PARIS — Almost a tenth of Iceland’s entire population was standing in the stadium in southern France. Arms aloft and clapping rhythmically above their heads; they were bearing witness to a moment of sporting immortality that ranks alongside the Jamaican bobsled team and the 1980 U.S. ice-hockey team’s “Miracle on Ice.”
The volcanic island north of the European mainland has roughly the same number of residents as Toledo, Ohio. “The Land of Fire and Ice” is the smallest nation ever to qualify for a major international soccer tournament.
On Monday night, they stunned the world by comfortably beating England at the UEFA Euro 2016 soccer championships. All of their opponent’s players grace the game’s richest league, which is beamed live to more than a billion global viewers from the “Home of Football.”
Coming from a goal down to win 2-1, it was easily the greatest moment in Icelandic sporting history.
That’s an honor to which this extraordinary group of players is becoming accustomed. Six months ago, the nation’s all-time sporting high point was qualifying for this tournament. Last week, it was grabbing a hard-fought draw against top-tier soccer power Portugal. Each of these was greeted with joyful, unprecedented celebrations on the pitch and back home.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal’s prima donna striker who each year costs Real Madrid more than the entire Iceland squad, was baffled by the scenes all around him.
“I thought they’d won the Euros the way they celebrated at the end,” he said. “This in my opinion shows a small mentality and they are not going to do anything in the competition.”
Both teams are still in the tournament, but Ronaldo has been proven categorically wrong.
Iceland progressing from the group stages with a last-minute win against Austria—which sent the hoarse commentator into delirium—was yet another moment to be etched in the Icelandic history books.
What came next transcended Iceland’s mind-blown sporting historians. This time the world was watching as Iceland sprung one of the greatest ever upsets at a major soccer tournament.
The people of Bjork’s homeland, where some still worship the Norse gods, have a new set of heroes.
England, whose coach quit immediately after the game, hasn’t suffered such a humiliation since they were beaten 1-0 by the U.S. at the 1950 World Cup.
On that occasion, England famously had 20 shots at goal to the Americans’ one. In the first 12 minutes, the European giants hit the post twice.
There was no such stroke of fortune this time. Iceland fully deserved its victory.
After just four minutes, Iceland’s goalkeeper slipped up, knocking England’s winger to the ground and giving away a penalty shot.
It looked as though the fairytale was coming to an end. And who could blame keeper Hannes Thor Halldosson? He has struggled to hold down a regular team throughout his journeyman career—playing for nine clubs. He is also a part-time movie director, who made the video for Iceland’s Eurovision Song Contest entry four years ago.
At the time, Iceland was ranked as the 133rd-best soccer team in the world.
There would be no shame for Iceland in losing their first-ever elimination-round game at a major tournament, but even at 1-0 down to one of the highest paid squads in the competition, they weren’t done yet.
Two minutes after England’s goal, Iceland was back on level terms as Ragnar Sigurdsson bundled in an unlikely equalizer. Before 20 minutes was on the clock, Iceland moved into the lead after a mistake by bungling England goalkeeper Joe Hart.
Iceland’s favorite commentator was off again, and England was stunned.
As the clock ticked by, England’s pampered, overpaid, and under-prepared stars began to panic. The Tottenham Hotspur players who collapsed so humiliatingly as Leicester caused one of the all-time greatest soccer upsets by winning the Premier League did it all over again, this time on the international stage. Tottenham’s Harry Kane and Eric Dier joined England Captain Wayne Rooney in suffering total brain freeze. As if they’d been struck down by Odin, they were suddenly seized by the yips.
For England fans watching at home, it was all too much after four days of Brexit chaos. The pound has plummeted, the economic forecast is dreadful and the nation’s leaders are failing utterly. National gloom reached epidemic levels. “Haven’t been this embarrassed to be English since last Friday,” said one fan.
For the rest of Europe, joy was unconfined.
The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, even made a rare foray into sports commentary “UK-Iceland 1-2. Winter is coming,” he wrote on Twitter.
Whatever the cause for England’s mental breakdown, Iceland continued to play their own game. Most of its players were not born with supreme talent, but they operate as a unit that exceeds the sum of its parts.
Even before the England game, winger Elmar Bjarnason explained: “It just shows what you can do when you have team spirit and not playing for yourself. It’s unbelievable to be part of this great team. I’m really proud. It’s an unbelievable moment to play with my good friends.”
In Reykjavik, an instinctive national reserve gave way to celebrations in the street.
As Prime Minister Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson wrote on Facebook: “Oh how fantastic it is to be an Icelander.”