On the Icelandic Football Team and the Power of Nature and Culture

Gylfi Sigurðsson, Birkir Bjarnason and Kolbeinn Sigþórsson / Getty Images

Some inexplicable force seems to follow the Icelandic men’s national football team (also called soccer). Not only have they captivated the 330 000 who live on this small island far in the north, the team’s success has surprised the world of football, to say the least. They have made headlines in the media across the globe, both because of the team’s success in the qualifying stages of Euro 2016 and their results in the tournament itself. A few days ago they secured Iceland’s place in the knockout stages with a valiant 2-1 victory against a strong Austria team, after previous 1-1 draws against both Portugal and Hungary. Success has of course also followed the women’s national football team, which recently qualified for their second successive major tournament. Many other Icelandic athletes have made great achievements in various sports, most notably the men’s national handball team, which has been part of almost every major tournament in the last decade or so.

Left: The Icelandic handball team with their silver medal at the 2008 Olympics in Bejing.
Right: The Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson), Europe's Strongest Man (2014 and 2015), playing his role in Game of Thrones.

How can it be that such a small nation stands up to (and even defeats) giant football nations with populations in the millions? Perhaps it is best explained by looking into our history and culture. Firstly, Iceland is a small island and for centuries the isolation has forced the inhabitants to stick together in times of crisis. Eruptions, stormy and upredictable weather, the freezing cold, and endless dark winters, have all had a substantial impact on everyday living.

The Holuhraun erupution in 2014 / Arctic-Images

However, Mother Nature does not only bring us islanders misery and catastrophe. The force of nature lives within the people, and is a powerful driving force in dealing with every day situations and bigger life battles. We climb mountains and glaciers, explore the wilderness, filling the footsteps of the generations before us. We feel the presence of our ancestors and (most of us) do our best in treating nature with respect and preserving it for generations to come.

Þorsteinn Surmeli surmelism
Reykjanes, southern peninsula / © Þorsteinn Surmeli 2015 (@surmelism).

This omnipresent force of nature, or should we say coexistence, is also evident in our language which has remained nearly unchanged for over a thousand years. As a result, we can still read texts written by the same people that layed the foundations of Icelandic settlement. We can connect with these individuals, share their emotions and feel their presence, just by opening a book and reading one of the 40 sagas of Icelanders from the 13th century, travel logs from the 17th or diaries from the 19th. This unbroken chain means that we can easily inch our way backwards, century by century, to connect with people’s experiences in the settlement era.

sigur rós
Sigur Rós

The magic staves that are printed in Sorcerer's Screed have the same roots, they come from our history, language, and connection with nature. And the power also lives in them, just like the power lives in nature, the language, the an astounding 8% of the Icelandic population followed the football team to France, the 92% that have supported them from a distance, the original music compositions of Björk, the hypnotizing tunes of Sigur Rós, the rythmic music of Of Monsters & Men and other seemingly impossible achievements that originated from this small, remote island that some thought inhabitable because of the extreme conditions. On the contrary, these extreme conditions shape us as individuals and as a nation. That is the very reason why , and why the man’s national football team will play England in the round of 16 in the team’s first major tournament. Áfram Ísland!

Þorsteinn Surmeli
Editor at Lesstofan