Playing for the Equalizer
In January 2018, Iceland became the first country in the world to enforce equal pay by law. In soccer, the players from the women’s national team were already receiving the same daily pay as their male counterparts. Starting this year, they will also receive the same performance bonuses. “Until not so long ago, female players had to pose for a calendar in a bikini in order to get fans to come to their matches,” recalls Hallbera Gísladóttir, a 31-year-old left-back of the national team, “Now things are changing. I think it’s a good time to be a female soccer player in Iceland.”
The women’s national team qualified for the last three European Championships in a row. At the moment, they occupy the first spot in the qualifying rounds of the 2019 World Cup. Along the streets of Reykjavik, giant reproductions of players from the women’s national team stand side-by-side with those of the men currently playing in Russia. “When I took up soccer as a girl I didn’t even know who were the women playing for the national team,” Gísladóttir explains. “Today the girls who start playing have role models to aspire to.” It’s working. Today, one in every three children who begins playing soccer is a girl. And when the women’s national team plays, Icelanders go to the stadium or turn on the TV the same as they do when the men’s team is playing.
Until the early 2000’s, handball was the most popular sport in Iceland. Then, with the proliferation of satellite dishes, people began to watch the Premier League and other European leagues. In 2002, then 13-year-old Magnús Einarsson started a very simple website that published Urvalsdeild match reports so that people did not have to wait until the following day for the results. Today, fotbolti.net sports a network of photographers and journalists across the country and offers coverage of European soccer as well. “We all support at least one team in the Premier League,” explains Magnús, “Every weekend a few hundred Icelanders take a flight to England to go to see a match there.” Support for Icelandic teams is usually linked to the town or neighborhood in which people were born and raised.
“We were the ones who created the idea of soccer fan clubs in Iceland,” says David Svavarsson, one of the oldest members of the Silver Spoon, the fan base of Stjarnan, a club from Gardaber. Silver Spoon fans are considered the fiercest in Iceland, but they hardly do anything more serious than getting drunk at matches, throwing insults at the opponents, or invading the pitch after an important result. They have nothing on hooligans and ultras in other parts of the world. Svavarsson and the other Stjarnan fans also claim to be the ones who imported a chant from the supporters of Scottish team Clerkenwell, turning it into the “Viking clap” that has become the signature of Iceland’s supporters, known as the Tolfan, which means “twelfth man.”
The Tolfan are the fan base that every FIFA commissioner would like to have. They support both male and female teams. They encourage the team instead of insulting the opponents. They preach non-violence (unless provoked). There are no membership fees to pay and all activities are on a voluntary basis. T-shirts and drums are gently offered by clothing companies and music shops of the area. Two hours before every home match, coach and dentist Heimir Hallgrimsson goes to Olver, a pub in Reykjavik, and explains to around 500 Tolfan members who will start and what the coaching strategy will be. When he goes to the stadium, the Tolfan follow him, using the ten-minute walk to rehearse the Viking clap. The secret, says one of them, is the silence between one clap and the following one. It’s during that time that the Tolfan synchronize and become one.
In the Right Place
“There is no formula to our success”, says Benediktsson. “It’s just being in the right place at the right time.” The right place may actually be the secret to the Iceland phenomenon.
Geographically isolated from the rest of the world and constantly battered by rain and snow, Iceland seems to be cut off from so many problems with soccer today: hooligans, high-powered agents, gambling, and skyrocketing salaries. From the federation to the clubs, from the players to the fans, participants in the Icelandic soccer system behave more like the inhabitants of a small town, where everybody knows everybody else and nobody takes himself too seriously.
Standing on the hill that overlooks the training field of Hamar, the club from the town of Hreraverdi, is like tapping into the essence of soccer. Covered by a white dome, the indoor field lies in between snowy peaks. The grass around it is soft and green like moquette. Nothing moves, other than a stream of hot water that runs near it. It feels as if soccer is also a natural element, a feature of the landscape. But does this purity really exist? Or is it only a story that we like to tell ourselves? And if it does exist, does it pay off? And for how long will it last?
One thing is for certain: As the men’s national team battles to pass Russia 2018’s group stage, the landscape around Icelandic soccer is likely to change forever.