June 27, 2016


Soccer With Vikings : As Iceland continues its Cinderella story at the Euros, Mark Franek reflects on six summers of semipro football in the country of northern lights and hidden folk. (Mark Franek, 6/27/16, Slate)

During his year with us David told a great many stories about life in Iceland, and in the meantime he helped lead the school soccer team to the state championship. At the end of the academic year, David invited me to Iceland for the summer to play soccer for the local club. David's father was a loyal supporter of Tindastoll, and David served as my first and last "agent," a role he played more out of gratitude for his year in America than talent selection. I was still single and in shape (only a few years out from a stint at a major Division I soccer program) and had nothing to do until September. So I jumped at the chance.

Saudarkrokur is tucked between a mountain and the mouth of a fjord. If Iceland were a clock the size of Ohio, Saudarkrokur would be about 11 p.m. (or, in the spot of Toledo). Nearly all of Iceland's 323,000 people live somewhere on the numbers. People travel inland primarily during the summer months, and then it's solely for adventure.

Each large town around the coast has its own team, distinct colors, and loyal supporters--and it's easy to imagine how these teams, to some degree, have replaced the warring Viking chieftains and their clans of a thousand years ago who often assembled on these same fields to test their bravery or settle a grievance over some ignominy that doesn't have to be imagined. Just pick up any one of the renowned Icelandic Sagas, which in some places read like an unadulterated, yet somewhat-fantastical 10th-century police report. From Egil's Saga:

One morning Thorstein awoke at sunrise and climbed a hill where he could see his neighbor's cattle on Thorstein's land once again. Thorstein found his neighbor Thrand sleeping on top of a bluff with his shoes off, and poked him awake with the handle of his axe: "I'm the owner of this land and the pastures belonging to your people are on the other side of the stream." Before Thrand could put on his shoes, Thorstein swung his axe hard and brought it down on Thrand's neck, leaving it dangling on his chest. After that, Thorstein gathered stones, covered Thrand's body, and went back to Borg.
Like most places identified in the Sagas, Borg is a real place. Later in the summer we will play a team from Borg (now called Borganes), and after the game a friend will take me to the presumed spot of Thrand's beheading, which is about half a mile out of town and just behind a row of moss-covered boulders. The boulders look psychedelic in the Arctic light, and you half expect to find Thrand's severed head lying nearby.

When you're traveling around the island, it's not long before you feel like you're a part of a grand cycle, as timeless as the fjords and mountains that seem to have been cut from and pounded into the land with help from Thorstein's ax. The irony is that Iceland is relatively new in geological time, one of the last islands to rise--literally, ooze out of the sea--the result of two tectonic plates (the North American and the Eurasian) moving ever so slowly apart. Iceland is home to spectacular geologic sights, from lava fields to geysers to waterfalls with whimsical names, such as Godafoss, waterfall of the gods.

The evening of the game against Thor, like all my summer nights in Iceland, the sun descends low on the horizon, and the temperature drops a few more degrees centigrade. But the fans hardly notice. They cheer and whistle as the men battle up and down the pitch. A little before 10 p.m., the grass still illuminated entirely by natural light, we finally fall to Thor, 1-0.

In the locker room after the game we nurse our pride as Thor celebrates another victory. A fierce chant erupts from our opponent's locker room a few paces down the hall. A thousand years ago we'd bury the dead and nurse our wounds. Tonight we throw our stinky uniforms in a pile and head off to the showers.

The place still smells like Gretar's fish oil.

Posted by at June 27, 2016 5:25 PM