The Spot
Slate's soccer blog.

July 1 2016 9:18 AM

Cheering for Iceland Feels Different When Your Husband’s Unexpectedly Been Elected President

In February, I swam with the Canadian-Icelandic writer Eliza Reid and her family in the beautiful Álftanes pool outside Reykjavik as part of my research for a New York Times Magazine story about the geothermal swimming pools of Iceland. At the time, none of us knew the remarkable turns their lives, and their country’s sporting culture, were about to take. After his TV explanations of the Panama Papers scandal endeared him to Icelanders, Eliza’s husband, historian and university professor Guðni Jóhannesson, decided to run for president in May. On Saturday, despite—or perhaps because—of the fact that he had never before held office, Guðni won the election. On August 1, he’ll be sworn in, and Eliza and their four children will be the new First Family.

Meanwhile, the Icelandic football team, representing a nation of just 320,000 people, has been experiencing its own Cinderella story in its first ever major international tournament, Euro 2016. On Monday, during Iceland’s bananas defeat of England in Nice, I was delighted to see Eliza posting videos to Facebook from inside the stadium of her husband and oldest son jumping up and down and screaming. After the match, we spoke, and my full conversation with Iceland’s first lady-elect will air next week on Slate’s parenting podcast, Mom and Dad Are Fighting. But, in the meantime, here’s an excerpt with Reid’s thoughts on Iceland’s upcoming quarterfinal match with France and what it’s like living in a country where everyone—yes, everyone—is cheering for the same team.

Did you get to go to the England-Iceland match because you’re First Lady-elect?

Well, I suspect it was easier for us to get tickets, but we didn’t go in any official capacity. But because Guðni is the president-elect, and I’m first lady-elect, the French officials wanted to be aware that we were going. And so we were met at the airport by a police convoy, who escorted us to our generic, average, found-on-TripAdvisor hotel. The owners of the hotel were rather surprised that we pulled up in this convoy, and promptly upgraded us to a suite. So I can recommend that.

When traveling to France, try to arrange to be the president-elect of your country.

Our son was rather thrilled by it all.

Is it true that 99 percent of Icelanders have been watching these matches?

I think it’s that 99 percent of televisions that were turned on were tuned to the station showing the match.

What’s it like being in a country that is so unified in its excitement for this epic football story?

There is this great atmosphere right now. The election just happened, there’s a new president, and I think it’s fair to say a majority of people are satisfied—even if they didn’t vote for Guðni, they’re still satisfied with him as a choice. So that, I think, is also making people optimistic—but obviously the football, far more so.

During the first matches in the regular part of the tournament, we were campaigning. So we watched them in these little villages. In Bolungarvík in the Westfjords, in Siglufjörður in the north—everywhere, the atmosphere was great and convivial.

Do you guys get to go to Saint-Denis for Sunday’s match against France?

Yeah. Again, not in an official capacity. But we’re gonna go! It’s our wedding anniversary too, so it’s like we’re taking a romantic trip to Paris for our anniversary, where we’ll watch a soccer game and be with a PR person.

Were you an actual sports fan before this?

No, I’m not a particular sports person. Guðni loves sports.

He was a handball player, right?

Yeah, his brother was on the national team for handball, so he comes from a handball background, but he always follows sports: women’s football, men’s football, all the sports. And everyone likes this story. No one except the French is rooting for the French.

Yeah, the entire world is on Iceland’s side.

It’s a David vs. Goliath story! Just qualifying for the tournament is a huge triumph for the team, so everything else is just icing on the cake. There’s no pressure on them! They can lose 20-0 to France (which won’t happen, I’m sure) and they’ll still be heroes.

As a non-sports fan but an Iceland partisan, and now an official voice of Iceland, tell me why Iceland has a chance on Sunday to beat France.

Because all the pressure is on France! Iceland doesn’t have any pressure. They have drive and discipline and enthusiasm. They’ve got nothing to lose!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

June 30 2016 4:30 PM

Why Has England Targeted Its Young, Black Star in the Wake of Its Euro Flameout?

If a soccer team bears the hopes of a nation, it is also saddled with that nation’s particular fears and neuroses. Everything is about hope, up to the exact moment the team crashes out of an international tournament, and then fear takes over. Blame must be meted out, and the way in which that happens tells a story. This is, and always has been, particularly true of England.

June 29 2016 5:03 PM

How Football Can Explain a Divided Europe

Here are a few of the things that have happened in the past week in Europe.

June 28 2016 12:46 PM

Why Was It So Hard for Me to Watch the Euros in Europe?

My French translator was apoplectic with anger. By some odd twist of fate, I was scheduled to speak at the Festival International de Roman Noir—a crime novel festival held in Frontignan, France—at the exact same time as France’s round of 16 showdown against Ireland.

June 27 2016 7:22 PM

Iceland Topples England; Announcer Makes Fun of Brexit in His Happy Delirium

In what's being hailed as a huge upset, tiny Iceland defeated a talented but chronically underperforming English side to advance to the quarterfinals of the 2016 European Championship. And the excitement might be too much for Icelandic announcer Gummi Ben.

This impassioned squealing, according to Twitter user Gissur Simonarson CN, translates to:

This is done! This is done! We are never going home! Did you see that?! Did you see that?! Amazing! I can’t believe it! This is a dream. Never wake me up from this amazing dream!
Live the way you want England. Iceland is going to play France on Sunday. France Iceland! You can go home! You can go out of Europe! You can go wherever the hell you want! England 1, Iceland 2 is the closing score here in Nice! And the fairytale continues!

While the odds, at 13/2, weren't as steep as the the odds Peru faced (15/2) in its upset over Brazil in the Copa America Centenario earlier this month, English melodrama—combined with some very real numerical disadvantages for Iceland—earned this win comparisons to Leicester City's shocking Championship run in the Premier League, in which they overcame 5,000-to-1 odds to win the title. The global media covered Leicester's surreal rise with the appropriate rhapsody and deemed the team’s championship win the greatest underdog story of all time. So how does Iceland's win stack up?

Injured Belgian international, Manchester City star, and soccer analyst Vincent Kompany called the win “bigger than Leicester.”

That's a point that's up for debate, but here are a few facts that support Iceland's case.

Besides Tahiti, which qualified for the 2013 Confederation's Cup, Iceland is the smallest country ever to qualify for a major soccer tournament, as Eric Betts wrote in Slate. Iceland's manager, Heimir Hallgrimsson, still occasionally works as a dentist at his practice. Most importantly, not only does the population of the entire country of Iceland roughly equal that of Leicester City but Iceland can’t buy players from other countries to represent them as club teams can. They only have so many men to choose from. But, boy, did those men perform.

England’s Wayne Rooney converted a penalty shot just four minutes into the game to give the favorites the lead, but less than two minutes later, Ragnar Sigurdsson slid a shot past England keeper Joe Hart to equalize. Fifteen minutes later, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson rocketed a shot to the lower right hand corner that Hart got a piece of before it trickled across the line. You can watch the goals here:

June 27 2016 6:22 PM

Waiting for Gascoigne

A new version of a scene from Waiting for Godot, as rewritten by one despairing England fan.


June 22 2016 5:22 PM

Listen to This Iceland Announcer Go Absolutely Bonkers During the Team’s Game-Winning Goal

An Icelandic announcer named Gummi Ben absolutely lost his mind when Iceland scored a stoppage time game-winning goal against Austria on Wednesday to secure second place in their group and advance to the round of 16 in the European Championship.

June 22 2016 2:10 PM

Ronaldo Is Soooo Good at Soccer. You Have to See What He Just Did.

In an elimination game against Hungary in the group stage of the 2016 European Championship, Portugal’s star striker and curiously proportioned statue Cristiano Ronaldo was absolutely magical, scoring two game-tying goals. If he hadn’t scored either of these goals, Portugal would have been eliminated from the tournament in a shocking upset. Instead, the team survives to the knockout phase and Europe’s greatest player gets to hopefully keep doing crazy things.

June 22 2016 9:27 AM

The U.S. Copa Performance Proves It: Jurgen Klinsmann Has Fallen Short

From the start, the promise of Jurgen Klinsmann as manager of the U.S. men’s national team was revolution: gritty, plodding American soccer would give way to attacking flair; the parade of journeymen would end; an era of skilled stylists would begin. It was a grand project, a cultural transformation that would require bending the entirety of American soccer to his vision.

June 22 2016 9:26 AM

Messi’s Free Kick Was Predictable and Amazing

Everything about Lionel Messi’s free kick goal in Argentina’s 4-0 drubbing of the U.S. in the Copa America semifinals felt inevitable.