<
>

Iceland's unbeaten march to face England the story of Euro 2016

PARIS -- So many of Iceland's 330,000 inhabitants were in the Stade de France cheering their team past Austria last Wednesday that defender Kari Arnason marveled afterwards: "It's like having your family at the match. I recognized 50 percent of the fans in the stadium." He added, "The best thing is that we're playing England in the second round. That's the team I used to support in big tournaments when we didn't qualify."

Iceland's unbeaten march to face England in Nice on Monday has been the story of Euro 2016 so far. No smaller country had ever qualified for a Euro or a World Cup. Many of us will long remember Icelandic TV commentator "Gummi Ben" ascending into hysteria -- "Never, ever, have I felt as good!" -- as he narrated his team's last-minute goal against Austria that won the game 2-1.

The tiny country's success seems like a miracle. Yet it makes perfect sense. In the latest edition of Soccernomics, we crowned this isolated volcanic land the most soccer-mad country in Europe.

Here's how we calculated that. Firstly, using FIFA figures from 2006, we found that Iceland was one of the European countries where the largest proportion of the population plays soccer. Then we established that Icelanders also watched domestic league matches in large numbers: Among Europeans, only the even smaller Faeroe Islands beat Iceland on that measure.

Lastly, we looked at FIFA figures for television viewing of the 2010 World Cup. The report, written by the research consultancy KantarSport, drew on credible viewing figures from national TV stations around the world. Here are the leading European countries as ranked by KantarSport and FIFA:

Clearly the Icelanders are obsessed with soccer. In some ways, the country's story is very like two of Europe's other most soccer-crazy nations, Norway and the Faeroes. Iceland, too, is a social democracy, whose government does its best to give all inhabitants the chance to play sport. And Iceland also has long winters, which people tend to spend hunkered down inside, either working hard or drinking hard while they wait for the summer partying season.

What to do while hibernating? Vidar Halldorsson, an Icelandic sports sociologist, says: "We grew up watching English football on TV, from the 1970s. The only TV station in Iceland showed English games once a week, on Saturdays [not live, but a week later]. They were the only professional sports we saw." Aron Johansson (raised in Iceland but now an American international) recalls boys fighting in the streets of Reykjavik over English soccer results. "That passion was very deep," he says.

It's a passion that reached its apogee in 2006 when the billionaire Bjorgolfur Guomundsson, then Iceland's second-richest man after his son, Bjorgolfur Thor, bought West Ham United. After the financial crisis devastated Iceland in 2008, Forbes magazine revalued Guomundsson's estimated net worth from $1.1 billion to zero. In 2009, he was declared bankrupt. Still, no doubt the passion remained.

In the twentieth century, Icelanders watched English soccer but didn't have much opportunity to play or watch their own. Iceland's league runs from May to September -- "the shortest football season in the world", the country's soccer federation proudly calls it. But in the late 1990s, Iceland began building an all-weather soccer infrastructure that may be unparalleled on earth. Over 110 Icelandic schools got artificial mini-fields, and there are now seven heated indoor halls with full-sized soccer grounds. Nowadays Icelanders can play all year round, whether they belong to a club or not.

Playing soccer is a part of life in Iceland, especially in the villages. Gender barely matters, as nearly one-quarter of the country's registered soccer players are girls under the age of 18. Even 6-year-old kids are trained by qualified paid soccer coaches. They usually play other sports too.

Sport in Iceland is something you do very seriously, for fun, while continuing real life on the side. There can't be many countries where the national team's goalkeeper is also a professional filmmaker. Hannes Thor Halldorsson shot the video for Iceland's Eurovision song festival in 2012. A year later, aged 29, he finally turned full pro as a soccer player with a club in Norway. Today he leads Euro 2016 for saves.

And soccer isn't even Iceland's best sport. The country's handball team plays much the same kind of hardworking and humble game that the soccer team has displayed in France. In 2008, the handballers won silver at the Beijing Olympics, the first time a country that small had won an Olympic team medal. During the semifinal against Spain, so many Icelanders back home were glued to their TV sets that not a single trade was made on Iceland's stock exchange. In the last minute of the game, with victory certain, the team's captain, Olafur Stefansson, wept on the court.

Stefansson, in true Icelandic fashion, combined his sporting career with a double life as an amateur philosopher. After the semi he debated with journalists whether the result was "believable" or "unbelievable". Iceland lost the final in Beijing to France, but it was easily the highlight of the country's sporting history up till then.

Monday's game against England should be bigger. Fittingly, there will be a touch of Iceland's handball genius on display. The soccer team's captain Aron Gunnarsson, a skilled handball player (whose brother inevitably plays handball for Iceland), excels at creating danger with his precise long throws, one of which led to Jon Dadi Bodvarsson's opening goal against Austria.

England will be wary. Iceland's joint coach, Heimir Hallgrimsson (who is also a practicing dentist), says: "To win we will have to play the perfect match, the game of our lives."

They can do it.