Saturday, October 20, 2018

Iceland World Cup Fever … catch it!

TAMPA — Iceland isn't what it used to be. Literally. The Nordic island country is shrinking, what with global warming. Iceland's glaciers are getting smaller. If you took all that ice and laid it end to end, well, you clearly have nothing better to do.

Not so for Sam Harbert. Very early last Saturday morning, Harbert was at MacDinton's pub and eatery in Tampa, sitting with Trevor, his 16-year-old son. The place was empty, but Sam brought it to life with his beloved red, white and blue.

Hold on, America.

It was Iceland red, white and blue all the way for Sam, who lives with his wife and three sons in suburban Iceland. Very suburban Iceland. Extremely suburban. Tampa.

Who cares?

"How do you not root for Iceland?" Harbert asked.

The United States is absent in this World Cup, having failed to make the 32-team field for Russia. So, we're on our own. I have settled on Cup newbie Iceland, which, with a population of 334,000, is the smallest country ever to play in a World Cup. Iceland is so small its national bird walks everywhere.

It's the little country that could.

The contrast Saturday was delicious if you love sports — and underdogs. In its Cup debut, Cinderella Iceland faced world soccer super power Argentina and with it the one, the only Lionel Messi, a world soccer power all by himself. Argentina has 128 times the population of Iceland. Probably even more last Saturday, seeing as reportedly one-third of Iceland's populace was in Russia for the Cup. Some countries stop for the World Cup. Iceland leaves.

"Beating Argentina, this would be our Miracle on Ice," Harbert said.

Look out, Lake Placid!

Harbert, an executive for a Brandon-based construction company, first began to fall for Iceland 42 years ago. He was born there, in 1976, at the U.S. naval air station in Keflavik, where his father was stationed. The family left Iceland six months after Sam was born and he has never been back, though the tentative new target date is for Sam and his wife, Kristine, to go there in a few years for their 25th wedding anniversary. Sam has an Iceland-shaped wooden clock and keeps Keflavik's weather (60 degrees and clear on Saturday) on an app on his phone. He fished his Iceland flag from the attic and headed to Saturday's game as my guest.

The World Cup does this to people.

"I'm proud to be an American citizen, but I'm proud to have been born in Iceland," Harbert said. "People freak out when I tell them I'm from Iceland. All my life, growing up, in school, for book reports, I'd do it on Iceland when you had to pick a foreign country."

"Iceland is easy to fall in love with," said Tampa Bay Rowdies goalkeeper Cody Mizell, who played in Iceland in 2015. "A beautiful, beautiful country. It's very clean. You walk in the front of any building, there are racks for your shoes. If I do that in Atlanta, you come back in five minutes and they're gone. I know some of the Icelandic players. They're a team. That's why they're good. They're very well-organized, very well-coached and they fight for 90 minutes."

Iceland fans Sam Harbert and son Trevor unfurl the red, white and blue while watching the World Cup at MacDinton’s. (Martin Fennelly | Times)

It didn't matter Saturday that I didn't know any of the Iceland players and mostly neither did Sam.

"Only a few of them," Harbert said. "Their names are all tough."

The names are all Fridjonsonn and Gudmundsson and Gunnarsson and Halldorsson, all owing to patronymics, where components of a last name are based on the name of one's father, grandfather or some other descendant. Sam asked for my father's name. I told him dad was Bill, or William.

"So, you would be Martin Williamsson," he said.

By the way, Iceland's head coach, Heimir Hallgrimsson, is also a part-time dentist, as if anyone in Iceland has cavities.

Sam and his son were all smiles as the game began, ready to let loose with the famed Iceland "Viking Thunder Clap," a throwback to Iceland's Norse heritage — an ear-splitting clap and roar that follow two rhythmic beats of drums. Those Vikings had all the fun. Then they had to go and ruin it by joining the NFC Central.

Iceland first leaped onto the international soccer scene two years ago, with robust results at the Euro championships, including a victory over England. But The Land of Fire and Ice is a longshot in Russia. All the better as far as I'm concerned.

Sam and his son's smiles faded somewhat early in Saturday's game, when Argentina star Sergio Aguero gave his team the lead in the 19th minute. Iceland Sam remained stoic. He's good at that. He could live in Iceland in a pinch.

"I'm usually laidback," Sam said.

That ended a few minutes later, when Iceland's Alfred Finnbogason knocked one in to tie it 1-1. Sam exploded with a thunderclap.


Like he said.

By halftime, the pub filled up. People sensed blood in the water, a seismic upset in the making. Among the Iceland fans were Lindsay Mize and Patricia Ramirez, an engaged Tampa couple. They were in Iceland a few years ago, at the nation's famed Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa, when Lindsay took a knee and popped the question.

"So, how can we not be for Iceland?" he asked.

And there was Chris Borzell, a Tampa attorney in a U.S. soccer jersey.

"I'm not from Iceland," Borzell said. "I'm not trying to be from Iceland. But, if I haven't got a team, root for Iceland. It's the smallest country in the Cup. How do you not get behind that?"

The best was yet to come. In the second half, Iceland was called for a foul and Argentina was awarded a penalty kick. The great Messi and his left foot stepped in to take the kick. This was it.

Then it wasn't.

Iceland goalkeeper Hannes Thor Halldorsson made the save to preserve the 1-1 deadlock. A dazed Messi walked away. In the pub, Sam lost it without ever rising from his seat. Argentina fans began nursing their beers.

Iceland beat Argentina, 1-1.

Tie goes to the upstart.

"It's a win for us," Sam said. "A win for the World Cup."

Up next for Iceland is Nigeria on Friday.

"We can win that game" Iceland Sam said as he bundled up his red, white and blue.

I wouldn't put it past those 'ssons of guns.

Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029.

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