s boyfriend is best friends with a defender on the Iceland national soccer team. The 35-year-old fan and aluminum smelter wearing an Iceland flag as a cape and walking the rowdy side of the stadium during a recent friendly against Norway played soccer with one of the midfielders from ages 10 to 14, then went to school with him from ages 16 to 20.
The 35-year-old fan outside the stadium before the friendly doesn’t really know any players, but wait, he knows the team’s manager, Heimir Hallgrimsson, having served as the physiotherapist for the club that Hallgrimsson managed on Vestmannaeyjar island, and also because his wife is a dentist who happened to practice alongside Hallgrimsson, who is also, yes, a dentist. A 32-year-old woman steeped in Iceland gear near the vendor was in the eighth grade when the goalkeeper was in the 10th, when the goalkeeper ran for student council.
She voted for him.
The 21st World Cup, set to distract the planet beginning Thursday in Russia, will bring its usual masters such as Brazil (population: 207 million) and Germany (80 million) and its frequenters such as Nigeria (190 million) and Japan (126 million). In the case of tournament debutant Iceland (340,000), it’s as if Bakersfield, Calif., made the World Cup, or, as the 24-year-old Iceland-apparel-store owner Bergthor Thorvaldsson said, like “a town in Texas.”
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Yet as stunning as was the passage of this wee, noiseless island where hardly anybody ever honks a horn, as remarkable as it was that Iceland won its qualification group outright in the most dreaded of earthly footballing continents, and as deserving as it is among the pantheon of sports feats in this desperate, underdog-eat-underdog world, it manages to become more staggering with familiarity. It manages to lap at the shores of absurd.
They’ve all accessed the World Cup from a handsome little stadium, Laugardalsvollur, with one scoreboard clock and open ends and four stalwart light stanchions either reminiscent of a Texas high school football joint (or smaller). When a ball sails over a goal and crosses the running track — yeah, the running track — someone runs to retrieve it, reminiscent of teenagers chasing down extra points on an American Friday night. They’ve reached the World Cup from a country where people speak of standing next to the prime minister in line — at shoe repair.
Still more than all that, it’s how many times you hear someone say that everyone seems to know someone with the team, or knows someone who knows someone, until you start thinking that everyone knowing someone or knowing somebody who knows someone might be some kind of national motto.
It’s the mad, mad reality conveyed by the 27-year-old defender Holmar Orn Eyjolfsson. While the likes of Brazil and Germany will play before their droves of fervent strangers, Eyjolfsson said that if he happens to glimpse into the stands while playing . . .
“You know where your people are sitting, obviously, but yeah, definitely, you can look into the stands and know somebody.”
“Into any section?”
‘The closeness is obviously a thing’
So the sports-bar manager has known Iceland’s recently retired best-ever player for years, and the walking-tour guide kind of knows probably 22 of the 23 Iceland players through a friend, and the 24-year-old apparel shop owner has a former classmate whose brother knows well two Iceland players who just stopped in the shop, and . . .
All the closeness makes a fine slew of uncommon effects.
Get this: Hallgrimsson, the manager, shows up at a pub three hours before national home matches. He meets with fans. “He tells us the lineup,” said Sunna Gudrun Petursdottir, the woman in the Viking helmet. “He tells us [the planned] tactics. And there’s total f—— silence. No phones. And nobody has ever posted anything about anything that goes on . . . . It’s a beautiful thing and nobody would ever do anything to ruin that, however f—— drunk you are. You would never compromise it.”
“Nobody Snapchats,” said Petur Stephensen, the fan with the flag cape.
Get also this: Before the friendly with Norway, Hallgrimsson brought along a temporary guest, Lars Lagerback, because the two of them used to co-manage Iceland, including during their mind-altering run to the quarterfinals of the 2016 European Championships, which included that deathless 2-1 dismissal of England and the popularization of the “Viking Clap.” Lagerback greeted the pub-going fans, of whom he said, “They were very nice and I was honest and very nice back to them.” He presented Tolfan, the ardent Iceland fan group, with a good-luck Norway shirt.
Lagerback manages Norway.
“The closeness is obviously a thing,” Hallgrimsson said. “We know each other personally more than other [countries’] players or fans. So” — wait for it — “everybody knows someone, or knows someone who knows someone.” That results in “an ownership of the team,” he said. “They get more information than most fans. I think they have more ownership in what we are doing than some fans.”
In turn, a smallness exploited thoughtfully might even become a boon on the pitch. It helps with chemistry, of which goalkeeper Hannes Thor Halldorsson said, “It’s not something you can order,” as from a menu. It helps with resolve, of which Eyjolfsson said: “I think [the smallness] gives you an extra boost. You feel a little bit more emotionally involved, I would think. So, you know, you have a real sense of fighting for not only you, not only for your team, but for everyone in the country.”
It might relate to arithmetic, of which Agust Danielsson, the physiotherapist with the dentist wife, said, “I think it’s more or less just because we’re not that many, so every goal that we achieve, it’s a greater goal than when you have, like, people of a million-whatever.”
Then there’s a factor almost incomprehensible to the human mind.
Apparently, Iceland fans don’t complain about their team.
An Italian man residing in Iceland might marvel at this, because to complain about Italy’s team is a function of Italian nationality mandatory for passport renewal. An Icelandic man living in England might marvel that England fans already have begun complaining about their team for a World Cup that has not begun, just to get the jump on the matter.
The lack of Icelandic lament and derision probably owes to the odd fact that the players aren’t really strangers. They’re fellow humans.
“We are never too harsh on them,” said Kolbrun Gigja, the sports-bar manager. “Here, we feel what they’re feeling. We feel with them. When they’re playing, it’s like we’re playing.”
“If someone tweets something about a player, someone’s going to know that player and stand up for them,” said Solrun Flovenz, a young woman at a tourist counter who also spoke of a Facebook rarity: finding other Icelanders with no mutual friends.
“It is a different vibe,” said Tomas Shelton, the walking-tour guide. “Because I’m a huge football fan, so with my team in the English Premier League, and with the U.S. national team, which I follow of course as well” — he has one American parent — “it is way different than the Iceland team. Because it’s like as you say, you know them a little bit better. And it’s like, if they make a mistake, you feel sorry for him, not for yourself.”
Further, players aren’t idolized, because Icelanders aren’t showy and don’t idolize others, especially those amid the everyday tapestry. After speaking of how Iceland might counter somebody who is idolized, Lionel Messi, in its World Cup opener against Argentina on June 16, defender Birkir Mar Saevarsson spoke of walking downtown, saying hello here and there, existing normally. “I’m very grateful for living in Iceland,” he said.
“There’s not this gap between people,” said Kjartan Mar Hallkelsson, a stadium vendor selling T-shirts and scarves and whatnot. “And that’s the same in society itself. You don’t have this lower-class, middle-class, upper-class people. Here we are one nation.”
‘He’s my dentist’
The stadium vendor selling T-shirts and scarves and whatnot doesn’t think he has much in the way of connections to the team. Oh, wait, no. Two years ago, the former captain, Hermann Hreidarsson, turned up after a match to buy some gear for some friends, missed the team bus and got a ride from Hallkelsson and his family. But that’s about it. Oh, wait, no. The vendor coaches 4- and 5-year-old boys, including the son of one of the players, who comes to practices without fanfare. The vendor briefly forgot about that.
Oh, no, wait. The vendor’s oldest son and the middle son of Eidur Gudjohnsen, the retired legend, play on a team, so one time last year up in Akureyri on the north coast, Iceland’s fourth-largest city at 18,000-ish, Gudjohnsen and the boys kicked a soccer ball around a sauna.
Citizens of other countries might retell that story in droning perpetuity.
Halkesson almost forgot.
Two hours of driving and 35 minutes of ferrying from Reykjavik, the Vestmannaeyjar islands have some of the most breathtakingly audacious topography upon this orb — and maybe 4,300 people. Sheep and lambs dwell on sloping hillsides that might cause some of us to topple into the North Atlantic after a pint. Puffins, the adorable ornithological stars of Iceland, lure tourists. Views of the eruptions of Eyjafjallajokull, the volcano that disrupted the North Atlantic flight paths famously in 2010, were jaw-dropping until, day-to-day, the residue became a pain in the ash.
Hop in a taxi, ask the driver about the Iceland manager hailing from Vestmannaeyjar, and hear the driver say, of course, “He’s my dentist.”
Hallgrimsson, 51 with great teeth himself, hasn’t been examining human mouths lately, being rather busy in Reykjavik. He has been managing a team atop a program built logically on organization, defense and counterattacking, yet a team rising unimaginably for Icelanders. He also turned up lately in Reykjavik to vote in Vestmannaeyjar’s local elections, and to ask the taxi driver and his brother for advice in how to transport his ballot to Vestmannaeyjar.
His Vestmannaeyjar house is plenty of house but with zero ostentation. The residence is upstairs, the dentist’s office downstairs. The very sight of it might come as a reminder that this whole thing is just about beyond belief. These Icelanders await witnessing a World Cup either in person in Russia or in downtown gatherings with midnight light at these mid-60s north parallels. They do so as a global darling of bigger lands that didn’t qualify, adopted by an Italian newspaper or an American poll.
Yet you can’t leave the Iceland-apparel store without the impressive owner, Thorvaldsson, pointing to a photo of Iceland player Birkir Bjarnason and saying, “That’s my cousin.”
And you can’t even depart the airport at 7:30 a.m. without meeting the engaging Gudmundur Olafsson, having coffee at the next table. He says he used to coach boys in an under-14 league, against two of Iceland’s players. Oh, and also, his sister lives on Vestmannaeyjar, so of course she knows Hallgrimsson, who has told her that her son should keep playing and learning football, for Hallgrimsson thinks he has a lot of promise.
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