Monday, July 4, 2016

The Long Throw That Made It

(Note: A prior version of this post stated that many of the best male players play in the Premier League.  I completely mixed that up with the players of Wales.  I've corrected my mistake.)

There is an island at the north-west corner of Europe measuring 40,000 square miles.  Its size is not diminutive--not for European standards--but its cold volcanic landscape can be hard and rugged, lending itself to only a third of a million people.

The people of Iceland have long been acquainted with the soccer played in the neighboring United Kingdom, having watched British soccer in their youth.  Most of the players play for Scandinavian clubs, however.  Iceland's highest soccer league, Úrvalsdeild, is ranked 36th among all European leagues for men's soccer.  Yet Iceland's men's team not only qualified for the UEFA Champion's League tournament this year, they made it to the Quarterfinals, the final eight teams.

Iceland is not known for the strength of its individual players.  There are very few famous names from the history of Icelandic soccer.  This year, and in the qualifying campaign before the tournament proper opened, it was the heart of the Icelandic team that became famous.

In many years to come, soccer fans will exchange comments regarding Iceland's run in the 2016 European Championships.  They will speak of the cannon-fired throw-ins, the sturdy challenges, and the relentless, organized defense.  It will be the collective pride and passion, I believe, that will be noted above all else.  The Year of our Lord 2016 was the year Iceland decided that they would play their game and they would triumph until the giants at last broke them down.

Eight percent of the population of Iceland traveled to France to cheer on their beloved team.  Weeks later, at the Quarterfinal match against France on July 3rd, eight thousand remained, about a third of the prior total.  They made a mighty sound from the stands, supporting their team even after going down 4-0 to France after the first half of play.  Iceland battled back through great fatigue to end the match at 5-2.  Both of Iceland's goals were scored in open play.  France had conceded only two goals in their four preceding games, and both of them were scored on penalty kicks.

In the Group Stage, Iceland drew Portugal--winner of the first Quarterfinal match of the tournament-- and Hungary and defeated Austria to take second-place in their group.  From there they faced off against England, makers of the Laws of the Game.  They beat them by a score of 2-1 even after conceding a penalty kick goal in the fourth minute of the game.  It may have been a poor performance by the English team, but by all accounts, it was a masterful match for Iceland.

This Icelandic team is a testament to what dedication, teamwork, and organization can grant.  The people of Iceland can stand in unified pride, celebrating today, and longing even more for future success.  All those involved in this historic feat have done a service to their nation and to all the nations of the world of meager population and influence.

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