REYKJAVIK (Reuters) - An inhospitable climate and the smallest population of any World Cup nation have failed to dampen Iceland’s burning desire to make history at this month’s tournament in Russia in their own unique way.
What other national team coach, for instance, addresses the fans in a local bar before a home international, as Heimir Hallgrimsson did before Iceland’s recent game against Norway?
For good measure, Norway coach Lars Lagerback, who led Iceland on their glorious Euro 2016 odyssey that ended in a quarter-final defeat by hosts France after knocking out England, also turned up to assist in continuing the tradition.
Despite sub-zero temperatures that make it virtually impossible to grow grass on pitches for much of the year, the game is thriving in the Nordic island nation.
With a modest population of about 340,000, the country’s men’s team is ranked 22nd in the world, with the women three places better in 19th. The previous smallest country to have reached the World Cup finals was Trinidad & Tobago in 2006, with 1.3 million people.
“Our training is the whole year outdoors, and we have very strong kids,” coach Freyr Sverrisson told Reuters as he kept a watchful eye on young players during a session at the Haukar Hafnarfjordur club south-west of Reykjavik.
The club also offers basketball, handball, skiing, karate and chess, but football is fast becoming the dominant sport, especially with widespread investment in full-size indoor pitches and outdoor astroturf surfaces.
“Soccer was always very popular, but after the Euros it’s getting bigger,” says Sverrisson, who coached the country’s Under-16 team from 2002 to 2016.
It wasn’t just the footballers that put themselves on the map in France - the “thunderclap” performed by Iceland’s fans provided some of the most memorable moments in the stands.
With their faces painted in the red, white and blue tones of the Icelandic flag and plenty of Viking imagery, they provide loud and colourful support to a team punching way above its weight on the international stage.
“It’s amazing, the support is so huge,” goalkeeper Runar Runarsson told Reuters.
“From my family, from my friends, from people I don’t even know, the support is huge. They’re so happy.”
Set to face Argentina, Nigeria and Croatia, Iceland have a tough task to make it out of Group D in their debut World Cup.
But, regardless of the results, the tiny nation and its colourful fans are guaranteed to make an impact in Russia.
Writing by Philip O'Connor, reporting by Hannibal Hanshcke,; Editing by Christian Radnedge