Hallgrímur Helgason on Lars Lagerbäck : The Magic Mix: Icelandic heart & Swedish brain
Hallgrímur Helgason, first published in Broenxyz, Norway, later Politiken, Denmark and republished by Kvennablaðið, Iceland.
The Magic Mix: Icelandic heart & Swedish brain
A few years ago we were standing in a bar in Montpellier, a few Icelandic writers, watching the Champions League Final. Real-Atletico. It was in the middle of a Literary Festival and the South-French city was filled with Scandinavian authors. The football craziest of them (me, Stefánsson and Indridason) had found a sports bar where we were thrilled to be joined by the greatest living Swedish writer, Per Olov Enquist, who towered there between us, still dressed like the eighteen year old athelete he once was, despite his 80 years. He didn’t say much, only followed the game with his majestic and Beckett-like stare. But at half time he listened to the Icelandic authors discuss the game and in the middle of it he leaned in and dropped a sudden sentence:
“Men ni har Lars!”
Lars Lagerbäck had then just been appointed the head coach of the Icelandic men’s national team and it took us a second to understand these words, and the one that quickly followed:
That was it, Enquist then turned away and left us contemplating his words; Jón Kalman Stefánsson explaining that the big man also hailed from the northern part of Sweden, just like Lars, and that he probably knew the famous football coach personally.
Enquist’s sudden message was actually quite Icelandic: Short dry words but full of pride in the valley back home: Only good people come from there. And it made you understand that maybe this Lars guy was probably the right man for us, for the more we got to know him he seemed even more Icelandic than ourselves: Slow, reserved, shy and forever cool-headed, and thus branded “boring” by the Swedish media. In short: Lars Lagerbäck reminded us of the eternal Icelandic farmer that we all had to wrestle with in our youth, when we were sent for the summer to stay on a farm for three months, a humble hardworking man who belonged to an Iceland we have now lost, a silent man who seemed as eternal as the mountain behind him and seemed to know Fate personally, for he always knew tomorrow’s weather just as well as yesterday’s. Nothing could surprise him.
And this is Lars. He always seems to know tomorrow’s game even better than yesterday’s game. Nothing seems to surprise him. Even though the other team scores two freakish goals in two minutes, his closest thing to panic is to shift his legs as he sits with them crossed in his trainer’s seat. This was exactly the man we needed, a “boring” Swede with organized, patient and longterm thinking, everything we don’t have in Iceland anymore. We who are the least disciplined of people, always running things as we go along, forever ready for everything, convinced that in the end everything will be OK. Thus we have that optimistic Icelandic fighting spirit, and when you add Swedish discipline to that one, you get what we have today: A football team that can beat any other team in the world. (That is all except Sweden, Norway and Denmark, we never seem to be able to beat them, but this doesn’t really count, it’s like playing against your parents, you never go all in for a tackle against your mom.)
And now we have reached the round of 16 at the UEFA Euro 2016.
We’ve been playing a typical Lars game, careful, stubborn, defending, with the occasional inspired blitzes that have given us 4 goals. After the teary moment at the beginning of every game— when a choir of 10.000 Icelanders enjoys singing the national anthem in the wonderful acoustics of modern French architecture — we have been standing there in the stands screaming and jumping with joy as our team does the Lars-thing, going through their hardworking routine, running after every ball, every player, closing off every space, throwing themselves in front of every shot fired. To be honest these games have been more about work than play. It has sometimes felt like we were cheering an overly patient part time father who is putting together a piece of IKEA furniture. It all fits together, all you have to remember is not losing your head or your patience. How someone managed to get a squad of 11 Icelandic lads to work like one man is no small feat, and this we owe to Lars. He has brought ice to our fire. The Swedish reasoning has made sure we don’t concede goals, and Icelandic spontaneity has made sure we have scored some.
What a magic mix it is!
When asked to describe the difference between Icelandic literature and the Nordic ones, I sometimes answer that since our country was settled by Norse vikings and their Irish slaves Icelandic literature is “Hamsun gone Wilde” (Oscar Wilde that is). And now we can maybe apply this to our national football team as well: Icelandic football is “Kaos gone Lars”, or “Larsified lava”, a tamed volcano.
After our miraculous win against Austria in Stade de France in Paris last Wednesday (that nicely put us up for “the Brexit game” against England next Monday) we were walking home from our post-match meal and spotted a live broadcast on an outside screen at a temporary sidewalk café in Saint Denis. Sweden was playing against Belgium and Zlatan looked ever more frustrated, as his or his teammates’ passes didn’t work out. A strange feeling came over us: We almost felt sorry for the Swedes. Of course this is an impossible thing, no one can feel sorry for the Swedes. No one ever has. Not even at the thought of them having to write 30 Eurovision songs each year. But this was the closest as we have come to feeling sorry for the Swedes. They were losing yet another game, they had only scored one goal in their group matches. And then Belgium scored the winner close to the end… to some cheering with a Norwegian accent, I noticed, further out on the Parisian sidewalk. Zlatan walked away in shame and left us Icelanders being the only Nordic team left on the European stage. Yet another strange feeling. A feeling that spoke these words: “OK, Zlatan, we’ll take care of this.”
But coming from a game where our team played with a Swedish mind and an Icelandic heart, the difference was obvious. Here 11 men in yellow and blue did not play like one man, here were ten men who played around one man, and he was feeling frustrated. No charm or magic were to be found, and no fighting spirit, no love. It was all IKEA in the factory, and not at home. It was yet another routine show up for the Swedes at a big tournament, when for Iceland it was the first ever. The difference was like the one between two lovers on their honeymoon and an old couple in their old summerhouse.
We Icelanders are getting a little taste of the Danish fairy tale of ’92, at least until Monday… In our case everything is so special, there is magic in the air and love in the team. Even Lars himself is not “boring” anymore the Swedish football journalists say, “…it’s very clear, he’s having the time of his life”. And all this enthusiasm carries out in a beautiful love affair between team and supporters. After the game in Paris, our mighty captain, Aron Gunnarsson, walked his team towards the stands where he lifted his arms like a conductor of a 10.000 strong orchestra and the stadium fell silent, for a second, and then started the trademark viking roar of the Icelandic supporters, conducted by Gunnarsson. It was maybe the strongest moment of national unity one has seen. And, as before, the tears were just one blink away.
It’s obvious, that at this tournament Iceland is carried by the wave of “the unbelivability of the underdog”, which might be the strongest power the planet has to offer. When all the world’s common sense tells you that you’re bound to fail, you get filled with an extra amount of fighting spirit, like David against Goliath. Sweden may as well have been a David at Euro 2016 but still they had one Goliath on their team. For people to get the comparison with Iceland, Sweden would rather have sent a team from Norbotten only instead of their national one. But still, that would not have been enough, they would have needed their
Lars as well.
This is why we now say: Sorry Sweden, but thank you anyway!
Hallgrímur Helgason skrifar en grein hans birtist fyrst í Broenxyz, Noregi, svo í Politiken, Danmörku í morgun og endurbirt af Kvennablaðinu.