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The People’s Heroes

It is saddening, and if you want to burst into tears, you will certainly be forgiven.

There is a tiny spot in most people’s hearts, especially of those who love sports, that leap everytime an underdog wins the game. Calling it David v Goliath will be too cliche for now, but it cannot be further than the truth. The underdogs bring excitement to tournaments dominated by disparities between the strong and week, the conquerors and the meeks. They often provide the best distraction to a tournament that is often predictable down to the winning team.

Leicester City were not too distant from our memories, aren’t they? How do you possibly give a chance to a team whose odds to win the English Premier League was smaller than having Elvis Presley still alive until today? The Blue Foxes did face the competition brave enough, to end the competition lifting the Three Lions trophy, with a comfortable margin, no less.

Despite the excitement, though, I think it is saddening that Iceland have been eliminated from the 2016 European Championship.

I thought this will be the perfect 12-year cycle. What cycle, may the curious mind ask? I am referring to two particular European Championships. Firstly, 1992. The “Dinamit” Denmark, who weren’t even supposed to qualify for the competition (they did on the virtue of Yugoslavia being eliminated due to political situation), emerging as winners of the competition. Not only did they beat expectation, they beat some of European powerhouses such as Germany.

And who would ever forget 2004, the year the “Piratikoi” hijacked Portugal’s honeymoon into nightmare, when Angelos Charisteas, following a corner kick, netted the singular goal that brought Greece the Henri Delaunay trophy for the first time in their history. They were ever glorified, even considering that the team slumped miserably afterwards.

I was looking forward for Iceland to do the same. The 1–1 draw against Portugal seemed to justify my hunch that Iceland would be special. Following another draw against Croatia, confirmation seemed coming.

How not? Iceland has a population of just 330,000, and thousands of them were leaving for France, leaving the country almost 1/3 empty! It has been said that there are more volcanoes in the tiny island than there are footballers. The co-coaches, were unique as well. One was a former Swedish football coach, and the other one was a part-time dentist. Heck, even the goalkeeper was a movie actor turned footballer!

As excitement built, they eliminated, almost convincingly, Austria, pre-tournament favorites. Austria were cruising the qualification round, losing none of the games they encountered. While people expected Austria to do just fine, that was when Iceland leapfrogged them and instead beat the favorites to qualify, almost comfortably, to the round of sixteen. Now, consider this: They qualified not as one of the four best third-places (due to the 24-team format, the top two teams from all six groups along with four of six third-place teams were qualified), but they qualified as group winners.

But maybe none of it would have been condemning had they not won the match in the round of sixteen. There they met another pre-tournament favorites: England. Keep this in mind: Prior to the tournament, England’s qualification record was pristine perfect. They never lost a game. They even beaten Germany (rarely heard since 1966). And there were young players to be excited about (for me, by the name of Marcus Rashford).

What happened after was something to be cherished upon for years to come. England almost singlehandedly humiliated themselves, playing without any real intention, drive, or cause. After leading by a Wayne Rooney penalty, England imploded. Iceland catched up really quickly, leading by two goals to one before half time.

Not that England sat down and do nothing. They did do things, only to no avail. And the pundits agree. Barring that guy Marcus Rashford, who was subbed in only five minutes from full time, no one has shown any willingness to win.

“We hate you as well.”

It was almost a dream come true. England was in literal turmoil after the surprising Brexit referendum, in which the United Kingdom decided to remove itself from the European Union. There, as the memes said, England was the only country (if you can say it’s a country) that has left Europe twice: The Brexit referendum and the European Championship. And following a victory in rugby against Australia, the headlines were quick: “Well done, England: Now a second continent hates you as well.”

But let’s put aside England for a moment. It was more about Iceland than England. A team with almost no star player played with real intent, collectivism, the “Viking” spirit that was summoned from the realm of the dead, that boiling blood looking to prove something to the world. This Iceland, that has eliminated the Netherlands with home-and-away victories, were adding England to their spoils.

The morning after the Iceland victory, I was stricken with joy. I did want Iceland to win, but considering England’s positive record over the qualification, I still expected England to cruise.

That didn’t happen, and boy the world was filled with joy. Even Gareth Bale laughed.

But again, the inevitable happened. France, the hosts and tournament favorites, did something cruel to Iceland. Scoring four goals in the first half, they left the stadium winners, five goals to two.

Have Iceland lost? Yes. They were eliminated from the quarterfinal, from a match that has been deemed too difficult, despite the fact that no one dared to write them off before the game started. There were little sparks that wanted Iceland to win. Even among the French fans, I believe, there were some who wanted Iceland to go through.

Yet in the face of reality, they were not bitter. If there is one team that can leave the Championship with honor, that will be Iceland. They lost the match that fateful night, and the world is saddened over it. However, the did win the people’s hearts and minds. The brave men (or rather, “sons”) of Iceland, almost picking the fight against a bigger MMA athlete. Down and out, yet for many of us, they are never out.

Iceland are signing off for now, and the tournament will return to the usual repertoire of European stronghouses, with the probable exception of Wales. Indeed, the Germany-France semifinal will still be one heck of a match, and I am still looking forward to the conclusion of this tournament.

Nonetheless, we may all shed one or two tears due to Iceland’s elimination. However, we can all feel proud that we have seen, in our lifetime, a time with determination, and a real willingness to win, like the Lagerback lads.

To the “Sons of Anarchy”*, I salute you all.

(*You know, the Icelandic players, all but one have -son in their names?)

This post originally appeared on Medium, 5 6 July 2016.

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