When I was eight years old, I watched the FIFA World Cup with my father. I had never seen anything like it before, and it had everything the eight-year-old me could want: soccer, excitement, flags (I was really into flags, for some reason), and an endless variety of regulations, facts, and statistics to memorize. More than all that, it gave me and my father something to do together.
Bulgaria had a good run that year, making it all the way to fourth place and beating Germany in the quarter-finals to do it. From what I gleaned listening to grown-ups talking, Bulgaria were not supposed to be very good. "Is this normal?" I asked my dad. "No, but it happens sometimes."
Indeed it does. Because of soccer's relatively low scoring when compared to most professional sports, unlikely teams have made their mark on both the World Cup and the European Championships on several occasions. Croatia made it even further than Bulgaria in '98, finishing in third place. Denmark's path to victory in 1992 is the stuff of legend, and 2004 saw Greece somehow fight its way to the top, much to everyone's surprise.
But when I asked my dad the next logical question—whether or not Iceland has ever qualified for the World Cup or the Euros – his response was a cold, mirthless laugh. "No, son, and I doubt they will while I'm alive." No doubt seeing the look in my eyes, he quickly added: "But anything's possible."
So I kept watching, year after year, tournament after tournament. I saw new hopefuls emerge (Ghana, Senegal, the United States) and give me something to believe in, often providing me with far more entertainment than the actual finals, which usually saw one of maybe five countries kick the trophies between them like they were playing hacky sack. Meanwhile, Iceland got worse, then better, then worse again, and finally better again in the qualifying pre-tournaments. Making it to Brazil '14 boiled down to one last game against Croatia, which Iceland lost.
But the team had tasted blood. When UEFA decided to expand the Euros to 24 teams, it seemed our time had come. Iceland had, on a number of occasions, been just a few points or goals away from qualification; surely, we could do it this time.
And sure enough, we did. When it was clear that our national soccer team would play at Euro 2016, an odd feeling settled over Iceland, a kind of wide-eyed anticipation colored by realism as we struggled to comprehend it all, like we as a nation had successfully proposed to Scarlett Johansson: Yeah, it's exciting and it's everything we ever wanted, but were we good enough to do the job? And could we handle the pressure and the expectations? Teams qualify for these tournaments all the time, only to go home pointless and goalless, and not just first-timers. Sometimes world champions are sent home in the first round.
I, for one, did not get my hopes up. After all, our team had always let us down when the stakes were high, and it would be foolish to assume that this would be any different. So when Iceland's first game against Portugal kicked off, I watched, safe from all hype in my expat bunker, thousands of miles away from my homeland, but dared not hope. Hope was dangerous.
I'm not saying that Iceland was particularly good, but you didn't have to be very good to beat England. You just had to be slightly less shit.
Even so, I remember being struck by the general weirdness of seeing them up there, those familiar-looking Icelandic faces with their mispronounced Icelandic names. It was like seeing your best friend in a movie, very surreal and incongruous.
We knew the odds were good that we'd get out of our group and into the last 16. Only six teams would be disqualified after the first round, and we'd be damned if we were going to be one of those six. Even so, it very much came down to the wire, as our entire group seemed incapable of decisively winning anything, and we squeaked into the second round with a narrow victory against Austria.
I'm particularly happy with the fact that our first knockout opponent was England. If ever there was a supposedly "big" team that we could realistically beat, it was England, with its undeserved hype, fragile ego, and unconvincing "talent." Frankly, I'd have been embarrassed if Iceland lost to them. Only really shit teams lose to England, but then again, this is Iceland we're talking about—our team was also not terribly good, and had disappointed us horribly in the past. Consequently, the realization that either Iceland would beat England or vice versa was also weird, with neither outcome seeming plausible to me.
But boy, was it simultaneously satisfying and infuriating when Iceland did win. English pundits exploded with vitriol over how embarrassing it all was, blaming the defeat on anything and everything without admitting to even the idea that Iceland had simply played a better game than England. I'm not saying that Iceland was particularly good, but you didn't have to be very good to beat England. You just had to be slightly less shit.
And nothing underscored this better than France kicking our ass in the quarter-finals. France had until then been fairly unconvincing this year, with the closest thing to a real test in the tournament being a 0–0 draw against Switzerland, but the team really shone against Iceland. The star players finally delivered, and while Iceland fought valiantly until the end, making France earn the victory, the end result was never really in doubt.
And watching that game was like a return to reality for me, like everything was normal again. Of course we lost to France in a Euro quarter-final. Why wouldn't we? We're Iceland. They're France. They won the World Cup once and the Euros twice, you know.
But there was no sadness, no grim melancholy to it this time. The team had acquitted itself well, and making to the quarter-finals in your first ever European Championship is nothing to sneeze at. Also, the future is bright: Our old rival Croatia is the only real challenge in our World Cup 2018 qualifying group, and the colossal hype generated around Iceland's upset victory over England has all but ensured interest in our players among the world's more prominent league teams, which will in turn improve the quality of our national team. The best, one would hope, is yet to come.
But 2016 has already given me my best Euros yet. Two long-shot teams have defied the odds (go Wales!) and made this a championship worth watching, only this time, one of those teams was from my home country. My dad called me long-distance after the England game. "Who'd have believed it, ten years ago?" "Not me, dad, not me." For just a month this summer, I got to be eight years old again, and I remembered what it feels like to believe. After all, anything's possible.
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