Iceland’s heroes also Norway’s heroes

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NEWS ANALYSIS: What a swell party it was, not least in Norway. It was the proverbial “morning after” on Monday, following Iceland’s 5-2 loss to France at the European Championships Sunday night, but Norwegians who’d latched on to the Icelandic national football team as their own heroes at Euro2016 were claiming strong feelings of kinship, and no local commentators were viewing them as losers.

Even when the score was 4-0 in France’s favour, Iceland’s enthusiastic and proud football fans kept cheering, especially after Iceland scored in the second half. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) carried the match live, and attracted another huge audience after 1.2 million Norwegians watched Iceland’s earlier match against England. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/newsinenglish.no

Even when the score was 4-0 in France’s favour, Iceland’s enthusiastic and proud football fans kept cheering, especially after Iceland scored in the second half. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) carried the match live, and attracted another huge audience after 1.2 million Norwegians watched Iceland’s earlier match against England. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/newsinenglish.no

Most agreed Iceland had already won even before taking the field on Sunday, simply by making it all the way to the quarter-finals and humiliating powerhouses like Portugal and England along the way. There was also a lot of genuine gratitude towards Iceland expressed in Norway this past week as well, for bringing excitement back to a game that’s been shamed recently and to a championship from which Norway had been excluded. The Norwegian national team had failed to qualify for Euro2016 and Norwegian fans quickly started cheering for Iceland, moreso than for fellow Scandinavian teams Sweden and Denmark.

Perhaps, mused everyone from Norway’s prime minister to a professor of history at the University of Bergen, it’s because Iceland’s island nation is widely believed to have been populated by Vikings from Western Norway. “The Icelanders came from Norway,” claimed Prime Minister Erna Solberg with a laugh this week, telling newspaper Dagsavisen that she believes there are genetic ties between Norwegians and Icelanders. “In Bergen (Solberg’s hometown), we say that those who left were escaping all the crazy things they’d done in Vestlandet (Norway’s west coast),” Solberg said.

More kinship with Iceland than with Sweden and Denmark
Professor Geir Atle Ersland at the University of Bergen confirmed there are “good sources” behind the claims that Icelanders are people who emigrated from communities along the Norwegian coasts of Trøndelag, Møre, Hordaland and Rogaland in the 800s and 900s. “But it’s not at all certain that those who left were the wildest,” Ersland told Dagsavisen. Those who took off and settled on Iceland’s stormy, volcanic island may well have been “the calm and sensible ones who were tired of all the conflicts and unrest here at home, at a time when Harald the Fairhaired was conquering old kingdoms along the coast.”

The professor agrees there’s reason for Norwegians to feel more kinship with the Icelanders than with the Swedes and Danes, both physically and mentally. Norwegians and Icelanders share a sense of recklessness, cynicism, and sarcasm, Ersland notes: “When the storms are raging and the house gets blown to bits, they can both comment that, ‘yes, it’s rather windy today.'” And if the Norwegian language had never been so heavily influenced and “modernized” by Danish and German in the Middle Ages, Erslands claims, it would likely resemble Icelandic, which has retained its Norse origins.

Hermann Ingólfsson, Iceland’s ambassador to Norway, agrees that Norwegians and Icelanders resemble one another.” He has been met with heartfelt congratulations and even hugs from otherwise reserved Norwegians while walking down Oslo’s main boulevard, Karl Johans Gate, and was as grateful for the Norwegians’ support and enthusiasm as the Norwegians were that Iceland gave them something to cheer about.

“We have so much in common,” Ingólfsson told Dagsavisen. “We’re both tough people who like the outdoors and experiencing the storms. We did move from Western Norway 1100 years ago, the first settler was Ingolfûr Arnarson from Dalsfjord.”

Played for their team and country, not for themselves
Ingólfsson attributed the Icelanders’ success at Euro2016 to a combination of national strategy to promote excellence in football and pure motivation and cooperation. Known for their strong defense, the team played as if they were defending their own country. “The players play for the team and not for themselves,” their ambassador said. Their defense collapsed only when they met France, which respected Iceland’s record and were motivated to play their best as well on home turf. They were simply better and more experienced.

After years of financial and political crises in Iceland, it was also high time for the Icelanders to have something to cheer about. Another cultural attribute that also set Iceland apart from many other countries emerged during the match against England. One woman from Iceland who’s living in Norway told newsinenglish.no that she was shocked by the behavior of British expatriates who also were out watching that match last week in Oslo on big outdoor screens set up near the Akershus Fortress. “They were swearing and calling their own players horrible names when they made mistakes or were losing,” she said. “We would never do that. I figured they were still upset about Brexit (the British vote to leave the EU, which had occurred just days earlier), but I asked an Englishman sitting near me why they were so mean and rough on their own players, and he just said it was because there were ‘idiots.’ We don’t react that way.”

That was proven Sunday night, after Iceland lost to France. The Icelandic fans kept cheering on “their boys” even when they were down 4-0 at the half. When Kolbeinn Sigthórsson and Birkir Bjarnason scored goals in the second half, the fans roared even more enthusiastically, both in Paris and at home in Reykjavik. Some were commenting on Monday that at least Iceland “won the second half,” by a score of 2-1.

‘We were all Icelanders’
Prime Minister Solberg also points out that Norway and Iceland are both small countries on the world scene and accustomed to feeling like an underdog. “We (Norwegians) love it when a Lilliput nation beats big nations in all sports, and especially in football,” Solberg told Dagsavisen, in explaining her own and other Norwegians’ cheering support for Iceland. She was watching Sunday night, and had sent out messages of congratulations and encouragement for Iceland via social media.

On Sunday evening, wrote football commentator Ola Bernhus in newspaper Aftenposten, “we were all Icelanders, all of us here in the north.” He admitted straight out that Norwegian sportswriters mostly cast their neutrality aside and were also cheering on “our boys” just like the Icelanders.

“Wasn’t it wonderful to see that spirit, still mobilized when they kept fighting for goals right up to the last minute?” wrote Bernhus. “They never once felt sorry for themselves. And not for a moment did the Icelanders in the grandstands show anything other than love for their team. We share that. It was a great evening.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund