It was mid-afternoon, overcast of course, and I shuffled out of my hostel on Kirkjustraeti for a short walk and some fresh air. I didn’t have a map, and it didn’t really matter. The only aim that day, my first in Iceland, was to work through the jet-lag. A nap, a walk, dinner at dinner time and then a good night’s sleep would do the trick. I had only a couple full days in the country before heading to London (where I had a ticket waiting to see Arsenal play Aston Villa at Highbury), and wanted to make the most of them. So I intended to take it easy shortly after getting off the second transatlantic flight of my life.
That plan lasted about 15 minutes. I turned a corner near Reykjavík’s harbor and wound up walking on a side street behind a handful of men wearing matching, royal blue parkas. The insignia on their backs was unmistakable. It was the ‘Tryzub’—the symbol that anchors Ukraine’s coat of arms and the crest of its national soccer team.
The adrenaline rush was real. It hadn’t occurred to me to check the schedule. What were the odds there was a game of consequence scheduled on one of the three weeknights I was in Iceland? What were the odds there was a game of consequence in Iceland?
I returned to the hostel, grabbed a map and headed to Reykjavík’s tourist information bureau. I’d learned on my first trip to Europe that most tourism officials (at least those outside Barcelona) are useless when it comes to local sports. They don’t know when the games are and usually don’t have the first clue about how to get to a stadium they can’t see from their desk. That’s not what tourists ask for. But it was 1999, my iPhone didn’t exist yet and I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go.
“This may seem like a strange question, but is there a football match tonight by any chance?” I said, approximately.
Iceland surprises. The woman at the desk knew exactly what I talking about. In fact, she was going. She showed me a newspaper with a story about that evening’s Euro 2000 qualifier against Ukraine. Iceland had won only three of 18 matches across the Euro ’96 and 1998 World Cup qualifying campaigns. But as Group 4 play drew to a close in ’99, Strákarnir Okkar (“Our Boys”) were 4-1-3 and tied with France and Russia for second place, a point behind Ukraine.
That Wednesday night was one of the biggest games in Iceland’s modest soccer history. And it had been sold out for weeks, she said.
Laugardalsvöllur, Iceland’s national stadium, is located about 10 minutes east of the Reykjavík city center. It’s not a large city, so the center becomes suburbs pretty quickly and if you’re jet-lagged and don’t know where you’re going, that 2-3 miles can seem much further. But the woman at the tourist office helped me out with the bus schedule and I decided to skip dinner and the early bed time. There would be touts at the stadium, for sure.
All I remember about the bus ride was that it seemed to take forever and that I was surprised by how many people had cell phones. I disembarked, walked through a small field and started searching for tickets near the stadium entrance. There was nobody selling. Maybe it was illegal and I'd have better luck back by Reykjavegur, the street nearby. Nope.
I returned to Laugardalsvöllur and finally, after what felt like an eternity, was approached by a tall guy who looked to be in his early or mid 40s. He was the first and only person I spoke to, and he asked if I was looking for a ticket. I said yes, of course, and he explained in excellent English how he’d planned to attend the game with his daughter before she got sick. He’d sell me her ticket for face value. I’d have paid far more than the $35 or so he charged me, but I kept that to myself. We had a deal. I followed him inside and sat in the west stand with him and a couple friends he was meeting there. The man’s name was Sigurjón, and I remember this because his daughter’s name is written on the back of her ticket. Her surname was Sigurjónsdóttir—“Sigurjón’s daughter.”
Laugardalsvöllur had around 7,000 seats at the time—large enough for approximately 5% of Reykjavík’s population—with room for standing fans as well. It’s been expanded since. I’m not sure how the Ukraine game was “sold out,” but Sigurjón confirmed the tourist officer’s claim. More than 10,000 had filled the place a year earlier for the qualifying opener against France. That day, Iceland held the newly-crowned world champion to a 1-1 draw. Zinedine Zidane, Lilian Thuram and Didier Deschamps all graced the Laugardalsvöllur pitch, and I was looking forward to seeing new AC Milan signing Andriy Shevchenko, 22, do the same.
None of Iceland’s players were familiar, although a few were with recognizable clubs. Lárus Sigurðsson, who scored the equalizer when Ukraine and Iceland drew in Kiev, 1-1, five months earlier, had just signed with West Bromwich Albion. Defender Hermann Hreiðarsson was in the Premier League with Wimbledon. And there was a 20-year-old striker on Iceland’s bench named Eiður Guðjohnsen. He was playing for Bolton Wanderers but was destined for bigger and better. Others played professionally in Norway, Belgium or Germany.
The stakes were high and the game was a grind. I don’t remember many specifics. Shevchenko drew a foul in the Iceland penalty area with some slick dribbling toward the end of the first half. My memory has since tricked me into thinking he converted the ensuing spot kick, but it was Dynamo Kyiv’s Serhiy Rebrov who did the honors. And that was it. Ukraine held on for the 1-0 win, and Iceland’s Euro 2000 hopes were all but extinguished. They would lose, 3-2, a month later in Paris and finish fourth, five points behind second-place Ukraine.
The atmosphere and idiosyncrasies left a more lasting impression. Those 7,000 Icelanders were proud, loud and engaged, and the players surely heard everything despite the track separating them from the stands. The view of the mossy mountains to the north was like nothing I’d ever seen at a stadium, and the hot chocolate and Domino’s pizza slices sold underneath the stands were ideal concessions on a misty evening.
A royal blue scarf with white flecks that must’ve been designed to look like snow caught my eye at the small souvenir stand. I’d purchased a Sheffield Wednesday scarf (that’s my club—long story) on my first trip abroad the year before but had no intention to acquire more until that night at Laugardalsvöllur. That Iceland scarf is the one that started a collection that now numbers more than 200. They represent matches I’ve attended, and it was the serendipitous experience in Reykjavík that inspired it.
It’s nice to think that Iceland’s close call in 1999 is what inspired the commitment to coach and player development that’s paying off so spectacularly this summer in France, where Iceland will meet the hosts in a Euro 2016 quarterfinal on Sunday.
In 2002, Iceland’s soccer federation, the Knattspyrnusamband Íslands, worked with local authorities to start building full-size, half-size and indoor fields throughout the country. The publicly-owned facilities offer players the opportunity to train several times a week year-round. Meanwhile, the KSI began hosting UEFA ‘A’ and ‘B’ coaching courses, ensuring that a high percentage of youth teams had licensed, knowledgeable managers.
The initiatives didn’t pay off right away. Iceland went 4-5-1 in 2002 World Cup qualifying and 4-3-1 in its Euro 2004 preliminaries before stumbling badly in ensuing campaigns. Fortunes finally turned in the fall of 2012, when players who were in their early teens a decade earlier started to come of age. Iceland kicked off its 2014 World Cup qualifying run with a 2-0 defeat of Norway at Laugardalsvöllur and wound up finishing second in its group, seven points behind Switzerland. That was good enough to make the UEFA playoffs, leaving Iceland and its population of around 330,000 just 180 minutes from a trip to Brazil. They tied the opener against Croatia, 0-0, but fell, 2-0, in the second leg.
There was disappointment, but obvious potential. Gylfi Sigurðsson and Kolbeinn Sigþórsson each scored four goals during World Cup qualifying. They were 12 years old in 2002. Now they play for Swansea City and FC Nantes, respectively. Iceland’s Euro 2016 roster also includes men who play in the Bundesliga (Augsburg’s Alfreð Finnbogason), Serie A (Udinese’s Emil Hallfreðsson) and for teams throughout Scandinavia. They are 2-0-2 at this tournament, with victories over heavily-favored Austria and England, and have won over fans across the world.
I’ve been one since 1999. I still have the scarf, the ticket, a couple lousy photos and some very good memories. Although I have absolutely no recollection how I managed to get back to my hostel.