This is a big day for Icelandic football. Tonight they host Croatia in the home leg of the play-off for a place in the finals of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. If they win, they will be the smallest country ever to gain a place in the tournament. Iceland’s population of 320,000 is over 200 million less than that of Brazil and six million less than the population of Rio de Janeiro, the city that will host the World Cup Final.
It took a long time to put Iceland on the map. One of the earliest English poems, Brut or The Chronicle of Britain written by the priest Layamon around the turn of the 13th century, makes the first reference to Iceland in English. This was one of the few English language works at a time when French was more widely used. The country Layamon referred to had a more welcoming climate than the one we know today, and in the 11th and 12th centuries Iceland was a farming country.
The 13th century, though, would bring two new developments. Firstly the country was forced to accept the sovereignty of Norway, and secondly it began to suffer the effects of what would become known as the “Little Ice Age”, coating much of its farmland in frost. Over the following three centuries Iceland became an active trade partner, exporting cloth, fish, dogs and crystal. And it also became an exporter of language, donating words such as eiderdown, berserk, ransack, geyser, oar and Valkyrie to English. All of this happened long before the country became independent. After submitting to Norwegian rule, Icelanders then became subjects of Denmark when the Danes took control of both countries. Iceland would have to wait until the 20th century for a taste of independence. In 1918 it was granted sovereign status but still shared a King with Denmark. But in 1944 Iceland finally became an independent republic.
In its relatively short history, Iceland has hosted the Reykjavik Summit, where Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev held crucial talks on nuclear disarmament, and the most famous chess match ever played between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer (who was later granted Icelandic citizenship).
In the 1970s relations between Britain and Iceland cooled as quickly as Iceland’s climate when a dispute over fishing rights led to the “Cod Wars” between the countries. But the 21st century would bring far greater problems. Iceland’s rapid expansion as a financial centre and even more rapid collapse led, in 2008, to it being considered bankrupt. And as if man-made disaster wasn’t enough to cope with, in 2010 nature played its part with the volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajokull. That name became familiar throughout Europe, even if many people never learned to pronounce it. An ash cloud that was nine kilometres in height wreaked havoc with the national economy and with international flights, putting Iceland on the map for very unfortunate reasons.
Perhaps tonight Iceland’s footballers can give the country some good news, and they might take heart from the achievements of their opponents. Modern Croatia declared independence in 1991 in the ashes of war, and only joined the council of Europe in 1996. Just two years later Croatia’s football team not only qualified for the World Cup but reached the semi-final.
Gangi þér vel, Iceland!