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Anatomy of an Underdog: Iceland’s memorable run in the 2018 World Cup

July 18th, 2018
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Half the people inside the stadium have both arms raised above their heads, as if performing some choreography. None of the arms are moving, all of them pointed skyward like tree branches. Then a couple of loud drumbeats reverberate throughout the stadium signals the start of the chant.

The hands then come together for a single clap as the people chant a guttural ‘Huh!,’ not unlike the sound uttered by Spartan soldiers from the Zack Snyder film 300. This happens over and over, each clap and faster, each ‘Huh!’ louder than the last, until they revert to clapping and singing.

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It’s been a couple of weeks since the last Thunderclap echoed inside the Rostov Arena in Rostov-on Don, Russia. The stadium, which can seat around 45,000 people, has since been used as the venue for other matches in the knockout stage of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. But among the most unforgettable moments in the stadium were the Thunderclaps by Iceland’s supporters during their final group stage match against eventual finalists Croatia.

The Thunderclap is a chant used by Iceland’s supporters to cheer on their national football team during and after matches. It is equal parts breathtaking and intimidating, like something done by warriors in ancient times as they march into battle. It’s also arguably the most enduring image (and sound) that the world will remember from Iceland’s unforgettable World Cup debut.

Iceland first introduced itself (and the Thunderclap) in the international football stage in
the Euro 2016, when it qualified for the first time in history and made it all the way to the quarterfinals, eliminating England along the way before losing to eventual finalists France.

But after a successful stint at the European level, the Strákarnir okkar or ‘Our Boys’, as they are known in the local tongue, were not done. They made history as the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup with a population of just over 334,000 (roughly the same population as Iligan City). But the team wasn’t just satisfied to make it to Russia. They wanted to make noise in the tournament, as loud as the Thunderclaps that their supporters were becoming known for.

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The problem was that they were drawn in Group D with Nigeria, dark horse Croatia, and 2014 World Cup finalists Argentina, with La Albiceleste looming as their first assignment. But when Iceland stepped on the pitch at the Otkritie Arena on June 16 against Argentina, there was no fear at facing the fourth ranked country in the world and Lionel Messi, considered as one of the sport’s greatest players of all time. The team was unfazed by the tall odds. Instead, they were ready to introduce themselves to the world.

In the 63rd minute, Messi found himself 12 yards away from the goal. His hands were on his waist, the ball just a few paces away from him. His eyes were riveted on the ball, while everyone else’s was riveted on him. The match between Argentina and Iceland was tied at one apiece. Argentina had controlled possession for almost the entire match and made and completed more passes, but Iceland had done everything in its power to keep Argentina at bay.

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Alfreð Finnbogason made history in the 23rd minute by scoring the country’s first-ever World Cup goal. But Messi, five-time Ballon D’Or winner and the Golden Ball winner of the previous World Cup was about to take a penalty, restore order into the match and give Iceland a dose of reality.

Only Iceland’s goalkeeper Hannes Thor Halldorsson stood in his way, and not a lot of people gave him a chance, and with good reason. Messi is one of the world’s best players, while Halldorsson isn’t even a full-time football player. That’s because aside from minding the net in some of his country’s biggest football matches, Halldorsson is also a director whose credits include a Coca-Cola advertisement for the 2018 World Cup and Iceland’s music video entry in the 2012 EuroVision song contest.

But when Messi took the penalty, Halldorsson dived, and with both arms outstretched, tapped the ball away and completed a save, the biggest in his country’s football history.

Halldorsson’s save helped preserve a 1-1 draw against the Argentinians. But while the scoreboard indicated a tie, it didn’t feel like one. Fox Sports commentator John Strong best exemplified this when he shouted, “Iceland beats Argentina, 1-1!” as the final whistle sounded. The match was recorded and will be remembered as a draw, but for this small country making its World Cup debut, it was anything but.

Iceland went on to lose their next two games to Nigeria (2-0) and Croatia (2-1), with Everton midfielder Gylfi Þór Sigurðsson scoring their only other World Cup goal. The team may have bowed out of the tournament after the group stage, but not before making a mark and being remembered by the rest of the football world.

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The country was ranked 104th in the world in 2012, but had risen all the way to 22nd before the World Cup began. With manager Heimir Hallgrimsson (who still works as a part-time dentist in a small town in Iceland) leading the way, the team is bound to make more noise in future tournaments such as Euro 2020 and 2022 World Cup. Just like the way their supporters make noise through their Thunderclap chant. InqPOP!/Immanuel Canicosa

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