Because my husband, Luke, and I are both former football players and we want our boys to love the game as we do, we packed our bags and our sons — Ellis, 2, and Dane, 5 — on a nine-hour flight to Reykjavik. Tiny Iceland, for the first time, made the World Cup. And the United States did not.
Our plan: to traverse volcanoes and glaciers in the never-ending daylight; whisper in our sons’ ears of trolls, fairies and elves; and hoist them on our shoulders as thousands Viking-clap in unison on a cobblestone street. We hoped it would all get conflated in their little hearts and minds as one magical thing: football.
Thora Helgadottir, my college roommate, would be our Icelandic spirit guide. With white blond hair, ice blue eyes and a stronger punt than the keeper on our Duke men’s team, she fully embodied the “hammer-wielding deity” of Norse mythology. She was — and I will say this until I die — the best women’s keeper in the world, better than Hope Solo.
For Iceland’s first ever World Cup game — against Argentina and the all-mighty Lionel Messi — Thora took us to a rooftop bar with a rain-filled view of the Reykjavik skyline. Wearing Icelandic “fotbolti” garb and waving foam fingers we’d bought at the grocery store, we piled onto a couch. Sigga, a strawberry-blond 40-something-year-old, sat next to us.
“My name,” she told us, “means victory!” She worked in a fish factory for over 20 years, gutting and deworming fish, on the Westman Islands, a place known for puffins. With her platform heels up on the “No Smoking” sign, she lit a cigarette and showed us her “lucky puffin” pendant.
She set a tiny Viking figurine in the middle of the table: “He will protect us.” Dane took possession of a red-white-and-blue face paint stick, which he smeared across every cheek in sight — and Sigga’s forearms and calves.
While Ellis could say “ball” and “goal” before he could say “mum” and “dad,” Dane hasn’t inherited the family passion — at least not yet. When I coached him last season, he stood in the middle of the field with his eyes closed, hands behind his back, humming “The Nutcracker Suite.” But he was happy tucked beneath Sigga’s arm.
The game kicked off, and a loud cheer went up around the bar, the whole country pulling for “our boys.” Iceland’s coach, Heimir Hallgrimsson, is, like Sigga and her mother, Inga, from the Westman Islands.
Thora has instructed us to use only first names: “If you refer to a player by his last name, we won’t know who you are talking about.”
“We have known Heimir since he was small,” Inga said. He was the family’s dentist. Really.
The first 10 minutes were all terror and jubilation — terror every time Messi touched the ball (“No, no, no!” everyone mutter-gasped in unison) and jubilation because the Viking boys had been strong, fortresslike, on defence. They had occasionally charged forward, Gylfi Sigurdsson carrying the ball with confidence, with downright Elan, and Birkir Saevarsson with a chance in front of the goal.
Then, early — too early — the Argentines scored. 1-0. The atmosphere at the bar deflated.
But Iceland went on the attack. They are accustomed to battling (the elements, the odds), and quicker than a Viking clap, AlfredFinnbogason sent the ball home — goal, Iceland! The rooftop erupted, everyone jumping and hugging. The Icelandic announcer screamed. “Argentina, one, Iceland, one! Ha ha!”
“I am so nervous,” Thora moaned as the game continued. It’s a sentence I never heard her say while she was playing. It’s odd to see her on this side of the game, as a player instead of a fan — and it is odd apparently for her, too. “I was never nervous as a player,” she said. “But not being able to do anything! I can’t take it.”
She had been her usual calm self earlier that morning, hanging out in her living room in downtown Reykjavik. I admired a large Tolli painting of a turf home illuminated by sunlight. It was given to her as a gift for her 100th cap with the Icelandic national team. In the United States, we often honour similar achievements with bronze cleats mounted to plaques. Iceland’s football federation believes that the national team players value art — and she does.
Thora was never just a single-minded soccer player. After college, she became the C.F.O. of Iceland DHL, then quit to play in the Champions League with Malmo in Sweden. While winning Swedish Goalkeeper of the Year two seasons in a row, she earned a master’s degree in sustainable management in her down time.
This double pursuit of football and a different career isn’t unique to Thora or Heimir. Youth coaches are subsidised by the government and have other jobs; the men’s goalkeeper is also a successful filmmaker.
The game settled into a gruelling test of survival for Iceland — something they’ve been doing for over a thousand years. And then, at the 64th minute, horror: a penalty kick for Argentina. Messi stepped up. This, surely, was the end.
But no, he missed — keeper save!
“The elves are protecting us!” Sigga screamed, hands on Dane’s cheeks.
Thora collapsed against the couch. “I think I’m going to cry.”
Iceland survived the pounding, and at last, the whistle was blown: tie game. A point earned against Argentina — the perennial powerhouse, a country with approximately 130 times as many people as Iceland. Even if the island nation doesn’t make it back to the World Cup for another century, people will talk of this — using only first names.
We spilled out of the bar and into the rain. A musician wearing a double-French-braid wig banged his drumsticks on his Viking helmet. A woman in an Icelandic superwoman costume, lace underwear on top of blue tights, led an understandably sloppy rendition of the chant Afram Island.
Petra, who plays on Thora’s Monday night adult team, joined us at a bar. She’s also from the Westman Islands and knows Heimir. Twenty years ago he coached her team and removed her wisdom teeth. Now Petra is a single mother to Frosti, an 11-year-old with a neurodegenerative disease. Heimir’s family often takes him for the day so that Petra can have a break. Heimir teases him — rolling him up in rugs, tying the ends of his socks together.
Petra said, “Now Frosti always asks me to tie his socks together.” Frosti does not love football, but he does love Heimir. I sipped my drink and felt great awe for this country, where the national team coach is a friend who sometimes takes in your son for the weekend and where even the superstars are like family. Petra and Thora practised the Viking clap with Dane and Ellis — “Huh!” shouted in unison, in shared celebration. Luke and I lasted as long as we could with the kids out in the rain, and then we left Thora celebrating with her friends.
On the walk back, I stared at the foam hand on top of the wet double stroller, wondering whether I had had too many drinks. I seemed to be having double vision. Instead of the standard “We’re No. 1!” finger, the Icelandic version is a two-fingered peace sign. Which sums up what I want for our boys: the game not as a singular pursuit but as a way to experience the world.
True, Dane barely glanced up at the game. But he did enjoy the face painting. And there was a moment where he waved the Icelandic flag and marched around in the rain (while once again humming The Nutcracker Suite ).
Chances are good, I think, that he’ll have a memory of Sigga’s cheek kisses and a current that swept through rainy streets. I don’t know whether Dane and Ellis will grow up loving the game after this, but I’m pretty sure Dane now believes in elves, and maybe that is enough. For now.
— New York Times News Service
Gwendolyn Oxenham is the author of “Under the Lights and in the Dark: Untold Stories of Women’s Soccer” and “Finding the Game: Three Years, Twenty-Five Countries and the Search for Pickup Soccer” and a co-director of the documentary “Pelada.” NOTE: Iceland lost their second match 2-0, against Nigeria