‘In 1946 Iceland played against Ilford. Now it’s England in the Euros … Afram Island!’

Iceland News Conference - EURO 2016

When Halldor Einarsson’s sports kit company started selling shirts to Iceland fans for Euro 2016, they added a felt-tip pen to the deal.

The three Group B fixtures were printed on the right sleeve, with a box to fill in the scores.

“I thought we would maybe get one draw from those three games, and I wasn’t arrogant enough to leave space for a fourth match,” said Einarsson, one of the best-known figures in Icelandic football, who once arranged a summer visit by Manchester United and persuaded George Best to play against them.

His predictions were wrong and his company, Henson, has had to go into overtime to try to cope with demand. Iceland won one, drew two and they next play the biggest match in the nation’s sporting history, a knockout tie against England in Nice tomorrow.

“We’re making more shirts, these ones with the England game on them,” said Einarsson, who was twice a national champion in his playing days with Valur, one of Reykjavik’s top clubs.

“If we win, we can find room for the next one, the quarter-final. No matter how far the team progresses, we will find room to put the matches on there. It’s hard to cope with demand, but it’s great fun.”

Henson and fellow members of the older generation in Icelandic football can barely believe what is happening, but already they are talking about beating England.

“This is our dream come true, but for so long it was just a dream,” said Sigmundur Steinarsson, who has written a two-part history of football in Iceland, and has reported on the game since 1970. “We didn’t play a game on grass until 1957. Before that, we played on lava – crushed gravel. We were a very bad team for many years.”

The first “international” contests were in 1939, when the Islington Corinthians, a now defunct amateur team from north London, defeated Iceland’s finest 1-0 and 3-2 in Reykjavik. The visitors were presented with a gift: copies of Iceland: Nature and Nation in Photographs.

In 1946, Iceland sent a team to play five games in London, all against amateur sides. They won one of them, against Ilford. “You see, we were so far behind England,” said Steinarsson.

The low point for Iceland football, and a date that still resonates in the country’s modern history, came on 23 August, 1967, the year after England won the World Cup. “We were amateurs until the 1990s, and back then it really showed,” said Einarsson. “We played an international in Denmark. We lost 14-2.”

Denmark had ruled Iceland until it gained independence in 1947. This was humiliating. “I was on a bus travelling to training at Valur, and the commentary was on the radio,” said Einarsson. “Every time a goal went in I kicked my kit bag further away from me, under the seat in front.

“The embarrassment of it. I was thinking, ‘I’m not a footballer, I want nothing to do with this.’ It has haunted us for so long. Now we have a game [against England] that will give us better memories. And Denmark is not at the Euros, either.”

Interest in football dropped so worryingly that, in the 1980s, Einarsson organised visits by New York Cosmos and Manchester United. This was the decade when Aston Villa won the European Cup, and when Henson made Villa’s shirts. Einarsson spoke to “Big Ron” Atkinson to arrange the Manchester United games, in which Bryan Robson and Ray Wilkins played. He also persuaded Best to play against United, for a Reykjavik XI and for KA Akureyri, and both matches drew big crowds.

England have never played a full international in Iceland, but in 1985 Scotland won a World Cup qualifier in Reykjavik. The star guest that time was Rod Stewart, who “enjoyed himself so much he didn’t want to go home, and when he did he invited us to go with him”, said Einarsson.

The Scots will, like most of the world, be supporting Iceland tomorrow. The underdogs have been big news worldwide, not just for their results, but for the strange noises coming from their many thousands of supporters.

Their synchronised Viking chanting has been a big hit. “It’s a bit like what the New Zealand rugby team does, the haka,” said Einarsson. Then there is the back-and-forth singing, from one half of the crowd to the other, of Afram Island (Come on Iceland).

Strangest of the lot is the choral rendition of Ég er kominn heim (I’m home), which will be sung in Nice by an estimated 9,000 Icelanders, about 3% of the nation’s population. The lyrics are about a young man returning home in torn shoes, to greet his mother on the farm that his father built, hoping to listen to the brook in search of tranquillity.

“It’s an emotional song, and the sentiments mean something to Iceland people,” said Steinarsson. “They go away to work in another land, and they like to come home. Especially the footballers – they all play in another country.”

Einarsson agreed and said: “There is an amazing bond between the players, and a great unity with the fans. A few years ago, nobody sang at a football match and until now nobody sang the national anthem, either.

“The spirit is so strong, that’s why I think we can beat England. This is all beyond anything I thought possible.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Brian Oliver, for The Observer on Sunday 26th June 2016 23.38 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


Register for HITC Sport - Daily Dispatch