Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
“It’s about making long-term commitments,” said an architect in Reykjavik’s planning department.
It still seems too good to be true. This Saturday, Iceland’s national soccer team will play its first ever World Cup match, having never qualified before in the country’s history.
It’s always a surprise when small countries make it through the grueling qualifying rounds of the global soccer championship—but Iceland is not a small country. It’s a tiny country, with 350,000 people, scarcely more than Peoria, Illinois. When it plays Argentina in Moscow this weekend, Iceland is taking on the team of a country whose citizens outnumber its own at a rate of 130 to one. For Iceland to enter the global superstar league—even if it’s just for one round—is like some rare, beautiful millennial comet, something that will go down in the country’s history.
What’s more, the country knows it. Judging by local reports, half the population seems to have been re-clad in the national team’s colors, a winning royal blue with a vertical red and white stripe. People are walking around Reykjavik with a mix of slack-jawed disbelief and complete delight: Imagine Edvard Munch’s The Scream wearing a party hat, and you’ve pretty much got the idea.
This is understandable. In a country so small, the national soccer team going through is almost a family affair. It’s not that everybody knows everybody, but a lot of people will know someone who knows someone who knows a player. To prepare for the crowds, big screens are being set up all over the city, in parks, bars, and hotels. For the artier strain of soccer lover, there’s even a livestream at the Reykjavik Art Museum, where fans can watch the game to a soundtrack appropriately compiled by local electronica composer/performer Þóranna Björnsdóttir.
But does Iceland’s entry into the World Cup “mean” anything beyond a great party for the country? This being CityLab, we decided the best person to ask was Borghildur Sturludóttir, an architect in the Reykjavik planning department, whom we caught up with at the reSITE 2018 conference in Prague. According to Sturludóttir, the Icelandic team’s stellar success could teach the country something: the value of planning.
“People are asking, ‘How did we do this?’ Well, it’s about making long-term commitments,” Sturludóttir said.
Such commitments, Sturludóttir continued, are not so common in a country of extremes like Iceland. With a climate swinging between (almost) constant light and constant darkness, and a people historically dependent on the caprices of the weather, Icelanders have tended to lurch collectively from one activity to the other. You can still see an echo of this in the way the country’s economy recently focused heavily on financial services, then, following the crash, lunged toward an over-heavy concentration on tourism.
Building a team, however, requires a calmer, more long-term view. “That takes consensus-building, coordination, patience. It’s actually a great model for the country as a whole,” said Sturludóttir. “People are now saying, ‘Oh, we can make plans! We can invest in things like sports facilities; really build things up.’” The Icelandic soccer team is thus a living, breathing example of what you can get from years of hard, patient work.
Of course, the momentum it’s created—that sense of staking a place on the world stage—might be a parade that’s somewhat rained on by a bad result against Argentina on Saturday. But by this point, it would be hard to dampen the enthusiasm. Iceland is in a heavyweight group featuring Argentina, Croatia, and Nigeria, all formidable opponents. If the players lose, they’ve still made history.
But if they win a match—or even score a goal or two—expect to hear the sound of an entire country turning itself up to 11.