Iceland Soccer – Why I Want Them to Beat Croatia

People love underdogs like the Iceland soccer team. Hours ago, they wrapped up a scoreless draw against Croatia at its Laugardalsvöllur national football stadium. Even before the result, Iceland soccer has been getting all sorts of great press.

If you’ve looked through this blog at all, you’ll know already that I love Iceland. And part of that love started with Iceland soccer fans. On our first day in Iceland, Sarah and did what we always do in a new destination: We walked. Our ambling took us to the Laugardalslaug public pools – a complex of geothermally heated pools where we wound up relaxing for hours.

After we had our fill of relaxation, we resumed our wandering. Just a few minutes from the pools, we found the Laugardalsvöllur. We noticed a crowd of people, including a long-haired, bearded guy with his face painted blue and white. He carried a staff. He seemed just like the person who could tell us what’s going on.

Iceland Soccer
The friendly Stjarnan faithful get rowdy.

It turned out that kick-off of a Premier League match between Stjarnan and Fram was about to kick off – this is the high point of Iceland soccer in domestic leagues. The Face-Painted One (named Ragnar) gave us a free ticket. I bought one more, and Sarah and I enjoyed 90 minutes of fun soccer action. OK, it wasn’t exactly the UEFA Champions League. But it was still a ton of fun, made better by the fans. The Stjarnan fans banged drums, blew trumpets and sang throughout the match. And the Fram stadiums were perfectly gracious to the noisy interlopers in their home stadium (which the team shares with the national team).

It was a pretty incredible start to our first day in Iceland. And it makes me root for a victory in the return leg in Croatia. Nothing against Croatia, but my personal connection to Iceland makes me favor them. If they win, they will be the first Icelandic soccer team to play in the World Cup. That will be an incredible achievement for a nation of just more than 300,000 residents.

I even have an Iceland soccer shirt in my closet, and I wear it often. But here’s the truth: I really wanted to find a Stjarnan shirt, but came up empty. I’d still like a Stjarnan shirt, but I’m glad to have the national team shirt now … you can bet I’ll wear it whether they win or lose to Croatia.

  • Iceland secures 0-0 draw vs Croatia in playoff
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Best Sporting Events – My Top Four

Arsenal F.C. and FC Barcelona line up before the 2006 UEFA Champions League Final. Photo taken from en.wikipedia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m a little different about what I consider the best sporting events. Baseball? Blah. Basketball? Meh. Football, the American kind? Doesn’t do much for me. Hockey? I still love it, but the recent constipation in getting the NHL season started tarnishes the world’s most-prestigious league.

But so what? There are plenty of other leagues and sports in the world. A combination of travel and straight-up curiosity led me to ask: What makes my list of best sporting events? Well, here they are. Get ready for some surprises.

UEFA Champions League Knockout Stage
You’ve heard of the FIFA World Cup. It’s supposed to be the pinnacle of soccer (sorry, my UK friends – I feel like a poseur being an American who says football unless I’m in your country). I argue that the UEFA Champions League is a higher standard of play. Think about it – national teams get together every now and then, and meaningful matches are rare.

The UEFA Champions League, though, pits the top teams from member leagues against each other. These guys play together week in, week out – they mesh like no national team can. The quality of play puts it on my list of best sporting events. By the time you reach the knockout stages, there’s all to play for. The teams in best form eliminated the rest in the group stage. And now, you’re left with a few rounds where teams play a home-and-away series. The team with the most goals in each advances to the next round, with away goals being a tiebreaker.

A curling rock waits for a throw. (Photo credit: markjdos)

A Big Ol’ Curling Bonspiel
Curling is cool, and I don’t care what anyone says about it. I can say this with the authority of not only someone who’s seen the movie Men With Brooms, but someone who has actually tried curling.

That last bit is important. Curling taught me that it’s difficult, both in strategy and execution. And I have yet to meet a curling person who isn’t friendly and eager to welcome interested people to the sport. That makes me want to see a bonspiel, or curling tournament. The biggest is the Manitoba Curling Association Bonspiel, which is the sport’s biggest and oldest – more than 1,000 teams, and the inaugural happened in 1888. But biggest isn’t always best -- I hope a curling cognescenti weighs in with a suggestion of the best bonspiel for spectators.

Hurling (Photo credit: Steve Burt)

An Irish Hurling Experience
I know, I know -- Irish + hurling = jokes about having too many pints. But no: Hurling is a cool game of Gaelic origin. Played outdoors. With a ball and wooden sticks. And lots of lacrosse-like action -- but the only protective gear players wear is a helmet with a faceguard (a requirement since just 2010).

Here’s the really good stuff: The game has a low-key vibe where player egos take a back seat. The jerseys feature no numbers or player names. Players are unpaid, throwing themselves out there for love of the game. I’ll make the same appeal to hurling fans that I did to the curlers: Feel free to educate me on the best competitions!

Believe it or not, rugby can get physical. (Photo credit: paddynapper)

For the Good of the State
I’d never heard of the State of Origins rugby series. That changed when I went to an Australian’s birthday party in Brisbane. He educated me on the appeal of this best-of-three series of matches; they pit players from Queensland and New South Wales. He told me there are also political overtones, with the teams representing the more conservative versus the liberal (respectively). That added fire makes it one of my best sporting events … even if it’s far too overlooked.

Aside from being arguably the highest standard of rugby, I love the idea of players representing their home state/province. More accurately, they play for the state where they first registered for senior rugby. So there’s occasional controversy, as you might guess. But the central idea remains intact, and makes this a must-see on my next visit to Australia.


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Watching the Portland Timbers – A Traveler’s View

Portland Timbers, Ajax, Jeld-Wen Field
It's a perfect day for the Beautiful Game in Portland. And the noise is already going long before the match begins.

The kickoff is 30 minutes away. But already, loud voices chant and sing. Trumpets blow. The sound of drums bounces off the concrete.

Where am I? Manchester’s Old Trafford? St. James Park in Newcastle? Liverpool’s famous Anfield?

No. I’m in Portland, Oregon, at Jeld-Wen Field. And yes, these people are chanting mightily for soccer.

There’s a friendly match (or exhibition) on tap, with Dutch champions AFC Ajax making a visit to the Rose City. They’ll play first-year Major League Soccer franchise Portland Timbers. They might not have a pedigree to match that of Ajax. No reputation for Total Football or as a breeding ground for top players.

All the Timbers have are Sal Zizzo, Kenny Cooper and the fans – most notably the Timbers Army. Oh, they also have Timber Joey, a bearded, smiley colossus on patrol with a gas-powered chainsaw. He’s there to make sure you’re cheering. Not that he needed to prod the crowd much. Timbers have a relatively long soccer history  (for a U.S. side, anyway) dating all the way back to 1975.

Throughout the match, I wondered what the Ajax squad thought of the Timbers. They issued a 2-nil beatdown that wasn’t anywhere as close as the scoreline. Ajax showed smooth, assured control of the ball. Their formations morphed with astounding liquidity, rapidly changing to match the situation. Their second goal? Midfielder Demy de Zeeuw could’ve just hammered it in – but no. He opts for a more complicated and stylish scissor kick. It’s the sort of move you won’t see at even 10 percent of the matches you could watch. That’s the Ajax way … soccer should – no, must – must entertain.

No matter how Ajax regard their opponents, I hope Jeld-Wen Field, the Timbers fans and the city of Portland made an impression. It’s a very nice stadium, the fans are in great voice and it’s a terrific city.

I also love that Portland ardently supports the Timbers. Throughout the city, you’ll see people in Timbers regalia and bars urging people to watch matches there. I saw about three people wearing Trailblazers NBA shirt. Contrast this with Washington, D.C. or Denver – there, I saw barely an signs outside the stadium that MLS existed. In Portland, people are abuzz about the franchise.

I notice a funny little habit of the Timbers fans during the Star-Spangled Banner: After every few lines, they’d wave their scarves or banners in the air and make a whooshing, rocket-like noise. Kind of funny, and very unusual.

Good luck to the Timbers, and thanks for turning this visitor from the desert into a fan.


Stjarnan FC Soccer Fans the Highlight of First Day in Iceland

stjarnan FC fans
Stjarnan FC fans bring the noise and show the Fram fans how it's done.

Want to make friends in a foreign country? All you need to do is embrace its sports, and you’re well on your way. I first learned this in Costa Rica when I became a Saprisista. And I continued the tradition during my latest trip. Hours after touching down at Keflavik International Airport in Iceland, I wound up next to a wild bunch of fans supporting Stjarnan F.C. (pronounce it as “startna,” pretty much), a team in the Úrvalsdeild (Icelandic premier league).

My wife and I had just introduced ourselves to another Icelandic tradition – lounging around in hot tubs. Afterward, we were walking along when I noticed a group of people outside a stadium.

Since there was a red-bearded guy wearing blue and white facepaint, I figured he would be the one to ask “Hey, what’s going on here?” So I did, and soon had the info that there was a Monday night match about to start. And he offered a free ticket, on one condition: “You must support Stjarnan!”

Who am I to argue with a bearded, face-painted dude wielding a 6-foot-tall staff topped with a skull? So support Stjarnan we did! I bought a second ticket for Sarah, and into the stadium we went.

As it turns out, Stjarnan only got promoted to the top division a few years ago. At gametime, they were ranked in the middle of the league table. Meanwhile, their opponents (and the hometeam … aiiiy!), Fram, were ranked first. But the Stjarnan fans provided most of the spirit on display in the mostly empty stadium, which is called Laugardalsvöllur. Organized cheers and songs from the Stjarnan faithful largely drowned out the Fram supporters, even in their own 10,000-seat grounds!

Even going down two goals did little to silence them. And they added more noise when a Fram player was sent off late in the game, allowing Stjarna to score a goal. They pressed for the equalizer as the clock ticked, but weren’t able to level the scoreline.

Still, I adopted Stjarnan as my Icelandic team. I searched all over the city on a wild goose chase for a Stjarnan shirt. Each store seemed to refer me to a different place, but I was completely out of luck. I wound up with an Icelandic national team shirt instead, but I still will try to find some way to get a Stjarnan shirt.

One thing that surprised me is that Icelanders are really into soccer, but they disdain their own premier league clubs, unfortunately. Instead, most seem to follow English teams – especially Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United.

I’ll admit there’s a gulf in quality – but I think everyone should show some pride for their hometown sports clubs. It doesn’t matter if they’re in the best league in the world, or the worst: Your home is your home, and you have to support the local teams! One thing I did really like is that the rivalry between fans was really friendly. They just wanted to cheer on their teams, not battle each other (unlike Saprissa and Alajuela down in Costa Rica, for instance).

Here’s a video – if you know any of these characters, pass it along to them and tell me who they are. I’d like to hear from any Stjarna fans. Your team has a fan here in the U.S.!