MARSEILLE, France (AP) — When Iceland took on Portugal in their European Championship opener, the tiny Scandinavian nation virtually ground to a halt as thousands of fans packed into a central Reykjavik square.
When Birkir Bjarnason scored a second-half equalizer to earn Iceland a shock 1-1 draw in its first match at a major international tournament, the nation known for its active volcanoes erupted in patriotic joy.
Watching sport has always been popular among Icelanders, the team’s captain Aron Gunnarsson said Friday. “When they’ve got a team actually playing there, it’s going absolutely mental.”
Nearly 27,000 Icelanders bought a ticket to watch one of their team’s Euro 2016 matches in France — that’s more than eight percent of the country’s 330,000 people.
Some of the fans who made it to France relaxed on sun-drenched sidewalk terraces in downtown Marseille on Friday, soaking up the atmosphere and a few beers ahead of their team’s second Group F match, against Hungary at the Stade Velodrome on Saturday.
“We are very proud to be playing for the first time in a tournament like this,” Iceland fan Magnus Gudmundsson, said as he walked around Marseille’s peaceful Old Port looking for a beer.
Iceland and Hungary fans exchanged friendly greetings in scenes that were a stark contrast to the violent clashes here a week ago between England, Russian and French supporters.
“In the very old days, we used to be quite barbaric,” Gudmundsson said, harking back to his country’s Viking heritage. “These days we don’t have an army or anything. We’re just a peaceful people.”
The 1-1 draw with Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal grabbed headlines around the globe as neutral supporters embraced a great underdog story.
“We feel the support we have from Iceland and also the rest of the world,” striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson said. “It seems we surprised the world.”
Thorir Gudmundsson, a resident of downtown Reykjavik, said there were unprecedented scenes when Iceland drew in France, with thousands of soccer fans jumping for joy in the streets of the Icelandic capital.
The love has stretched across the Atlantic to the United States, where Willona Sloan, an American writer who has twice visited Iceland to teach and attend writing workshops, posted a message of support on an English language Icelandic news site.
Sloan said she saw fans go crazy in Reykjavik as Iceland beat the Netherlands on its way to qualifying for the tournament in France.
“I just remember thinking, ‘Man, Icelanders love them some soccer!’ Sloan said Friday in an email. “Like, who knew soccer was so big in Iceland? It wasn’t until the next day that I learned how important that match was to their football program.”
Beating the Dutch home and away in qualification was celebrated as one of Iceland’s greatest sporting achievements and helped spark a run on tickets to matches in France.
Magnus Magnusson, a 44-year-old Reykjavik plumber, was at home for the Portugal match, but he wasn’t going to miss the chance to watch a match live. He was in Marseille on Friday ahead of the Hungary match and will travel to Paris for his country’s final group stage game, against Austria.
“This is our country’s first tournament,” he said. “We just came to have fun, drink beer and watch the game.”
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