NL·Point of View

Cold-calling Iceland, for the love of soccer and Euro 2016

On the heels of Team Iceland's stunning victories in Euro 2016, reporter Ryan Cooke discovers how intimately connected the country really is.

Going in search of national team connections, in the small country that has shocked the soccer world

Iceland's Kolbeinn Sigthorsson celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during the Euro 2016 match between England and Iceland on Monday, sending his country from underdog status to soccer glory. (Claude Paris/The Associated Press)

They first caught my eye a week ago as I was sitting behind a desk, working away at a computer.

Mid-sentence, my producer tailed off topic and leapt to his feet, his arms in the air. A rag-tag group of Icelandic footballers on the TV at the end of the room had just scored a late goal in a game they had no business attending. They went on to win that day, beating Austria to advance to the Round of 16 at the European Championship.

On Monday, the team continued its streak. The Icelanders channelled their Viking ancestry and besieged the English, knocking them out of the tournament in an upset worthy of the silver screen.

In the hours following the match, pundits and fans raved about Iceland — the nation of 323,000 people that shocked the world.

Eight percent of its population was in France for the tournament. One player remarked he personally knew half the crowd. The team's assistant manager is a part-time dentist.

It's just the perfect sports story.

Icelandic soccer fans are in no short supply during Euro 2016: eight per cent of the population is in France for the tournament. (Yves Herman/REUTERS)

It's a small world, after all

But if there's one thing I love more than a good sports story, it's a great 'small world' story.

Iceland has roughly the same population as Halifax, slightly higher than the Avalon Peninsula. If this were an Atlantic Canadian team taking on the world, every pint-guzzling beard in a bar would be bragging about their third cousin, the team's second-string striker.

So I wondered, how many random Icelanders would you have to call before finding someone who knows a member of the national team? With a strong case of curiosity, I started cold calling Iceland.

First up was Alex, from Hafnarfjörður, who gave a shocking response. The Canadian version of Alex is a hipster who hates hockey and feels obligated to let everybody know it.

"Most people here are crazy," he said.

"But I personally do not care about 22 men running around a field in shorts."


As I began speaking to other Icelanders, one thing became clear: Alex was in the minority.

'We thought it was a dream'

"There was no traffic outside [during the game]," Stefan, of Reykjavik, said about the atmosphere in the country's capital during the game against England.

"Everybody is watching TV. It's such a big event... We couldn't believe it. We thought it was a dream. And there's still people thinking that this is a dream today."

Thousands of people pack into Reykjavik's town square, watching Iceland battle Portugal. (Curtis Olson/Instagram)

I stumbled through the Icelandic phone directory landing on disconnected numbers, confused non-English speakers and strange techno ring tones. To each person, I posed the same question: "Do you know anybody on the team?"

"Two of them are from my hometown, but I don't know them," one woman said.

"You just know the faces," Stefan told me. "And you know a little bit about their families because this is not so big a country, but I do not know any of the players personally."

Three others, a little confused by the strange Canadian man on the other end of the line, offered a simple "no."

Cold calling success

And then, with the sixth connected call, I reached Erna Sigurdardottir in Rejkyavik, and asked her if she had any team connections to share.

"Yeah," she replied nonchalantly. "We had a dinner with Ragnar [Sigurdsson], one of the players that scored yesterday, in Copenhagen because he was playing beside my step-son."

Her step-son, Solvi Otteson, is a veteran of 28 international matches with the Icelandic national team, but was not selected for the Euro Cup roster.

Despite this, Sigurdardottir still travelled to France for the start of the tournament, and has purchased tickets to Iceland's Sunday quarterfinal game against France, though she likely will not attend.

The soccer mom has doubts her team can knock off the heavily favoured French club, but then again, they weren't supposed to beat the English either.

"France has done this before and maybe they are not as hungry as us," she said.

"But everything can happen. It's a fairy tale anyway. They have gone really, really far and everything is sort of going crazy for it."

Iceland's Ragnar Sigurdsson celebrates scoring their first goal during the Iceland vs England game. (Eric Gaillard/REUTERS)

For the next 15 minutes, Sigurdardottir and I chatted about sports, our countries and her family. She was at ease in her second language, excited to share what used to be the secret of Icelandic soccer.

For the next few days, the world will be watching. After that, she hopes the passion will stay when the spotlight fades, so her young daughter can have the same opportunities to shine.

It was as if answering an international phone call and speaking to a complete stranger was nothing out of the ordinary.

A few minutes after hanging up, the studio phone rang again. It was Erna Sigurdardottir, leaving me her email address and thanking me for the call.

I guess Iceland and Canada are not so different after all.


Ryan Cooke is a multiplatform journalist with CBC News in St. John's. His work often takes a deeper look at social issues and the human impact of public policy. Originally from rural Newfoundland, he attended the University of Prince Edward Island and worked for newspapers throughout Atlantic Canada before joining CBC in 2016. He can be reached at