Gretar is shaking out a handful of fish oil and applying it to his hamstrings and quadriceps, smearing the putrid substance in circles over his pale white skin to warm up his muscles. We are in a locker room about fifty miles south of the Arctic Circle preparing for a soccer match in Iceland’s second division. The coach goes over the starting line-up and gives the team’s eleven starters and six substitutes a guttural pep-talk—incomprehensible to me, an American who speaks no Icelandic—that builds to a chorus of affirmations. I join the affirmations. Then I reach for Gretar’s bottle.
The world has become enamored with the Iceland men’s national team, which advanced to the knockout stage of the Euro 2016 tournament last week. But across the country, Icelanders are partial to their hometown teams—like Tindastoll, the club for which I suited up for six straight summers—and they take their summer soccer very seriously.
Tonight Tindastoll is hosting a team called Thor. Thor’s bus is a big Greyhound affair with leather seats and a toilet—fancy wheels for a bunch of semi-professionals. Walking by it on the way to the locker room before the game I noticed a sign in the front window, which Gretar later translated: “You will lose.”
Thor’s supporters have long since arrived by caravan and they’ve joined the home crowd at the edge of the pitch, where teenagers toting Thermoses of hot chocolate and coffee have been working the crowd. Even in mid-June, many fans are decked out in fair-isle sweaters to keep warm. Spectators sit on grass steps cut into the side of a steep slope. Beyond the wooden scoreboard, about a goalie’s dropkick from the edge of the pitch, laps the Arctic Ocean.
View of Tindsatoll’s main game pitch and Skagafjordur fjord in the distance. Saudarkrokur now has permanent bleachers and an electric scoreboard. Photo: Mark Franek
Both teams fan out at the center of the playing field, which is nearly the quality of a golf-course putting green. Runar, the announcer, rattles off the names of the starters, which even to my multiple-summers-in-Iceland ear sound like three people—especially since every player’s last name ends with the suffix “-son.” There’s Gretar, Himmi, Snaevar, Sverrir, Ingi, Donni, Viktor, Arni, Gunni, (me), and Dagur, the team’s only teenager, who is starting in his first game because his older brother suffered a broken collarbone in our last outing.
Most of the starting players have day jobs, but the club supplements the most talented players’ income by paying for things like summer rent and food. Some players coach youth teams, drawing relatively large stipends, or work a medley of odd jobs around town, working leisurely, especially on game days.
Tindastoll is named after the snow-capped peak that rises majestically behind Saudarkrokur, Iceland’s second-largest town on the north coast. Population: 2,689—plus one American. The rest of the year, I’m a high-school English teacher and varsity soccer coach in Philadelphia.
My Viking adventure began with an invitation from a student. For many years, an ancient map was tacked to the back wall of my classroom, left by a previous history teacher. Aside from some indecipherable graffiti in the Pacific Ocean, the map had been forgotten by my charges. That was until a visiting Icelandic student, David Runarsson, announced during the first week of school, “There’s something wrong with this map.” Sure enough, just off the southeast coast of Greenland, where Iceland should be, there was nothing but water.
During his year with us David told a great many stories about life in Iceland, and in the meantime helped lead the school soccer team to the state championship. At the end of the academic year, David invited me to Iceland for the summer to play soccer for the local club. David’s father was a loyal supporter of Tindastoll, and David served as my first and last “agent,” a role he played more out of gratitude for his year in America than talent selection. I was still single and in shape (only a few years out from a stint at a major Div. I soccer program) and had nothing to do until September. So I jumped at the chance.
The author, in his giddy youth, with Tindastoll’s sloping peak in the distance. Photo: Courtesy of Mark Franek
Saudarkrokur is tucked between a mountain and the mouth of a fjord. If Iceland were a clock the size of Ohio, Saudarkrokur would be about 11 p.m. (or, in the spot of Toledo). Nearly all of Iceland’s 323,000 people live somewhere on the numbers. People travel inland primarily during the summer months, and then it’s solely for adventure.
Each large town around the coast has its own team, distinct colors, and loyal supporters—and it’s easy to imagine how these teams, to some degree, have replaced the warring Viking chieftains and their clans of a thousand years ago, who often assembled on these same fields to test their bravery or settle a grievance over some ignominy that doesn’t have to be imagined. Just pick up any one of the renowned Icelandic Sagas, which in some places read like an unadulterated, yet somewhat-fantastical 10th-century police report. From Egil’s Saga:
One morning Thorstein awoke at sunrise and climbed a hill where he could see his neighbor’s cattle on Thorstein’s land once again. Thorstein found his neighbor Thrand sleeping on top of a bluff with his shoes off, and poked him awake with the handle of his axe: “I’m the owner of this land and the pastures belonging to your people are on the other side of the stream.” Before Thrand could put on his shoes, Thorstein swung his axe hard and brought it down on Thrand’s neck, leaving it dangling on his chest. After that, Thorstein gathered stones, covered Thrand’s body, and went back to Borg.
Like most places identified in the Sagas, Borg is a real place. Later in the summer we will play a team from Borg (now called Borganes), and after the game a friend will take me to the presumed spot of Thrand’s beheading, which is about half a mile out of town and just behind a row of moss-covered boulders. The boulders look psychedelic in the Arctic light, and you half expect to find Thrand’s severed head lying nearby.
Traveling around the island, it’s not long before you feel like you’re a part of a grand cycle, as timeless as the fjords and mountains that seem to have been cut from and pounded into the land with help from Thorstein’s axe. The irony is that Iceland is relatively new in geological time, one of the last islands to rise—literally, ooze out of the sea—the result of two tectonic plates (the North American and the Eurasian) moving ever so slowly apart. Iceland is home to spectacular geologic sights, from lava fields to geysers to waterfalls with whimsical names, like Godafoss, waterfall of the gods.
Godafoss, or waterfall of the gods, Bardardalur district, north-central Iceland. Photo: Mark Franek
The evening of the game against Thor, like all my summer nights in Iceland, the sun descends low on the horizon, and the temperature drops a few more degrees centigrade. But the fans hardly notice. They cheer and whistle as the men battle up and down the pitch. A little before 10 p.m., the grass still illuminated entirely by natural light, we finally fall to Thor, 1-0.
In the locker room after the game we nurse our pride as Thor celebrates another victory. A fierce chant erupts from our opponent’s locker room a few paces down the hall. A thousand years ago we’d bury the dead and nurse our wounds. Tonight we throw our stinky uniforms in a pile and head off to the showers.
The place still smells like Gretar’s fish oil.
He’s utterly convinced that elves are living in his rock gardens
“See that big rock there? That’s a house, and that row of smaller stones, those are windows. Elves live there.”
I am standing with the team’s manager (also the guy who washes our uniforms), whose day job is a mix of farming and engine mechanics, and he’s pointing to a row of stones along the edge of his property. He’s utterly convinced that elves are living in his rock gardens—what Icelanders call huddlefolk, or hidden folk. Only a fortunate few can see them, he says. Usually children. Others just feel their presence and know they’re there.
As we walk his property he tells me that when he was eight or nine he was riding the tractor with his sister and slammed on the brake and the tractor flipped over, trapping the girl. Without thinking, he lifted the tractor and pulled her out and noticed that the steel bar had bent around her spine. “You don’t think I did that myself, do you? Bending that bar and lifting that tractor? I had help from the elves.”
After a Friday night game, and about an hour into the three-hour ride home, I decide to investigate the matter with the elves a little further. A few beers have quietly popped in the back of the bus and our coach has turned a blind eye.
I turn to a teammate, Sverrir, a jovial chap with a square jaw and a ferocious free kick. What do you think of the elves? I ask. Have you ever heard of them in your town? Sverrir grew up in Keflavik, home of Iceland’s only international airport, and thus the town with the most contact with the outside world. From 1951 to 2006, Keflavik hosted a U.S. naval airbase staffed by thousands of American grunts and officers and employing nearly 900 Icelandic civilians at its peak. I counted on Sverrir for an objective answer.
“They don’t come near the town. Too many foreigners.”
It’s hard to tell if Sverrir is just pulling my leg—his command of English and penchant for puns rivals that of a college English major. He attended university in the States and grew up on American movies, which, all through his childhood, were continually broadcast in English by Iceland’s two state-sponsored channels.