June 21, 2018 / 2:18 PM / 2 months ago

For fans from tiny Iceland, team is family - often literally

VOLGOGRAD, Russia (Reuters) - One Iceland fan went to primary school with a player’s father. Another supporter’s son used to regularly wait on the team at a bar. And yet another fan is related by marriage to the squad’s chef.

FILE PHOTO: Supporters of Iceland clap as they gather in Zaryadye Park Moscow, Russia - June 16, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin/File Photo

With a population of around 350,000, Iceland is the smallest nation to ever qualify for a World Cup. So, for fans descending on Russia for the Nordic island’s first ever appearance at the tournament, the national team is often a deeply personal affair, with many supporters boasting blood ties or personal links with the players.

Bjarni Arnason, a 31-year-old Icelandic architect who traveled to Volgograd to watch his team play Nigeria in Group D on Friday, fondly recalled playing handball at high school with Iceland defender Ragnar Sigurdsson.

“He was really good!” laughed Arnason, decked out in the Iceland jersey on Thursday. “He was so good that the football team wanted him to just play football.”

FILE PHOTO: Supporters of Iceland cheer in Zaryadye Park Moscow, Russia - June 16, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin/File Photo

The connections go on: A pal of Arnason is best friends with the wife of Iceland’s goalkeeper while a cousin played football with another player.

And Arnason’s father, in Volgograd for the game too, is old friends with the father of Alfred Finnbogason, who scored against twice world champions Argentina in their opening game on Saturday which ended 1-1.

“I added an 11 on my Iceland team shirt in honor of my friend’s son,” said Arni Sigurdsson.

But, true to Iceland’s no-frills reputation, that’s as far as the preferential treatment goes.

“I cheer for the team – I don’t cheer extra hard for anyone. We are probably all related somewhat anyway!” added engineer Sigurdsson, 61, with a chuckle.

That attitude is reflected on the pitch too. Coach – and part time dentist - Heimir Hallgrimsson insists that all players are treated equally.

FILE PHOTO: Iceland fans before the match against Argentina at Spartak Stadium, Moscow, Russia - June 16, 2018. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann/File Photo

‘CINDERELLA STORY’

The team had a thrilling run at 2016 European championship, eliminating big-name England and advancing to the quarter-finals, propelled by their “thunder-clapping” fans and Viking imagery.

Iceland’s ‘Cinderella story’ has smitten many football aficionados, especially those disgusted by corruption scandals engulfing FIFA and put off by the diva-like attitude of some leading players.

But one downside to hailing from such a small place is that privacy is not always an option.

Iceland fan Svavar Asmundsson said his son used to regularly pour drinks for members of Iceland’s team while working at a bar in capital Reykjavik.

“It was all good... But some of them are a little crazier than the others!” said Asmundsson, a 59-year-old who works in the fishing industry.

Still, the close-knit community never feels suffocating, said the father of midfielder Birkir Bjarnason, who was also in Volgograd to see his son play Nigeria – Africa’s most populous country with close to 200 million people, some 571 times Iceland’s population.

“I know who the fathers and mothers of all the players are. Many parents I knew before, but most of them I met after they started to play together,” said the midfielder’s father Bjarni Sveinbjornsson, a 55-year-old electrician. “It’s kind of a family.”

Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Christian Radnedge

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