PORTLAND, Ore. – Last Monday, as Iceland counted down the final few seconds of its 2-1 defeat of England – a result that earned the tiny Scandinavian nation an historic berth in the quarterfinals of the 2016 European Championship – Portland Thorns FC midfielder Dagny Brynjarsdottir was one of a small handful of her fellow Icelandic compatriots unable to watch.
“There were 650 Icelandic people who didn't watch the game,” Brynjarsdottir said, referring to data showing that 99.8 percent of TV viewers in Iceland watched the match, “and I was one of them.”
Brynjarsdottir, who scored the game-tying golazo against the Orlando Pride in the Thorns' 2-1 victory on Sunday, didn't find out about the result until midway through the return flight home.
“I was happy,” she said of the moment she learned the result. “I was really happy.”
The surprise performance of this Icelandic team and the massive fan support that has traveled to cheer on strákarnir okkar (“our boys”) – some eight percent of the entire Icelandic population – have captivated soccer fans around the world.
So far in this tournament, this nation of fewer than 330,000 people has drawn and defeated some of the most storied names and teams in the sport. After drawing Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal and Hungary, Iceland stunned Austria with a late match-winner that sent Icelandic television commentator Guðmundur Benediktsson into hysterics and earned him and the team media recognition from around the world.
Before this tournament, however, few people could have predicted that these plucky upstarts from a misunderstood island in the North Atlantic would ever make it this far.
“The [Thorns] coaching staff was making fun of me because they were like, 'Do you really believe that [Iceland can beat England]?'” Brynjarsdottir recalled. “And I was like, 'Yeah, we can. I know my team.'”
Such confidence, Brynjarsdottir explains, stems from something called duglegur – which roughly translates as “hard work” – a concept that forms the core of Icelandic national identity.
“We don't always have the most skillful players but we have players who are very physical, hard-working, who do everything to win,” she said. “I think a part of growing up in Iceland [is] you're so competitive. Everything you do is a competition and when you're five years-old you start playing. It's all about competition.”
Growing up in rural Hella, Brynjarsdottir spent most of her afternoons and evenings playing sports until she was called in for dinner. In her early teens, she even played mixed gender soccer matches against current national team forward ón Daði Böðvarsson, who scored the team's opening goal against Austria.
“At some point I was better than him,” cracked Brynjarsdottir.
As gratifying as it's been for her to watch fans from around the world fall in love with Iceland, it's been even more gratifying for Brynjarsdottir to see how much this tournament has galvanized fan support back home.
“Everyone is following [the team] – people who I didn't know followed soccer, [people] who barely know the rules,” she said. “When I talk to family and friends they're like, 'You don't understand how it is here. On game day...people wear their jerseys to work. Everyone puts on blue [clothes].'
“We were always going to be the underdogs,” she continued. “but I just think how we have all the support behind us. How the nation sticks together [is] just a part of being a small country with few people; we all have to stick together to make something happen.
“We're a small nation with a big heart,” she said, summing up what it means to be Icelandic.
Regardless of what may happen in the men’s team match against France on Sunday, Brynjarsdottir says that she and her teammates on the Women's National Team are already fired up for next year's European Championship in the Netherlands. While her team still needs one point to qualify, Brynjarsdottir is confident that 2017 will prove as big a year for Icelandic soccer as this one.
“So many people who had never been to a soccer game before went to France and watched and I think that will definitely help us next year because the people that went to France and experienced the atmosphere and environment [there] will want to go to Holland next year and watch us and experience [it] with us.”
And who knows?
Maybe, just maybe, there will be two European champions in Iceland next summer.