Iceland Ties Argentina 1-1, Gains Soft Power

The first game of Iceland’s World Cup is in the books, a 1-1 tie against Lionel Messi and Argentina. I’m not usually a football fan, but I found myself bouncing, leaning, clapping, and cheering with the locals at the Blönduós community center, as Iceland held its own against a dominant Argentinian offense. The Icelandic goaltender, a 34-year-old filmmaker named Hannes Þór Halldórsson, made a few showstopping saves, including a penalty shot from Messi to prevent Argentina from taking the lead. When the clock finally ran down, you would have assumed Iceland won by the reaction of the crowd. The nation of 325,000 people, smaller than .01% of Canada’s population and .001% of the United States (both of whom didn’t qualify for the tournament) is the smallest ever to qualify for the World Cup, and they were heavily favored to lose.




I have written extensively in the past about the troubling aspects of professional sport and their relationship to identity and nationalism, and one need only look at the fallout of the Vancouver Canucks Stanley cup loss in 2010 or the Montreal Canadiens early playoff exit in 2014 to know what I mean, but these examples can be elaborated on another day. Today we witnessed the unexpected from a nation and a team that continue to pull off the unexpected. The coach doubles as a dentist, and another player delivers salt. With many of the players having “day jobs”, Iceland was never supposed to qualify let alone tie the top-rated team in their division. But who doesn’t want to see the underdog win? Especially a country so saturated in football, where one can’t walk anywhere without seeing children kicking a ball or more than five minutes without walking past a fully equipped amateur field. It really is a once in a lifetime (or maybe a once ever) experience to be in Iceland during this historic run. But as I, the visitor, take in the passions Icelanders have for football, I’m reminded of the other cultural feats Iceland excels at.

(The Overflow Seating at the Blönduós Community Centre, where locals gathered to watch the game. Image by me)

During the big bang of the mind roughly 50,000 years ago, humans began living in cities and developed religion, technology, and craft. Religion and art come out of this era, with professional sports later depicted in cave paintings around 15,000 BCE. I would like to remark on each because they are supplemental to human survival and are perpetuated on belief and faith. Artists gather in strange places to participate in obscure projects on the faith that someone will either care or the project will in some way have transcended the moment. Work that gets deemed exceptional gains followers who gather in concert halls or in galleries to be admired by the public. Followers of sports teams show faith in front of TV’s and stadiums, rooting for their team through wins and losses. Religious institutions are built on faith in a higher power, and many people I’ve met who participate in faith-based activities believe that all things done through the institution are in divine hands. With this faith, followers often raise extraordinary sums of money to build churches and conduct community work, with religious institutions playing key roles in historical cultural movements. In each instance people gather and experience something that transcends our individual lives, and as some believe, our own humanity. Based on what we know scientifically, each are equally superfluous and irrational, but each are integral to our constructions of culture. (Sorry to the devout reading this. Much respect to all of you <3)

Icelanders excel in each of these fields far beyond their population of 325,000 would suggest. Iceland is a cultural powerhouse, producing world-renowned musicians such as Sigur Ros and Bjork and visual artists like Olufar Eliasson (among many, many others). One in ten have published a book, and they have a rich literary history dating back to Iceland’s settlement by the Vikings in the 9th century. Their island attracts 4.4 million tourists a year, over ten times the total population. Icelanders have many iconic churches, including the Blönduóskirkja here in Blönduós, but also have rich folklore that tells stories of elves, dwarfs, and fairies. The unlikely World Cup appearance and incredible tie with Argentina, when considering the cultural context, is continuing a long tradition Icelanders have of excelling internationally in cultural endeavors.  

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So what of Iceland’s larger-than-itself cultural impact? One thing to consider is Iceland’s accrued soft power, a term used to describe a nations international influence not through coercion or force through economics or military (Iceland doesn’t have a standing military), but through co-option (encouraging others to want to be like you). Take for instance Iceland’s handling of the 2008 financial crisis, where they bailed out the people rather than the banks and jailed many business leaders and bankers. This gets referenced when talking about alternatives to America’s response that saved the failing corporations while the people lost their savings and homes. Iceland has a long history of gender equality and is often rated among the most equal nations in the world. Most Icelandic energy needs are met through renewable sources, making Iceland a global leader in climate change. This is in addition to the envy by the many large nations on the outside of the world cup, the nations that have few notable artists, and have coopted spiritual practices. It remains to be seen how far Iceland will go in the World Cup tournament, but a 1-1 tie to Argentina is another in a long list of exceeded expectations.

Selling the Sublime: Iceland and the Tourist

From the moment you get on the purple WOW Air airbus A330-300 to Iceland, it’s apparent that the Reykjavik based company is selling you an experience.  The cabin lights shift from green, to blue, then yellow, mimicking the northern lights that are common in northern countries. The flight attendants are dressed in cardigans and skirts, intensely purple from top to bottom. The pocket in front of you has maps and magazines talking about different Icelandic excursions and destinations, listed with times, costs, and duration.

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The Blue Lagoon tour is among the most popular and is a geothermal spa on a lava bed. Its website invites us to “experience the wonder” of it’s beauty and vastness. On the golden circle tour, guests are reminded that Iceland is tectonically active, with geysers that erupt several times an hour, a volcano crater, and Thingvellir national park, a long rift where the tectonic plates of North America and Europe meet. On the Into the Glacier tour, one can go by snowmobile or ice vehicle to the ice caves that have been hollowed out at the centre of Icelandic glaciers.


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On the Into the Volcano tour, guests are lowered into the centre of a volcano that erupted 4000 years ago. Both are considered “extremely family friendly”, with only the most basic winter gear required for full enjoyment (and a camera, for those “indescribable” moments!). The tour bus and the extreme looking all terrain vehicles are equipped with full WiFi and USB charging ports, with comfort being a top priority. Behind these experiences is a perceived danger, presenting the landscape as powerful, rugged, and awesome. Iceland has a reputation for being a beautiful place, but I believe that this description of Iceland is miscategorized, as the primary draw to the Icelandic landscape is sublime.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) published A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Beautiful and the Sublime. (1757) Burke argues that the sublime and the beautiful are often considered to be opposite ends of a spectrum but are in fact unalike. He defines both as stemming from passions. Beauty stems from our passion of love, as we find beautiful qualities in flowers, in human bodies, and in pleasing landscapes. Things that are beautiful are often smooth, delicate, and pleasant. The sublime stems from our passions of fear, dealing with the rugged, the unexplored, and the dangerous. Sublime characteristics are found in vastness, infinity, and magnificence. The sublime instils awe by reminding the viewer of an imminent danger and the finality of death, without an actual present danger.

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(Wikimedia Corp)

             In Reykjavik, I made a friend who later added me to Facebook. She was a lawyer working in the United States and was kind enough to offer me drives to different places in the mornings. She had rented a four-wheeled vehicle to travel on Iceland’s most extreme roads, which allows one to see the most rugged parts of the land. Her posts come across my Facebook feed and present a slew of hashtags, such as #detox #bliss #serenity #bucketlist #wanderlust. The term wanderlust is seen in psychology as the desire for development by experiencing the unknown and confronting the unforeseen. The images presented with these hashtags include vast landscapes and pictures by roaring waterfalls and rocky cliffs. Google, Facebook, and Twitter searches present many more photographs like this, with various travellers presenting themselves near similar Icelandic staples. These sentiments are echoed in both online and print advertisements, such as the ones available in the seat pocket of the big, purple WOW Air Airbus 330-300.


Beauty seems to be only a small consideration of the tourist gaze on Iceland. It appears that those who travel here are far more concerned with an experience, something that transcends imaginations rather than pleases eyes. The concerns here are undoubtedly sublime, placing the visitor face to face with the awesome and harsh realities of natural forces.