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IMHO: Iceland’s World Cup Team More Than a Rooting Interest for Hanover Family (Video)

  • Larus Gudbjartsson, and his sons Isak, 13, right, and Noi Larusson, 10, left, react as Iceland is announced during the World Cup soccer draw at their home in Hanover, N.H., Friday, Dec. 1, 2017. The familiy hopes to attend one of their national team's games against Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria in Russia in June 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Noi Larusson, 10, braces himself as tension builds while watching the World Cup tournament draw at home in Hanover, N.H., Friday, Dec. 1, 2017. Noi and his brother Isak took part of the morning away from school to see where Iceland would land in the tournament bracket after it became the smallest country, with a population of 338,349 people, to qualify. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Larus Gudbjartsson, and his sons Isak, 13, right, and Noi Larusson, 10, left, react as Iceland is announced during the World Cup soccer draw at their home in Hanover, N.H., Friday, Dec. 1, 2017. The family hopes to attend one of their national team's games against Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria in Russia in June 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Sports Editor
Friday, December 01, 2017

Hanover — This World Cup thing is all so new for Larus Gudbjartsson and his family. And it’s all so wonderful.

Start educating yourself on next year’s best story now. Iceland, the small North Atlantic nation hugging the Arctic Circle, is atop the crest of a two-decade developmental soccer wave, reaping the reward for investing in the sport and the youths who play it. Qualifying for the European championships 18 months ago was a big deal, but making soccer’s World Cup for the first time — and becoming the smallest country by population in so doing — topped it.

Iceland’s -sons and -dottirs are about to burst with pride.

Two Hanover families of Icelandic origin own a deep rooting interest in their home country and modestly saw next summer’s World Cup in Russia as an achievable feat. Although naturalized as American citizens in January, Gudbjartsson, wife Hulda Magnadottir, elder son Isak Larusson and younger son Noi Larusson retain ties to Iceland and visit regularly. Although she doesn’t claim to be a dyed-in-the-wool footie fanatic, Gyda Gunnarsdottir has taken to her Iceland squad, having endured qualifying matches vicariously through her doctor husband, Einar Sverrisson.

They now know what’s ahead. Iceland drew Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria on Friday as Group D opponents for the World Cup’s start in June. Now the anticipation and planning take over, for either a trip to watch or a gathering of friends here.

“We’ve never been here before, and it’s all new to everybody in Iceland,” Gudbjartsson said on Friday at his Hanover home following the televised draw. “I think everybody must be pleased. It could have been much more difficult. I think everybody realizes we’re in a good group.”

Their adopted home (population: 323,000,000) couldn’t achieve success similar to that of their native country (population: 334,000) in this World Cup cycle, and that adds a delicious element of irony.

“I think most people in Iceland have been taking it from one game at a time,” Gudbjartsson said on Wednesday evening. “Each time we win a game, it’s getting closer and closer to the goal. Nothing is taken for granted, for sure, because this is the first time we make it. … There’s a history behind the whole thing.”

Please take a seat. Class is in session.

Iceland’s environment has historically been a significant barrier to soccer progress. The nation sees as little as five hours of daylight in winter, the time when most countries hold their league seasons. Winds can be oppressive. The weather is often unpredictable. Earthquakes have been known to strike. As presenter Gary Lineker cracked during Friday’s ceremony, “They have more volcanoes than professional footballers, which is a remarkable accomplishment.”

The combination of meteorology and Iceland’s mountainous terrain makes playing high-level soccer difficult. The national team’s first match on grass didn’t occur until the late 1950s, even though its first club dates back to 1908.

“We lived there for five months last fall,” recalled Isak, a 13-year-old Richmond Middle School eighth-grader who received permission to put off a math test in order to watch Friday’s draw. “It wasn’t even close to winter yet and, in the middle of practice, this blizzard starts blowing. It’s doesn’t stop. My hat blew off three times. We couldn’t kick the ball without it coming back at us. And they still continued practice.”

Things began to change about 20 years ago, Gudbjartsson said. That’s when Iceland engaged in a three-pronged social experiment: Give money to families to use for any post-school activity, be it music, chess, gymnastics, soccer, whatever; develop a consistent youth-to-adult football training curriculum; and build so-called soccer houses for indoor training.

By the turn of the millennium, advances in artificial turf surfaces helped make regulation-sized indoor fields viable. At least 11 exist in Iceland now, in places as large as the capital city of Reykjavik (population 122,000) and as tiny as the southwestern village of Selfoss (population 6,900).

Still, Gudbjartsson points to the training curriculum as the most significant element. Youths start as early as age 4, joining local clubs and learning from coaches steeped in plans produced by the KSI, Iceland’s national football organization, and approved by UEFA, Europe’s governing body. Iceland now boasts one UEFA-licensed coach for every 550 citizens; mother-of-the-game England has a ratio closer to 1:11,000.

Consistency and familiarity in the country’s soccer education has started to produce on-field success, even in a country with only a semiprofessional league and whose talent gets plucked off by large European clubs. The stars of the current Iceland roster are some of the first products of the country’s two-decade effort.

“The lesson is to focus on the coaching,” Gudbjartsson said. “Coaching is the most important to these young kids. Have the coaching, even in a big nation; be on the same level, so everybody is looking at the same curriculum.”

Iceland narrowly missed the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, losing a two-leg playoff to Croatia after finishing second in its European group. The country finally enjoyed some measure of success when it gained a berth to Euro 2016 in France; Iceland finished second in its group and stunned the English in the round of 16, 2-1, before the host French sent Iceland home with a 5-2 quarterfinal defeat.

It took work, but Gudjartsson secured tickets for his family for the latter match at the Stade de France outside Paris. They proudly noted how Iceland “won the second half,” Magnadottir said.

Afterward, they and some 10,000 other Icelanders in the stadium saluted the side with their concussive Viking chant — the synchronous overhead collision of hands and shouting — that has swept soccer parks all over the world since.

“We’re Icelanders,” Magnadottir said. “We’re proud of them.”

Stadium authorities ultimately evicted them for staying too long to savor the moment.

Magnadottir lived in the Upper Valley previously; she moved her family back to the area in 1996 to do her neurosurgery residency at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. She and her husband liked the area’s lifestyle, realized it was a good place to raise children … and knew it had more favorable winter weather than Iceland. (Imagine that.) She operates a private practice in Lebanon, doing her surgical work at Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital; he owns and operates a business in the seafood industry.

Gunnarsdottir’s history is similar; her husband did his urology internship and residency at DHMC starting in 2006 and, after a couple of years in Florida, returned to the hospital three years ago, also settling in Hanover with their three children. Each family has occasionally returned to Iceland to visit or live, but home is here now.

Both of Gudbjartsson’s and Magnadottir’s boys received school permission to watch Friday’s draw at home. Noi, a Ray School fifth-grader, donned an Iceland jersey for the moment; Isak relaxed with him on a couch while Dad watched from the kitchen. (Mom could stay only 15 minutes before heading to work.) All patiently waited through a half-hour of speeches, performances and introductions before the reveal.

Noi clutched a pillow to his chest and Isak, normally a chatty sort, remained quiet through the festivities, but both responded favorably to Iceland’s assignment. So did Gudbjartsson, who pumped a gentle fist when the country’s name finally came up.

“I’m just happy because we know how Croatia plays and we beat them (in qualifying),” Isak said. “Argentina is really good. … If we can get into that second spot (in the group) and go into the lower-side bracket in eliminations, we can probably get further than that.”

“I think we’re going to win this,” Noi remarked. “That’s all that’s on my mind. If we get beaten, I’ll still be happy for the Icelandic people and the team because they did well and got into their first World Cup.”

As he did at Euros, Gudbjartsson will soon investigate flights and tickets to follow his native team. If it proves too much, the family has an ideal space for watching matches and, in so doing, hosting visitors who may jump on the Icelandic bandwagon.

On Wednesday, about 36 hours away from the draw, Gunnarsdottir said she’s received plenty of good wishes from people already drawn to the World Cup newcomer.

“People from here want to root for our little team,” she beamed.

Twenty years ago, Iceland had no cachet in world football. It’s about to gain a whole bunch of foster -sons and -dottirs.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.