February 23, 2007


How Tom Cruise Almost Saved Icelandic Handball (Sveinn Birkir Björnsson, 2/08/07, The Reykjavik Grapevine)

Handball is to Iceland what football is to Brazillians. When Iceland plays an international handball tournament, the gross national product suffers. During the recent handball World Championship in Germany, I would dare to estimate that on average, close to a half of all workhours in the country were spent talking about handball, discussing our chances, dissecting strategy, debating substitution patterns and badmouthing referees.

There are in fact, 300,000 coaches for the Icelandic men's handball team. Obviously, it is a cliché to talk about sports in terms of religion. None the less, team Iceland, aptly nicknamed "Our Boys", is the single most powerful unifier in our country. As a nation, we tend to disagree on everything, except international handball. No religious organisation could realistically demand such devout following from its supporters. Besides Scientology perhaps... But their star player is Tom (nicknamed "the Messiah") Cruise, while ours is Guðjón Valur (not deemed worthy of a nickname). It is not really a level playing field.

After an easy victory against the Australians in the opening game, "Our Boys" dug themselves a deep hole against the Ukrainian team in the second game of the preliminary round. Half-the-way-to-China-deep. A game that had been considered all but a formality for Iceland turned into something else entirely, as the Ukrainians outplayed them in the second half while Iceland's offensive game came to a halt. It was one of the worst performance by the team in recent memory, and frankly, an embarrasing day to be an Icelander.

A second loss against France in the final game of the preliminary round would mean the Icelandic team would have been playing for seats 13 through 23 in the tournament, while a victory would likely propel them to the top of their four team group, ahead of both France and Ukraine; and the sitting duck that was Australia.

Things were looking bleak. France is an an elite team in handball, the current European Champions and winner of the having previously coasted through games against both Ukraine and Australia; the team's coach, former star player Alfreð Gíslason, managed to pull a rabbitt out of his hat. In a motivational ploy befit of Pat Riley, Gíslason spendt the night before the game splicing together game films of the French team, apparently interjected with scenes from the Last Samurai. (There is no escaping the Tom Cruise connection, is there?).

It worked. The Icelanders were swift and deadly in the opening minutes, attacking the French defense in a samuraian fashion, scoring five unanswered goals and building a healthy ten goal lead by halftime. A familiar ghost hunted the Icelandic team the first few minutes of the second half. They tend to start slow and play sluggishly after returning from the dressing room, dropping out of close games or allowing opposing teams to close the gap on more than one occasion, their downfall in many previous games. After four unanswered goals by the Frenchmen, things were starting to look bleak. Fortunately, Tom Cruise's teaching's had allowed the team to build a comfortable lead, giving the team time to find their rhythm again and eventually hold back the Frenchmen for an eight goal victory.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 23, 2007 6:10 PM
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