The discovery comes in January, when the temperature in the quaint village dips into the 20s and the soccer players show up wearing five pairs of socks.
“You can see who really wants it in the wintertime,” said 14-year-old Eva Schram. “You see who is there because it’s fun and who is there because it’s their passion.”
Schram and the other girls playing for Grotta/KR, a U-16 team from Reykjavik, Iceland, stuck around for cold practices year after year, full of love for the game even when their toes were frozen.
As they travel to the annual Schwan’s USA Cup in Blaine this weekend for the first time, they’re riding the wave of their island country’s biggest moment in its soccer history.
For decades, Icelandic soccer, in one of Europe’s smallest football nations, struggled to compete with the sports’ blue bloods. This summer has been a different story.
The Iceland women’s national team is ranked 16th in the world, and it has secured at least a play-in into the 2017 Euro Cup. The men’s national team made an improbable run this June to the Euro Cup quarterfinals in the first year they qualified for the tournament, stunning Portugal and England along the way with a smart defensive game.
Schram, who attends all of Iceland’s home games, traveled to Saint-Denis for the Euro Cup match against France, decked out in an Iceland jersey and face paint, singing and chanting all the way through.
“We lost 5-2 but nobody cared,” she said, joyously. “It still felt like a big accomplishment. Nobody knew we could go so far. Football — it’s all anyone is talking about right now.”
That a country with a population of only 330,000 — fewer residents than Minneapolis — could find so much success on the world stage might seem like a fluke, but many around Iceland believe the recent triumphs simply reflect growth from the bottom up.
Since 2000, there has been an explosion in the number of turfed pitches being built around the country. Unlike in other Scandinavian countries, Iceland’s government owns the soccer fields and facilities and allows teams to use them at no cost. Without rent to pay, teams are able to use all of the player fees to pay coaches, resulting in far more experience and expertise at the helm. Most coaches, even those running teams of Kindergartners, are formally educated, Grotta/KR coach Magnús Helgason said.
“We get a real coach at age 5, not a parent,” Schram said.
Soccer continues to grow, Helgason said, despite the environmental challenges.
Teams practice outdoors year round, with winters bringing snow, freezing temperatures and dark days when the sun only pokes through for an hour or two. Sometimes, Grotta/KR will use entire practices just to shovel the snow off the pitch, Helgason said. Players get committed early or quit.
“You just have to run much more to keep warm,” Schram said. “We have to be tough. And then we’re just really tough all the time because, well, we want to play.”
And because of Reykjavik’s size, most soccer players are also lifelong friends, playing together for a decade or longer. The outcome is a tight-knit chemistry and a built-in support system, Schram said.
This season, Grotta/KR — which models its game after the men’s national team — is third in Iceland’s second division, and is hoping the Schwan’s Cup can provide the competition and experience to spark the team to a strong league finish. Grotta/KR will split its roster into two teams in Blaine and open play against New Prague and the Rebels Soccer Club of Minnesota in games on Tuesday morning.
“Of course, it should be hard [to find and develop players],” Helgason said. “But you can see how well our national teams are doing, both men and women. We have professional players, both men and women, and some coaches all around Europe.
“I think we just don’t think too much about the population. We just do our job and that turns out to be pretty good.”