Footballers help restore Iceland's national pride

Thu Jun 2, 2016 10:34am EDT
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By Gwladys Fouche

REYKJAVIK (Reuters) - Iceland's soccer team are helping to bring back national pride and unity to the country having qualified for this month's European Championship finals in France.

With a population of 332,000 -- about the size of English city Leicester, the home of the Premier League's surprise champions -- Iceland is the smallest nation ever to qualify for the Euros. They will play Austria, Hungary and Portugal in Group F.

Having just missed out on the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Iceland went one better in Euro 2016 qualifying, finishing second in a tough group and beating World Cup runners-up the Netherlands twice.

The national team is now so popular that an estimated 10 percent of Icelanders -- about 30,000 people -- are expected to travel to France to support them.

The wave of national pride is a far cry from 2008 when the country was an international pariah, its currency having collapsed, the failed Landsbanki bank's UK assets frozen under the same anti-terror laws used for Al-Qaeda, and its top three banks having amassed debt equivalent to 10 times its GDP.

"The politicians and the president have not been uniting the nation for the past years, but the national side has," said Petur Orri Gislason, a 32-year-old security guard, over a drink in a Reykjavik cafe.

"We have not been trusting one another, either, said his friend Styrmir Gislason, a 37-year-old store manager. "There has been a lot of anger and bitterness. But when the soccer (team) is playing everybody is happy."


Iceland's Kolbeinn Sigthorsson (number 9) celebrates with teammates and Johann Gudmundsson (L) after scoring against Czech Republic during their Euro 2016 qualifying soccer match in Reykjavik, Iceland, June 12, 2015. REUTERS/Sigtryggur Johannsson/File Photo