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