They were happy just to be here.
Nestled beneath a corner TV at Ireland’s Four Courts pub in Arlington, Va., a group of Icelanders prepared to watch their team make its World Cup debut against Argentina.
As the Icelandic squad took the field and stood solemn during its nation’s anthem, the Icelanders howled along, led by Gudbjorg Bjarnadottir Ozgun, 56, who had painted a tiny Icelandic flag on her cheeks with lipstick, mascara and eye shadow.
“There’s our boys!” someone shouted.
Among the group were the six employees of the Icelandic Embassy who lent scarves and giant flags to the pub to help transform it into an unlikely base for the unlikely team, for however long its miracle lasted. The pub was even offering “Icelandic hot dogs,” topped with fried and raw onions, relish and cocktail sauce. They tried to get their hands on some Icelandic beer, but the nearest state that sold it was New Jersey. They settled for Heineken.
When the ball first moved at kickoff, they grinned and giggled like giddy kids. The outcome of the match seemed almost insignificant. They entertained few dreams of victory against Lionel Messi and his men; it was enough to have arrived at the tournament.
In the 19th minute, Sergio Aguero of Argentina drilled a shot into the upper left corner of the net. There was no explosion of anger — just a resigned sigh and a pursing of lips among the Icelanders. They folded their hands in their laps and shared sad smiles.
But minutes later, striker Alfred Finnbogason broke through the Argentine defense and smashed the ball into the net, scoring the first goal for the smallest country by population to play in the World Cup.
The Icelanders erupted, jumping on the benches and the tables, their fists raised and mouths open in disbelief. They shouted over one another in English and Icelandic. A few wiped away tears. One mother exchanged fevered “YAAAAAAAASSSSSS” texts and jersey-clad bitmoji with her kids, who were watching at home.
Defeat was no longer inevitable, but the waiting was torturous. Argentina brought attack after attack into Iceland’s end of the field.
“This is so nerve-racking,” said Hreinn Palsson, 41.
When Hannes Halldorsson got his cherry-gloved hands on Messi’s penalty kick, keeping the match tied, the explosion of cheers was deafening. Someone started the famous Viking clap, punctuated with bellows and battle cries.
As the clock ticked toward 90 minutes, the Icelanders hid behind their hands, counting down aloud.
“I think something is wrong with this clock,” Palsson said, running a hand over his bald head. “It’s moving too slowly.”
They endured the last minutes of regulation time as Argentina pressed forward, only to be hit with an eternity of injury time: five minutes.
Argentina’s siege continued. In the final minute, Messi sauntered toward the ball to take the free kick that would be the final play of the game. The ball went right into the wall of Icelandic players, and then it was over.
They cheered with hoarse voices and clapped with pink-palmed hands. They did the Viking clap in unison with their fellow Icelanders, broadcast on screen from the city center in Reykjavik.
In shouts around the pub, across tables to one another and on the phone with loved ones, they repeated the same word: “Unbelievable.”
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