Iceland taking the game to the fans - literally

Ragnar Sigurdsson has been a superstar for Iceland during their amazing adventure at Euro 2016, which continues with a quarter-final against hosts France tomorrow.
Iceland taking the game to the fans - literally

He was a scorer and man of the match in their 2-1 win against England, a rock at the centre of a well-drilled defence. The 30-year-old’s performances have made him a target for Tottenham, Leicester, Schalke and Wolfsburg.

Sigurdsson — who plays for Krasnodar in Russia and will probably opt for the Premier League — also played a key role in another important game in Iceland’s stunning journey from a bunch of nobodies to the football world’s favourite underdogs.

It was a low-key home friendly against Canada in August, 2007. Sigurdsson scored in the 1-1 draw but it was not the result that was significant, it was the fans. They raised a bigger cheer than usual for Sigurdsson’s goal and made noise throughout the game, even though there were only 5,000 of them.

“Before then,” said Halldor Einarsson, one of the most famous figures in Icelandic football, “there was no atmosphere when the national team played. Nobody sang, no chanting, it was just dead.”

One disillusioned fan, Styrmir Gislason, founded a fans’ group called Tolfan (twelve, as in twelfth man). They made their debut at that friendly and Sigurdsson’s goal was the first they cheered.

“Tolfan is playing a very big part in the team’s success and it has certainly been noticed by the world’s media,” said Einarsson, who won the national league twice as a player with Valur and now owns the company that makes the fans’ shirts. “Long may this last for us all to enjoy.”

Tolfan have provided the drummers, organised parties and led the singing in France, where the players have joined in after the final whistle. The bond between fans and players is, says Tolfan’s treasurer Kristinn Hallur Jónsson, “unique in football”.

“A lot of supporters know the players because Iceland is such a small country,” said Jónsson. “They talk about six degrees of separation between any one person and another around the world. In Iceland it’s more like two or three.”

This “unique bond’ waslargely formed by the man who will lead Iceland in their next quest, attempting to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Heimir Hallgrímsson, a dentist who doubles up as a football coach, takes command after the Euros, where he is working alongside Lars Lagerback, the Swede who will retire after this tournament.

Hallgrímsson takes the supporters so seriously that he goes to their favourite pub two and a half hours before home games, reveals the starting line-up and tactics, and shows them the motivational videos made for the players.

For one of their games the captain, Aron Gunnarsson, was suspended — so the coach took him along to the pub too, to say “Hi” to the fans.

“I don’t suppose he will do it when he becomes the head coach,” said Jónsson. “But he is a PR genius, and he will keep the relationship going. Maybe he will find somebody else to come to the pub, but he will definitely come up with something. Nobody wants to lose that bond between the team and the fans.”

Hallgrímsson says Tolfan are “a fantastic group of guys and girls” who have made a big difference to the team. For his first visit to the pub, before a friendly against the Faroes, there were only a dozen fans there. Now there are 400. It is hard to imagine Roy Keane or Martin O’Neill doing anything similar with the Ireland fans.

“I think I’ve had a big part,” said Hallgrímsson.

“Yes, it’s really unusual that a national coach would turn up before a game like this. Perhaps it is seen as sweet in a way and silly, too, because there could always be a drunk guy who knocks me cold or whatever.

"But this is Iceland — we dare to be a bit different.” The songs they sing are different, too. There is the ‘Iceland haka’ and their own equivalent of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’.

The ‘haka’ has been a huge hit on social media, described as a “Viking war chant”.

But it comes from Motherwell and has nothing to do with the Vikings. When an Icelandic club, Stjarnar, played Motherwell in the Europa League two summers ago, the Scottish fans did the ‘haka’, as they had done for a few seasons.

They picked it up from the 2006 film ‘300’ in which the Spartan army used a similar chant before going into battle against the Persians. Stjarnar fans took it from Motherwell, Tolfan took it from them and it has gone viral online.

“We would like to thanks Motherwell for lending it to us!” said Jónsson.

Then there is Ég er kominn heim, a song, which translates as “I’m home” and sounds like something Val Doonican would sing. It was a hit in Iceland in the 1960s and when the Tolfan president started singing it in a bar one night about three years ago, after a few beers, everybody joined in.

“It became our song,” Jónsson said. “It does for us what ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ does for Liverpool.”

The win against England has helped Iceland to put behind them memories of another famous match from nearly 50 years ago. In 1967 they lost a friendly in Denmark by 14-2. The shame of that defeat against their former rulers — Iceland became independent in 1947 — lived with them ever since, and to this day a Reykjavik brewery makes a commemorative white stout called ‘2-14’.

“Oh, the embarrassment, the shame,” said Einarsson. “I wanted nothing to do with football when those goals were going in.” Back then, and right up until the early 1990s, Iceland’s players were all amateur. That changed with the Bosman ruling, when more players moved abroad to earn a living, and the recent success is a result of heavy investment in coaching and facilities early this century.

“We were a bad team for so long,” said Einarsson. “Now it’s just fantastic. I feel sorry for the English squad. They will not want to go on holidays to crowded places.”

There is another black spot in Iceland’s football history that they will be keen to avenge tomorrow. For years they were not allowed by Fifa to play competitive games because their pitches were made of crushed lava, not grass. They finally switched in 1957 and were allowed enter qualifying for the 1958 World Cup.

After sending 160 letters to France and Belgium to fix dates for their matches — the opponents did not want to travel to the north Atlantic — they kicked off their first competitive game on June 2, 1957. Their opponents? France, in Nantes. They were 2-0 down after 11 minutes and lost 8-0.

If Ragnar Sigurdsson is in form, and those noisy, outnumbered fans — there will be about 1,000 Icelanders at the game tomorrow night — it will be a lot closer this time.

“We are Vikings, we fear no one,” said Sigurdsson. “We have defeated England, now we can beat France.”

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