SPORTING LIFE

If you're not cheering for Iceland, what's wrong with you?

Iceland's population, which may abruptly and happily rise in nine months, is roughly 330,000. Yes, that is small. We get it. More people once turned up for a Rolling Stones concert in Havana and a Twitter account on cute kittens has followers which are three times that number. Nevertheless, let us not be surprised by the football results because for a small nation Iceland has large ambitions. Every year it grows by 5cm.

This is not a joke. The website Iceland.is will tell you the island "owes its existence to a large volcanic fissure in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the Eurasian and American tectonic plates meet". As it splits further at the place where the plates meet, the country expands. It could be the only nation with stretch marks.

This is all vital information because early tomorrow morning, Iceland play France and if we're going to leap onto the bandwagon with every Olafsdottir, Eggertsson, Gudjonsson and Halldorsson, then we'd better know who we're cheering for. And, yes, if you're not French and not cheering for Iceland, what's wrong with you?

This is a land of no snakes, no trains - I asked the honorary consul in Singapore and he couldn't remember any - and apparently no strip clubs. Seems a bit cold for that, you might think. A colleague recently visited and told me they believe in elves but then they are frequented by all manner of creatures. Polar bears occasionally hitch rides on icebergs from Greenland and turn up to have a look. No kidding.

This is a nation you can't ignore. Not when the Mayor of the unspellable Reykjavik turned up at a gay pride event dressed in drag. These guys are seriously chilled. They were No. 1 in the rankings in the Global Gender Gap Report last year, possibly read and publish more books per capita than anyone on the planet, says the BBC, and in their spare time also produce the World's Strongest Man. The late Jon Pall Sigmarsson, who won the title four times, was the first Strongman to squat 364.68kg. You think France's football team scare these guys?

It's impossible not to cheer for Iceland for they represent the best parts of sport: hope, persistence and a very weird war chant. Not to mention an attitude that's simply refreshing.

We should have known anyway that Iceland would surprise because in sport that's what they've been doing for 60 years. In the triple jump final at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, wrote historian David Wallechinsky, there was a "tremendous shock" when a "completely unknown" jumper grabbed the lead. His name was Vilhjalmur Einarsson and while he didn't win - Iceland has never won Olympic gold - he did earn the nation its first silver.

Fifty-two years later, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it happened again. In men's handball, Iceland upset Russia, the 2004 bronze medallists, and then dumped Germany, the reigning world champions, on their way to silver. Outgoing President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson called it "the biggest moment in Icelandic sports history" except that he might use those words now for the football team.

It's impossible not to cheer for Iceland for they represent the best parts of sport: hope, persistence and a very weird war chant. Not to mention an attitude that's simply refreshing.

The perceptive sportswriter Sally Jenkins wrote a poignant piece this week in the Washington Post on the late basketball coach Pat Summit, which included a letter that the coach had written to a player before her first game. In part it read: "Winning is fun ... Sure. But winning is not the point. Wanting to win is the point. Not giving up is the point. Never letting up is the point." When I read that, I thought of Iceland's football team: It's as if they, too, understand what sport means.

We live in times of big money, big worship, big teams, big hoopla, big science, big cheating and Iceland's only connection to this outsized world is that they think big. They think smart, too, for this is a nation with probably the highest per capita chess grandmasters (13) in the entire world.

We need Iceland's team, just like we needed 400m runner Kirani James from Grenada (population just over 100,000) who raced to Olympic gold in 2012 and sailor Peter Holmberg of the US Virgin Islands (also just over 100,000) who grabbed Olympic silver in 1988. They're the little guys who defy logic, plan well, marshal resources and prove that sometimes the only size in sport that matters doesn't concern the talent pool but the heart.

Logically, of course, Iceland will fall soon at football and disappear from our view and the next time we see them as a nation might be in a Christopher Nolan movie (he filmed part of Interstellar and Batman Begins there) or when a major volcanic event occurs (on average, every five years).

But logic in sport, much to our delight, is often overturned - Leicester City, remember - and it only happens through believing. So find a bottle of Viking Gylltur lager and sit back and have faith. These Icelanders are tough. You would be, too, if you grew up in a land where the diet includes pickled ram's testicles.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 03, 2016, with the headline 'If you're not cheering for Iceland, what's wrong with you?'. Print Edition | Subscribe