REYKJAVIK, Iceland — The 35-year-old hotel manager in her Viking helmet with the upturned horns and the Iceland flag painted intricately across her forehead has a best friend whose sister’s boyfriend is best friends with a defender on the Iceland national soccer team. The 35-year-old fan and aluminum smelter wearing an Iceland flag as a cape and walking the rowdy side of the stadium during a recent friendly against Norway played soccer with one of the midfielders from ages 10 to 14, then went to school with him from ages 16 to 20.
The 35-year-old fan outside the stadium before the friendly doesn’t really know any players, but wait, he knows the team’s manager, Heimir Hallgrimsson, having served as the physiotherapist for the club that Hallgrimsson managed on Vestmannaeyjar island, and also because his wife is a dentist who happened to practice alongside Hallgrimsson, who is also, yes, a dentist. A 32-year-old woman steeped in Iceland gear near the vendor was in the eighth grade when the goalkeeper was in the 10th, when the goalkeeper ran for student council.
She voted for him.
The 21st World Cup, set to distract the planet beginning Thursday in Russia, will bring its usual masters such as Brazil (population: 207 million) and Germany (80 million) and its frequenters such as Nigeria (190 million) and Japan (126 million). In the case of tournament debutant Iceland (340,000), it’s as if Bakersfield, Calif., made the World Cup, or, as the 24-year-old Iceland-apparel-store owner Bergthor Thorvaldsson said, like “a town in Texas.”
Yet as stunning as was the passage of this wee, noiseless island where hardly anybody ever honks a horn, as remarkable as it was that Iceland won its qualification group outright in the most dreaded of earthly footballing continents, and as deserving as it is among the pantheon of sports feats in this desperate, underdog-eat-underdog world, it manages to become more staggering with familiarity. It manages to lap at the shores of absurd.