Nordic Track: How Iceland Snuck into the World Cup

Joe Klamar, AFP/Getty Images
Joe Klamar, AFP/Getty Images

Win or lose against Croatia in their World Cup match on Tuesday, the Iceland soccer squad has already made history. Making its debut in the 32-team tournament, the North Atlantic nation (pop. 340,000) is the smallest to ever compete on the sport's largest stage. By way of comparison, Brazil (pop. 207 million) and Nigeria (pop. 190 million) make Iceland look like a puny upstart in the vein of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team or the Jamaican bobsledders. Their head coach is a dentist. How did a Nordic country that considers handball a national pastime make it this far?

Up until the 1990s, soccer enthusiasts in Iceland had to be content with practicing on gravel surfaces rather than grass, as frigid weather and snowy conditions consume the area for over half the year; teams were amateur rather than professional. Their biggest soccer-related claim to fame was actually infamy: They lost to rival Denmark by a humiliating 14-2 in 1967.

But Iceland's football faithful had a plan. In order to mold young residents into future stars, towns copied Norway's approach and began building indoor soccer halls around 2000 so that weather wouldn't be an impediment. Kids looking to the sport as a recreational diversion could play year-round. Some schools were even outfitted with snow-melting heaters outdoors to carve out practice fields.

With those kids maturing into viable talent, the country's football federation recruited a world-class coach in Lars Lagerback in 2011. Lagerback had World Cup experience, taking Sweden to the championship twice. And he worked quickly. By 2014, the team had missed entry into the Cup brackets by just one game. In 2016, they stormed the European Championships, forcing a draw with Portugal and shutting down superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, who criticized Iceland for playing a frustratingly defensive strategy.

Players from Iceland and Nigeria vie for a soccer ball in play
Shaun Botterill, Getty Images

Talent and evasive maneuvering are just two of Iceland's secret weapons. The third? Fueling the grassroots efforts of fans. In 2013, assistant coach Heimir Hallgrimsson began inviting diehard followers of the team to a pub close to the home stadium so he could talk about his starting lineup and tailored approach to victory. In big-league sports, coaches do not sit down with fans, let alone to discuss what they plan to do in a match. But the devout audience—which grew from just seven attendees at the first meeting to several hundred today—has never leaked any secrets. That special attention has also paid off in the form of contagious loyalty. During their 2016 European Championships victory against England, the game was watched by 99.9 percent of all Icelanders who had a TV turned on.

"There's total f***ing silence," fan Sunna Gudrun Petursdottir told The Denver Post of the pub meetups. "No phones. And nobody has ever posted anything about anything that goes on … It's a beautiful thing and nobody would ever do anything to ruin that, however f***ing drunk you are. You would never compromise it."

Hallgrimsson took over as head coach in 2016 and garnered headlines for his unusual sports pedigree. He's a part-time dentist in the town of Heimaey, seeing patients when he’s not coaching. He also enjoys dressing as an Icelandic folklore troll named Grýla during Christmas celebrations.

Having drawn with Argentina in the first game of the World Cup and losing 0-2 to Nigeria, Iceland will need to defeat Croatia decisively to advance. But the outcome will likely matter less to fans than the fact they got here in the first place. After the 2016 European appearance where they fell to France, players came home to find 100,000 people waiting for them at the airport—almost one-third of the entire population.

5 Fast Facts About Muhammad Ali

Kent Gavin/Getty Images
Kent Gavin/Getty Images

Muhammad Ali is one of the most important athletes and cultural figures in American history. Though he passed away in 2016, the heavyweight boxing champ was larger than life in and outside of the ring. The man who coined the phrase "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” won 37 knockout victories. Here are five more fast facts about Muhammad Ali, a.k.a. The Greatest.

1. Cassius Clay was named for a white abolitionist.

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. and named after his father, who had in turn been named for a white abolitionist. The original Cassius Clay was a wealthy 19th-century planter and politician who not only published an anti-slavery newspaper, but also emancipated every slave he inherited from his father. Cassius Clay also served as a minister to Russia under President Abraham Lincoln.

2. Muhammad Ali's draft evasion case went to the Supreme Court.

In the early 1960s, Clay converted to Islam, joined the Nation of Islam, and took the name Muhammad Ali. According to his religious beliefs, Ali refused to serve in the Vietnam War when he was drafted in April 1967. He was arrested and stripped of his boxing license and heavyweight title. On June 20, 1967, he was convicted of draft evasion and banned from fighting while he remained free on appeal. His case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously overturned his conviction in 1971.

3. He received a replacement gold medal.

At the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Ali won the gold medal for boxing in the light heavyweight division. But, as he wrote in his 1975 autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story (edited by Toni Morrison!), he supposedly threw his medal into the Ohio River in frustration over the racism he still experienced in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Some historians dispute this story and suggest that Ali just lost the medal. Either way, he was given a replacement when he lit the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

4. Muhammad Ali was an actual superhero.

In 1978, DC Comics published Superman vs. Muhammad Ali—an oversize comic in which Muhammad Ali defeats Superman and saves the world. In real life, Ali did save a man from suicide. In 1981, a man threatened to jump from the ninth story of a building in L.A.’s Miracle Mile neighborhood. Ali’s friend Howard Bingham witnessed the unfolding drama and called the boxer, who lived nearby. Ali rushed into the building and successfully talked the man down from the ledge.

5. Muhammad Ali starred in a Broadway show.

In Oscar Brown, Jr.'s 1969 musical adaptation of Joseph Dolan Tuotti's play Big Time Buck White, Ali played a militant black intellectual who speaks at a political meeting. The play ran for only five nights at the George Abbot Theatre in New York. His Playbill bio reported that Ali "is now appealing his five-year prison conviction and $10,000 fine for refusing to enter the armed services on religious grounds. The Big Time Buck White role that he has accepted is much like the life he lives off stage in reality.”

Can Watching the Super Bowl Give You a Heart Attack?

iStock.com/skynesher
iStock.com/skynesher

With the clock nearing zero, the 2006 divisional round playoff between the Indianapolis Colts and the Pittsburgh Steelers looked to be over: It was the fourth quarter, with one minute and 20 seconds left, and the score was 21-18. Pittsburgh held the lead and, by all appearances, was about to score again.

Pittsburgh's offense lined up on the Indianapolis 2-yard line and handed the ball to future Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis, a cannonball of a man who famously went by the nickname "The Bus." Nearly everybody assumed Bettis would pound the ball through the goal line. Instead, Colts linebacker Gary Brackett forced a fumble. The Colts picked up the ball and nearly ran it back for a touchdown. For Steelers fans, it was a sudden and heartbreaking turn of events. Literally.

Watching from a bar, a diehard Steelers fan named Terry O'Neill watched the ball tumble to the ground and suddenly felt a pain in his chest. Luckily, two firefighters in the crowd helped resuscitate him.

"My heart just quit beating completely," O'Neill later told the South Pittsburgh Reporter. "For all intents and purposes, I died."

Research indicates he wasn't the first. Watching a high-stakes game could actually kill you.

A 2002 study in The BMJ, which focused on the health of English soccer fans, found that a "myocardial infarction can be triggered by emotional upset, such as watching your football team lose an important match." A 2008 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine followed the World Cup-watching habits of German soccer fans and found that watching a stressful game more than doubled viewers' chances of experiencing a cardiovascular event. A similar result was found when other researchers looked at cardiovascular deaths in the Netherlands after the country's soccer team lost the European soccer championships on a penalty shootout in 1996.

In 2011, a study published in Clinical Cardiology looked at the Super Bowl specifically and found that deaths increased after the big game in the losing city, finding an "absolute increase in all cause mortality" in people over the age of 65. The researchers argued:

"Acute risk factors usually involve some form of stress—physical, emotional, or both—that increase the sympathetic nervous system and releases catecholamines. The subsequent increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and ventricular contractility increase oxygen demand and may change the shear stress of blood against an atherosclerotic plaque, contributing to plaque fracture."

This particular study, however, has received some criticism. It only looked at mortality statistics for the 1980 and the 1984 Super Bowls, a relatively small sample. Some researchers said the study went too far in implying that the Super Bowl caused death, considering that the viewer's behavior and health history (and not the events of the game itself) could have been responsible. Super Bowl Sunday, after all, is a day filled with fatty fried foods and copious amounts of alcohol—all possible risk factors for a cardiovascular event.

As Gregg Fonarow, director of the Cardiomyopathy Center at UCLA, tells LiveScience, "It may be other behaviors associated with important sporting events rather than the stress of watching the home team lose that may explain these associations." Additionally, pre-existing conditions could be a huge contributing factor. (This was the case for our fateful Steelers fan.)

Study limitations aside, becoming invested in the outcome of a sporting match is undeniably stressful on the heart. A recent (though small) study out of Canada surveyed the heart rates of hockey fans during games, revealing "a mean increase of 92 per cent among the 20 test subjects, rising from an average rate of 60 to 114 beats per minute," according to the Montreal Gazette. In other words, people sitting and watching TV had heart rates equivalent to people undergoing mild exercise. Their heart rates only got higher when they watched games in person.

Of course, you don't have to do a study to learn that close games can cause a diehard fan's heart to pound—just go and ask one. And if they mutter, "This team is going to kill me!," kindly suggest that they step away from the TV before it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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