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Days of thunder

Árni Gunnarsson, dressed in his Superman onesie, watches Iceland beat the Netherlands at Reykjavik’s Laugardalsvöllur stadium on 13th October 2014

19th November 2013, Zagreb, Croatia

In the corridor that led to the dressing rooms in Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb, the boisterous hum of the crowd – still singing and shouting – could be felt, but the celebrations of 20,000 or so Croats were being drowned out by a more immediate noise.

Along the corridor at great speed came a man rattling a two-wheeled hand trolley stacked with crates of clinking beer bottles. He pushed past me unsteadily and lurched past the security guards before veering into the dressing room on the left. Inside, the Croatia national team was going wild. They had qualified for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil after beating Iceland 2-0 in a playoff match.

The dressing room on the opposite side of the corridor was nearly silent. The Iceland national team was devastated. The despondent players wandered in and out aimlessly. Nearby the former Chelsea and Barcelona striker Eiður Guðjohnsen was crying live on national television as he announced his international retirement. “We all definitely thought we were going through,” Hannes Halldórsson, Iceland’s goalkeeper, told me. The noise of their opponents celebrating almost drowned out his quiet reflections. “This was the worst game we played in the competition.”

It was the first bad game that Iceland had played in a while. The sheer quality of their performances in the run-up to the fatal showdown with Croatia had taken almost everyone, including Icelandic players and supporters, by surprise. There had originally been little hope that Iceland could ever come close to qualifying for a major tournament. It was a simple question of maths. With a population of just 334,000 – about the same as Coventry – the likelihood of Iceland making it to a European Championship or World Cup finals was remote at best. The smallest nation to ever qualify for a World Cup finals was Trinidad and Tobago in 2006, a country whose population was three times that of Iceland.

When the group draw for 2014 World Cup qualification was made, Iceland was considered to be one of the worst teams in Europe. They were placed in pot six – of six – alongside San Marino who had, at that point, never won a game of football. But the team, coached by the former Sweden and Nigeria national team manager Lars Lagerbäck and his Icelandic second in command, Heimir Hallgrímsson, a part-time dentist, kept coming back from seemingly impossible positions.

They were 4-1 down against Switzerland with just over half an hour to play and somehow drew 4-4.

They scored late winners against Albania and Slovenia. A final game with Norway on 15th October, which they drew, put them into a two-leg playoff against Croatia. The winner would go to the World Cup in Brazil. It felt like a one shot deal, a black swan event, never to be repeated. But they blew it. That’s how Hannes saw it. “Now all I see is disappointment, maybe some hope will come later,” he said. “This was a once in a lifetime experience.”

Iceland play Croatia in the second leg of the play-off for World Cup qualification, 19th November 2013

The march of the Tólfan

The first time I saw Árni Gunnarsson he looked like a Viking, albeit with one important modern flourish. It was 15th October 2013 and Iceland had just secured that World Cup play-off place against Croatia. More than 1,500 Iceland fans – 0.5 percent of the population – had travelled to Norway to see the final group game. The visiting fans had made the majority of the noise throughout the game; Árni at the front, next to a drummer, screaming, had contributed more than his fair share.

“The Tólfan, roughly translated as ‘the twelfth man’ in Icelandic, is the national team’s supporters’ group, a core of 800 diehards”

Árni was a big man, tall with a thick reddish-brown beard and a horned helmet. He was wearing a Superman onesie. After the game, when I approached him for an interview for the BBC World Service, he had a wild look in his eyes. His voice was hoarse. I asked him how he felt. “We’re two games from the World Cup. How do you think I fucking feel! I’m from little Iceland!” He was being held up off the floor by two men of equally mountainous build. “Do you hear my voice? I’d give it all. I’d give it all for this country. I’m  so fucking proud. We can stand tall! Against whoever!” He broke down in tears, sobbing in my arms. It was a beautiful and raw moment, the sort of thing that for so many football fans has been lost, smothered in sport’s rampant commercialisation. Of all the interviews I’d ever done, Árni was the one that people asked me about most. Whatever happened to Árni? Is he OK?

Árni was fine. Four years later, on 30th December 2017, in an English pub in central Reykjavik, Árni is now dressed in jeans and jumper. The Superman onesie and horned helmet are nowhere to be seen. And yet he still looks like a Viking. “That interview,” he says, shaking his head. “It changed my life. I got phone calls for interviews from all over the world. Japan. France. At the European Championships I had to start saying no. It was getting too much.”

Árni is a member of the Tólfan, roughly translated as “the twelfth man” in Icelandic. It is the national team’s supporters’ group, a core of 800 diehards which swells into the thousands for big games. The Tólfan has an almost unique relationship in world football, an unparalleled closeness with the team. The national coach announces the team for big games not in front of the press, but at a reception held for travelling fans. It’s typical of the intimacy of Iceland, a country whose inhabitants are so intertwined that it invented a dating app so people could avoid hooking up with distant relatives. At the next table, two government ministers are drinking pints of lager. Árni nods at them: they nod back.

“Zagreb was the craziest atmosphere I ever experienced,” Árni recalls of the World Cup playoff in Croatia on 19th November 2013. “The Croatian riot police were on standby. We Icelandic people are known for being kind of friendly. Seeing how they were just prepared for the worst, it dawned on me that this was a different culture.” After the game there was an overwhelming belief amongst the Tólfan that Iceland’s only chance at reaching the World Cup finals had gone. “It was a mixture of good and bad feelings,” says Árni. “But overall it was still just pride. We were so close. So close.”

Árni found it tough watching the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, having come so close to getting there. But he still believed the team had great days ahead. Despite Iceland’s small size, there were a wealth of footballers playing in good European leagues. Gylfi Sigurðssonn, now at Everton. Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson, now at Burnley. Alfreð Finnbogason, now at Augsburg in Germany’s Bundesliga. A lot of money had been poured into coaching children. Even the under 10s team of most Icelandic clubs had a UEFA B coach. Full-sized indoor football complexes had been built across the country. Everyone was welcome to play all year around.

“I thought they’d won the Euros the way they celebrated at the end. It was unbelievable” – Cristiano Ronaldo

But it was hard to be a professional footballer in Iceland. At the time of the Croatia defeat only Hannes the goalkeeper played at home. He also worked as a part-time filmmaker. His biggest claim to fame before 2013 was directing Iceland’s 2012 Eurovision song contest entry.

After Zagreb, the 2016 European Championships represented a better chance for Iceland to reach their first ever major tournament finals. It had just been expanded to 24 teams. Lars Lagerbäck, who had said he would quit after the Croatia play-off, signed on for two more years. Heimir Hallgrímsson was promoted to joint head coach. In a tough group, the team defeated the Netherlands 2-0 and Turkey 3-0. “I was not expecting that we would win against the Netherlands. I didn’t think we would demolish Turkey,” says Árni, still with a touch of disbelief. Iceland qualified with ease. The Tólfan were there every step of the way.

Still, little was expected of Iceland in France 2016, even after they ground out a one-all draw in their opening game against Portugal on 14th June. “I thought they’d won the Euros the way they celebrated at the end. It was unbelievable,” Cristiano Ronaldo griped after the game. “This in my opinion shows a small mentality and they are not going to do anything in the competition.”

How wrong he was. Iceland reached the knockout stages where they were drawn against England. The Tólfan now took centre stage. They had begun a choreographed clap, christened the ‘thunderclap’, that became the craze of the tournament. Even opposition fans started doing it. “It basically took two years for us to get the thunderclap to catch on,” admits Árni. The inspiration, Árni explains, came from Motherwell. Stjarnan, an Icelandic team famed for its own elaborate goal celebrations, had made it to the qualifying rounds of the Europa League in 2014 and drawn the Scottish club. They had seen something like the thunderclap done at Fir Park and, as with all the best artists, they ‘borrowed’ it. “I never thought that it would be this phenomenon,” says Árni.

The game against England on 27th June 2016 was, by some distance, the biggest game in Iceland’s history. Their 2-1 victory was extraordinary. And then they were up against France in the quarter finals. They lost 5-2, but the French crowds took on the Tólfan’s thunderclap for the rest of the tournament. It can still be seen on terraces across the world today.

For all the fun of the Euros, the World Cup was the one the Tólfan, and Árni, wanted. For Russia 2018 they were drawn in a tough group again. Qualification came down to the last game, against Kosovo, in Reykjavik on 9th October 2017. A draw would be enough. And this time, they didn’t make a mistake. They beat Kosovo 2-0 to become the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup finals, a record that is unlikely to be broken. “It was a beautiful moment. Growing up, it was always said this is something that is never possible, the World Cup. It is crazy,” says Árni.

But there was one question I had to ask. How did Árni react? Did he cry? Did he scream? Did he rip open his Superman onesie? “I did not,” he says. “When I looked at the game again a couple of days later, the TV had me on close up. Iceland’s media expected me to show some of the same emotions. So I did not cry. But everyone around me did.”

Iceland’s Aron Gunnarsson celebrates with team-mates after knocking England out of Euro 2016 on 27th June 2016

5th February 2018, Randers, Denmark 

In the four years since Hannes Halldórsson and I last spoke at the Maksimir Stadium on that wet and miserable night in Zagreb, one important thing has changed in his life. He has finally become a professional footballer. We are sitting in the cavernous reception area of his current club’s small but artistically designed stadium in northern Denmark. Randers FC play in the Danish Superliga, although maybe not for much longer. The club is bottom of the league and the squad has just finished an important training session. The Danish football league’s winter break is about to end and the season will shortly restart with a vital game against Copenhagen in the capital. The ground outside is still thick with snow.

After the Zagreb game when Iceland missed out on qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, Hannes was 29 and still playing part time, earning £350 a week for Iceland’s biggest domestic team, KR. At the same time he was also directing and making films. He would rise at dawn, go to work, then drive to his club every lunchtime to practice, drive back, work some more, train in the evenings and come home at 9pm. Something had to give. “I was burning up,” Hannes says. “I had to try and become a professional footballer. It was now or never. No one would take me at 30.”

So he arranged some training sessions at a series of clubs in Norway to keep him fit after the Icelandic season had finished. A small Norwegian club took a punt on him. He moved to the Netherlands and then to Denmark. But, more importantly, he remained part of the national team. “After Zagreb, I thought that was it. My last chance gone,” he says.

When Iceland qualified for France 2016, thousands of fans flooded the centre of Reykjavik. The Iceland Football Association had planned a dinner away from the crowds. Hannes and his teammates disagreed. He got on the phone and arranged for the team to gatecrash a concert by Icelandic pop star Paul Oscar, so they could be with the fans. “Most people in the stands have some connection to someone in the squad. It is more personal than in a country of many millions,” says Hannes. “Also, we are the underdogs and we filled people with pride. The emotions are even stronger.”

The tournament went better than Hannes’ wildest dreams. The squad had spoken before they left about what would constitute a good result. Everyone agreed that reaching the knockout stages was their ceiling. And then they drew England.

“We had nothing to lose in that game and usually I am a bit tense before,” Hannes recalled. “But I was totally relaxed because we had reached our goal. Everything else was a bonus.”

In the lead-up to the game, Hannes and his teammates got a brief glimpse of the kind of pressure England endured from its press and, most alien to Hannes, its fans. Paparazzi began following the Iceland team everywhere. Their bins were ransacked regularly for morsels of gossip. “England had immense pressure on them,” he says. “It was a shitty game for them to play.”

“My dream scenario is we take second place in the group and we play Denmark,
and we beat the goddamn Danes!” – Hannes Halldórsson

Still, it started badly for Iceland. Within three minutes Hannes had conceded a penalty, scored by Wayne Rooney. But two minutes later Iceland equalised. And then they took the lead that they never let go. The celebrations were wild, but Hannes felt sympathy for the England players. “It was a different reality. For them [from the media and fans] there’s no mercy. People don’t feel sorry for them. They are rich. They are stars. They are supposed to cope with the pressure,” he said.  “But football is a game. They are also just human beings. When you play the game, money, status, it just goes away.”

Qualification for Russia 2018 is Hannes’s proudest achievement to date. But this time there’s no ceiling. “We are not going to Russia to be satisfied to simply be there,” he says. “My dream scenario is we take second place in the group and we play Denmark, and we beat the goddamn Danes!” Iceland, it turns out, has never beaten Denmark, its former colonial ruler.

The Tólfan will be in Russia too. Árni is working all the hours he can in his hardware store to save money and putting aside all his holiday days. The thunderclap will return, as will a few new innovations “borrowed” from Iceland’s handball team. “I think we are still just getting used to being on centre stage,” says Árni. “But when you get hooked you can’t leave.”

2018 is likely to be Hannes Halldórsson’s last World Cup as well as his first. He’ll be almost 38 by the time Qatar 2022 comes around. He plans on making this summer count. “Before qualification started, I put a logo of the Russian World Cup on my bedroom wall. It was the first thing I saw when I woke up and the last thing I saw before I went to sleep for almost a year. It worked,” he says, before leaving to rejoin his teammates outside. “Maybe I have to put up a new picture. Maybe of the trophy itself.”

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