Iceland face Fifa World Cup 2018 exit, but their hardcore Hong Kong following still believe

Group of friends, many of whom studied in the European country, swap memories and share the experience of watching Iceland play in their first World Cup

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 June, 2018, 11:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 June, 2018, 11:25am

Iceland are the smallest country at the World Cup with a population not quite tipping the scales at 350,000, but they are one of the best-supported nations in Hong Kong this summer.

That much is clear in Champs bar on Wan Chai Road, where 16 Hongkongers have gathered to watch their adopted home, a link that was forged as high school exchange students on the AFS Intercultural Exchange Programme.

Brian is the leader of the group, and he has booked a table for the 16 there, choosing Champs after another member of the group had searched the internet for a suitable venue.

Of the 16 people there, most spent a year in Iceland, 11 of them in fact with “a boyfriend, a mother and three friends” making up the numbers according to Kate, who was in the European country a decade ago.

The “boyfriend” in question, Francois, has his own connection to Iceland, where he has holidayed. That is what brought him and Kate together ­– they had mutual friends and bonded over his impending trip when he and Kate spent a night talking as she recommended what to eat and where to go for the unmissable sights of the country. They will travel to Iceland for the first time together next month.

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Now they are both bedecked in the Icelandic flag as they watch the game against Nigeria, one where victory means the first-timers would be on the brink of the knockouts of their first World Cup finals.

The exchange programme offered the then-high school students the world but they picked Iceland for similar reasons. Brian says that he went because he “wanted somewhere that didn’t speak English, not easy to get to and 10 years ago no one was talking about it” while Kate says “Iceland was not in the news then, this was before the tourism, a returner pitched it and it sounded exactly like the place I wanted to go.”

Brian was there for 12 months between 2005 and 2006 but has been back once a year for the last three years. Others have maintained their connection and still have friends from their time there.

Kate and Brian are among five that sport Iceland shirts, both of theirs are Euro 2016 versions, while one fan has a current kit that she got on a recent trip to Iceland. None of the shirts sport the name and number of a player because, they tell me, that they support the team.

Ordinarily these people are not football fans. Brian admits that he only watches Iceland and has no further interest in the World Cup beyond them. Kate has an interest in the Chinese women’s volleyball team, who she watched in Hong Kong earlier this month.

Kate admits she thought about going to Russia to watch her team, especially after being at the last World Cup in Brazil four years ago, but it is difficult given she is going to Iceland for the 10th anniversary of her exchange just after the World Cup. “Some classmates and lots of friends from Iceland have gone, though,” she says.

When the Hong Kong group are not watching the World Cup they meet every couple of months and discuss Iceland, even talking in Icelandic.

The reaction to Nigeria’s first goal is emphatically in Cantonese and enough to turn the air as blue as Iceland’s striking kit. The Africans add another goal before the whistle but Iceland live to fight another day, provided they can beat group leaders Croatia in their final game.

Even without much to celebrate they find the positives, cheering with a call of “skal wafayen” on the issuing of the first yellow card and jumping off their feet when Iceland come close to scoring several times at the end of the first half.

The World Cup may soon be over for Iceland, but Brian is indignant. “No way. It will continue,” he says.

Kate is similarly positive despite Nigeria winning 2-0 and Iceland’s star player Gylfi Sigurdsson missing a penalty. She has picked Iceland to go through to the knockouts in her pre-tournament bracket and remains confident. “It’s OK, we’ve got the next game.”

Iceland play Croatia on Tuesday at 2am.