Iceland made their first World Cup appearance in Russia this year, and their fans, rightfully, went all in. I landed in Reykjavik less than three hours before the kickoff of their final group stage match against Croatia and could immediately distinguish the locals from the tourists by checking who was sporting the Iceland jersey. As I arrived in the city centre later on, supporters had socks, hats, and face paint to show off their pride hours before the crucial contest.
Typically, there’s not much going on in Iceland’s capital city, but on that Tuesday evening, a little square in central Reykjavik was the most exciting place for a sports fan to be. There was an enormous screen set up at one end and people, mostly standing, filled the entire square. The crowd was so dense that I had to spend the entire first half on my tiptoes, trying to find a window between the many heads before me.
Neither team scored in the first half, but the crowd still had plenty to buzz about. Fans laughed upon watching the slow motion replay of Iceland’s Birkir Bjarnason clearing the ball off the face of Croatia’s Vedran Corluka for a throw-in, and they gasped when Alfred Finnbogason missed just wide right before the end of the half. There were the typical disgruntled shouts when the Nordic players were whistled for fouls, sighs of relief when goalkeeper/filmmaker Hannes Halldorsson shut down a strong Croatian attack, and cheers when Iceland won the ball back after a strong tackle.
Highlights from the halftime break included watching a commercial directed by Halldorsson and discussing the first half with long-time and newly-minted Iceland supporters alike.
Though first-half viewing had been a pleasant experience—since everyone had been engaging with the game—the people of Iceland gave me what I came for in the second half. Someone had brought out their drum and thus, the legendary Skol viking clap began. Sometimes, it was the drum in our little square in downtown Reykjavik that started the chant, and sometimes, the crowd would try to match the sound of the Icelandic crowd on the screen, 5,000 kilometers away in Rostov, Russia. Chants of “Island!” (pronounced “eese-land”) followed by three quick claps were initiated in a similar fashion.
All three goals came in the second half and, unfortunately for the “Ultimate Underdogs,” Croatia scored two of them. When Croatian midfielder Milan Badelj found the back of the net in the 53rd minute, the Icelanders were visibly disappointed but quick to return to their chanting and cheering. In the 76th minute, Iceland levelled the score with a penalty kick by Gylfi Sigurdsson and the square went wild as their knockout stage hopes were revived.
Going into this match, Iceland needed a win over Croatia and for Argentina to beat Nigeria to advance to the Round of 16. As a result, supporters were closely tracking the progress of the other Group D contest as the second half went on. In the 88th minute and with the game still tied, the announcer suddenly exclaimed, “Argentina skorar! Argentina skorar!”—a phrase which even I could understand. The crowd erupted, as if Iceland had just scored. Now, all they needed was a single goal and that second qualifying spot would be theirs.
Unfortunately, Croatia scored two minutes later, effectively killing Iceland’s hopes of making it past the group stage. The crowd knew it, but still, they stayed to watch their team play all the way through the final minute. After the referee blew the final whistle, the supporters gave their team a round of applause, thanking them for representing Iceland at the country’s first-ever World Cup. Though they finished the group stage with just one point, Iceland had much to be proud of, playing Argentina to a draw and scoring the only goal that Croatia conceded in three matches.
As the faithful fans of Iceland cleared out of the city square, a light rain began to fall, as if the sky, too, was mourning the loss of everyone’s favourite team.