Successfully resolving the mysteries of Icelandic sporting successes

Daniel Alsarve
Department of Health Sciences, Örebro University

Matt McGinn
Against the Elements: The eruption of Icelandic football
256 pages, paperback, ill.
Worthing, Sx: Pitch Publishing 2020
ISBN 978-1-78531-720-0

How can the Icelandic ‘football wonder’ be explained? Who has not asked and discussed this question since the men’s national team’s successes during the 2010s? Matt McGinn made a difference, travelled to Iceland, visited pubs, and conducted over 50 interviews with various people (coaches, former football players, fans, etc.), eager to find the solutions. The results of his journeys are compiled in Against the Elements: The Eruption of Icelandic Football. The book is organized into fourteen chapters, each focusing and revolving around various explanations for this success, accompanied by four chapters with close and tense descriptions of the World Cup matches from 2018. McGinn has a special eye for details, which I appreciate. It is impossible not to get caught by the author’s genuine curiosity and joy in being able to convey fascinating stories about people who, against all odds, achieve success.

The dramaturgic background is given. How can a country, largely created by volcanoes, with a population of 350.000, achieve such enormous sporting success? Add to that, a climate that rarely offers players sunshine and 20 plus degrees, and a financial crash in 2008 that, pardon the pun, also shook the country. The children encounter cold, windy, or rainy weather (if not snow) when they learn wall passes and tactics out on the football pitch. Yes, the fact is that the weather and the country’s geology were considered a greater threat than the German military (Wehrmacht) during World War II. How does an adult population endure such circumstances? Answering this question, McGinn references a public health study from 1992, which showed alarming levels of alcohol and tobacco use… Growing up under these conditions, how can it be possible for its footballers to tame football giants like Argentina and England? As a reader, I am of course curious to know the answer(s).

McGinn’s literary technique and problem formulation, to explain sporting successes, are not unique. The best example in a Swedish is probably Johnny Wijk’s studies of the Swedish golf and tennis wonders. Unsurprisingly, explanations span over various areas and include individual as well as structural explanations: the expansion of artificial (plastic) grass, the Icelandic mentality, cohesion, the coaches (not least Lars Lagerbäck and Heimir Hallgrímsson’s work but also the increased number of highly educated domestic coaches), the football exchange with the British Isles and Scandinavia are the most important. Each of these factors are focused on in separate chapters. One of the strengths of McGinn’s book lies in the concretisation of these more general causes: details of Lagerbäck’s team organisation and specific rules, and the changes in the mental attitude (the transformation from resisting an opposing team for 15 maybe 30 minutes, to truly believing in a win). It is with such findings that I, as a reader, am drawn into the story.

It is also a relief to read that success was possible despite the fact that the so-called professionalisation and commercialisation processes were not as far gone in Iceland as in other parts of Europe and the world.

How then do the inserted chapters of the World Cup matches work? They bring life to the background and show the result behind the years of hard work and sometimes random events, that in some cases go back to the volcanic eruption in the Vestmannaeyjar in 1973. At the same time, these chapters are largely a reproduction of a so-called “heroic” masculinity. In such moments, the reading becomes a bit tiring even if the story of Guðlaugur Friðþórsson’s ‘achievement’ is both extreme and fascinating. (The events are depicted in the film The Deep and are based on how Friðþórsson and four other fishermen capsize at sea and how he then swims in 5-degree water for over 3 hours before he reaches land).

McGinn balances these portrayals of men (and masculinities) by devoting a chapter to ‘Our Girls’ (the title may not be entirely successful if we think of women as having agency and being independent subjects). The women’s team also made it to the European Championship finals in 2013, which, of course, is just as fascinating as the men’s advancement. But the stories of heroic women and explanations for this football miracle are basically left out. Now, I am critical, but I still want to commend McGinn for including the Icelandic Football Association’s gender equality work and how this also helps explain the cohesion and sporting successes. In a next book, we may perhaps read about women’s ‘impossible’ journeys to success?

This critique and call not only concerns Against the Elements: The Eruption of Icelandic Football. Why are so few books being written about women’s sporting successes and their struggle against the elements? Let me here remind the (Nordic) readers of Åsa Sandell’s biography Bakom garden – ett boxarliv I tio ronder [Behind the Guard: a boxing life in ten rounds], and Pionjärerna: Kvinnor berättar om sina idrottsliv [The Pioneers: Women talks about their sporting lives], which builds on about 40 women’s stories about their sporting successes and setbacks. There will be examples from other parts of the world as well, but there’s still a glaring paucity of studies of women’s sports.

Iceland’s defender Ragnar Sigurdsson and Iceland’s defender Kari Arnason celebrate their team’s win after the Euro 2016 round of 16 football match between England and Iceland at the Allianz Riviera stadium in Nice on June 27, 2016.

Despite this criticism, McGinn’s book is extremely readable. The reader will be wiser afterwards and there is also something sympathetic about reading stories about ‘heroes’ that, against all odds, make the impossible possible. As a reader, I also have indulgence with the fact that certain myths about islanders are reproduced and that the isolation on an island, in this case in the middle of the Atlantic, creates a special mentality and sense of community and homosociality. Such ‘random’ conditions are combined by McGinn with identifications of diligent work. Behind the construction of football pitches, for example, was a conscious strategy and desire to promote movement and joy among children and young people. Outdoor plans were combined with indoor halls (Iceland is also a prominent handball nation). Pure coincidences are thus not accepted as an answer to the book’s original question. It is also a relief to read that success was possible despite the fact that the so-called professionalisation and commercialisation processes were not as far gone in Iceland as in other parts of Europe and the world. Of course, football is very much about money, but not only that, and McGinn shows this with all the desired clarity in his book.

Speaking of theories, let me, in conclusion, reference a rather liberating passage from the book (p. 126-127). McGinn refers to the sociologist Viðar Halldórsson’s work on Icelandic mentality called ‘Icelandic Madness’, which is defined as a collective identity based on the Icelander’s belief that they can do anything if they see a vision and an ending goal. This is how the success of the Icelandic sport teams is explained. The musician Siggi Baldursson has another name for the same phenomenon: the ‘idiot savant’. Baldursson’s theory is based on the mindset ‘I don’t know any better, so why shouldn’t I succeed at this? Why not?’(p.127). Personally, this naive devotion feels like a highly relevant and much reasonable explanation for all forms of sporting (as well as musical) success – on an individual and collective level. You must be stupid enough not to be aware of the conditions you are facing and have the total devotion of the savant. When I put the book away, here is where my (almost existential) thoughts rest. I think about the total number of hours and the vast resources invested in achieving medals and athletic success. What enormous ability we humans have in our long-term working towards a goal – for better or worse. Given this ability of the idiot savant, it is also clear to me that the conditions we are born with and must deal with can either be interpreted as obstacles or opportunities. That is, we either fight against the elements or we use them to our advantage. Although the title of McGinn’s book title refers to the former, it is a book about both ways of encountering and overcoming challenging situations.

Copyright © Daniel Alsarve 2021

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