In the land of fire and ice, every town has a football pitch.
“Let’s pull over to the side here and grab a coffee,” I suggest to my friend. We are just a day into our road trip around Iceland and I have already begun to grow anxious with the anticipation of finding football pitches.
We pull off the long, desolate, icy road and park the car. My arms are tired from keeping the car on the road. The day we left was the day that extreme snow storms and wind gusts began pelting the island. One gust in particular hit the car so hard, our tires skid across the road. Only later would we check the weather patterns and see that the gust had been upwards of 95mph.
Holding on to the door so as not to let it bend and break off in the frigid arctic wind, we stepped out into the cold, slammed the doors shut and stumbled through the storm until we reached the entrance to the coffee shop.
After ordering a double shot of espresso I asked the woman behind the counter where I could find some football pitches. She reached down, grabbed a map and proceeded to list out every pitch we would come across as we made our way along the Fjord. ⠀
She ended by saying:⠀
"In Iceland, every town has a football pitch."⠀
This is Iceland. A land that is shrouded in complete darkness for over 5 months out of the year. With winds that make your eyes water and unforgiving subzero temperatures.
Known colloquially as the land of fire and ice, Iceland is intrinsically at the will of the raw power of nature that sweeps across its mountains, valleys and shores year round. With the rumbling of geothermal activity stirring underneath its surface contrasted by beautiful icy blue glaciers slowly-moving across its landscape, it’s easy to forget that three years prior this country of less than 350,000 people made waves across the footballing world.
And quite frankly you’d be forgiven if you had forgotten. Not seven years ago, the Icelandic national football team or Strákarnir Okkar [our boys], as they are referred to in Iceland, was ranked 131st in the world with little hope of improvement in sight.
But unbeknownst to the rest of the footballing world, a swift arctic wind of change was on the horizon.
While football to Iceland is nothing new, the recent success of the national team to both qualify for Euro 2016 and the FIFA World Cup 2018, is. So the question remains, what sparked this meteoric rise in success of Icelandic football? Well, if you can’t beat em’, build impenetrable footballing safe havens that the Thunder God Thor himself couldn’t tare down.
Instead of trying to battle the elements by continuing to play outdoors, a national grassroots footballing effort was undertaken to erect giant indoor facilities, or “Soccer Houses.” These state of the art arenas provided young aspiring footballers the shelter needed from the unpredictable Icelandic winter. Additionally, there was a large-scale push by the Icelandic Football Federation to invest in elite football coaches. By 2016, the ratio of elite level coaches to the Icelandic population was 1 for every 500 inhabitants. Conversely in England, that number is 1 for every 11,000 inhabitants. And wouldn’t you know it, it worked. .
As much has already been elucidated on as it pertains to the rise of Icelandic football, I will stop here.
Aside from the narrative of a tiny island defying the footballing gods to claim their place in the annals of the beautiful game, what interested me most as I trudged around on snow dusted fields was that even in the most extreme of environments, there is football.
As Icelandic Football Journalist, Alexander Einarsson, stated in an interview to Vice Sports, “I went to training at times on stone pitches if you can put it like that, it was just little rocks instead of grass and that’s where we trained. Many of the pitches we play on in Iceland are in very bad shape, it’s a tough winter.”
What I saw was eery and devoid of life but for hints of green patches of grass poking through the frozen tundra. There were no players warming up on the sidelines, nor fans cheering and yelling in the stands. The only sound I could hear was that of my own breath as the wind beat against my face. As strong headwinds kicked up snow and sand and sent it soaring against the cold concrete of spectator stands, I took pause. The sight of tattered corner flags billowing back and fourth and gnarled piles of steel where goals were tied together to keep them from toppling over was perfectly contrasted by the awe-inspiring nature of Iceland
These pitches were beautiful.
While they were well-worn and tattered, the fields were sanctuaries nonetheless. Standing at centre field I could only imagine the scenes that had played out within the confines of the faded lines painted around the ground. From the best of days to the worst, from victory to defeat, these fields had seen it all.
And it is in that sentiment that these photos were taken. A sentiment that no matter where you play, football is football. From the golden shores of Mancora, Peru to the frozen black shores of Vik, Iceland, football abounds.
As we get back into the car I cannot help but be excited. We pull out of the parking lot and continue down the long stretch of road. “Ready?” Said my friend. “Let’s go find some pitches.” I reply.