2000 hrs. Central European Time. Monday 22 January 2007.
Fans young and old crammed the stands, wearing bright scarves and faux Viking helmets, their faces painted red, white and blue. The drums were beating, the people chanting.
Boom, boom. ÍS-LAND. Boom, boom. ÍS-LAND.
The team itself, dressed in red, were awarded the home side changing room of Bördelandhalle stadium in Magdeburg, Germany. The national team coach, Alfred Gíslason, was in charge here when the local team, Magdeburg, won the Champions League in 2002. He’s a hero in that city.
The last game of the first round of the Men’s World Championship of Handball was about to begin.
Tournament favorites and undefeated European Champions, France, were about to go up against Iceland, victors against Australia (like everyone else) but sore from a disastrous loss to the Ukraine on Sunday. (After what was possibly the worst game of his career, team captain Ólafur Stefánsson, who also played in Magdeburg, was quoted in Morgunbladid as saying, “I’ve let my team down”).
Back home in Iceland, some people were not even bothering to watch. Victory against Australia had been assured, and a loss to France was also predicted. The important game was against Ukraine, and that had had the worst possible outcome.
But against the French, with the crowds roaring in their favor, Iceland came out fighting. Strákarnir okkar (“our boys”) scored the first goal in a minute. By seven minutes into the first 30-minute half, the score was an incredible 5-0.
Geir Magnússon, commentator for the national television broadcast, sounded like a hysterical teenager, his voice cracking with the excitement each time a goal was scored. “This is incredible! This is unbelievable!” Then he would calm down and re-focus: “Jæja, en áfram med smjörid” (an Icelandic expression, literally, “Well, on with the butter!”).
Each member of the national team, including captain Stefánsson, Gudjón Valur Sigurdsson, Logi Geirsson, and Alexander Petersson, played at their best. The goalkeeper, Birkir Ívar Gudmundsson, saved two penalty shots by the French. The defending world champions couldn’t keep possession of the ball and, when they did, couldn’t get it past the Icelandic defense.
The score at half-time: 18-8. At the end of the game: an incredible, 32-24.
The nation went nuts. A nine-year-old girl sent a text message (this is Iceland, after all) to the television station: “This was a great game. Mom screamed. Dad cried. I ate my dinner.”
Iceland won their group and has advanced to the next round. The team’s best results were at the European Championships in 2002 and the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984; they finished fourth at both.
The next round starts on Wednesday evening with a match against Tunisia. The nation waits with baited breath.