The Observer Effect

Eric McAleer reflects the role of the fan and shares five of his most memorable stadium experiences.

Last week, I read an essay that really hit home with me: Trust Me, Sports Without Fans Is Not Sports.

The title had me nodding my head in agreement as I kept reading.

“For five glorious days at the 2021 Australian Open, I got to experience that noise again, because government officials allowed up to 30,000 fans, about 50 percent capacity, to attend the tournament each day. It was both a joy and a revelation to rediscover the power of what quantum physicists call the “observer effect” — the fact that any observation, however passive, alters an outcome — even in a half-capacity crowd of tennis fans. Sports felt like Sports once more.”

Of course, the half capacity approach at the Australian Open didn’t last long (outbreak, then shutdown, an all-too-familiar event these days) and I joined the author in his misery as he watched a prime seat in overdue and treasured fandom evaporate immediately.

The “observer effect” is very, very real, and I’m a proud and constant participant when I’m in the stands. I might not be thinking in the moment that my vocal enthusiasm (or cheers or yelling or singing) is making an impact on a player or the game, but then again, how couldn’t it? Stadiums get loud, and you can hear a lot from the field, especially when tens of thousands of people are so in sync with their reactions and feedback.

Three words: home field advantage. The crowd, the fans – always ready to change the course of the action. There’s good reason behind the idea that a home team’s crowd is like having an extra player. Advantage.

Like many of you, I’m sure, I miss watching live sports with tons of strangers in a packed venue. I miss singing songs in unison. I miss feeding the collective fan energy that inspires players to get back up and dust themselves off. I miss celebrating goals. I miss physically recoiling at a shot mere centimeters off target. I miss the ordeal of getting to a stadium and I miss the joy or dejection that I bring back home with me after the final whistle and hurried exodus.

So I got to thinking about a few of my most memorable fan experiences, ones that immediately came to mind when I think about the “observer effect.”

2020 – AC Milan v Inter Milan
San Siro. A derby. At any level, derbies have a special magic. They’re always about a single game, yes, and also always about every other clash two teams have ever had, because of course they are! This one goes back to 1909. What a history, and because I was there for one, I’m a part of it, too.

Ibrahimovic is a special player. Lukaku is a force. The stadium was sold out and totally rocked. And the comeback – what.a.comeback! Fueled by fans, for sure.

2018 – Barcelona v Real Sociedad
Iniesta’s final game. Not a dry eye a certified football cathedral packed with 100,000 people. This was so much more than a final game, it was the end of an era. What a player, Iniesta. Top class in every way, and humble as he may be, he is a master of sincerity. I have video of this match, of the crowd not just singing but belting their hearts out to a player so deservedly beloved in Spain. How lucky was I to see him off at Camp Nou one final time. And he stayed on the pitch himself until 1:00AM! Surely he was savoring his memories from the field, but I know he was also thinking about all of the eyes that watched them.

2017 – River Plate v Boca Juniors
The game in Argentina is hard to top. Step into the country and already you feel connected to Maradona and Messi. Sit in the stands for a Boca Juniors game and it’s transcendent. Most of my time in stadiums has been spent in Europe, so it was all the more special for me to join the scene in South America. Absolutely incredible. It’s a match, it’s a party, it’s a reunion, it’s so many things happening at once. I’ll never forget it.

1996 – England v Scotland
AT WEMBLEY. Should I go on?

I wore a kilt. Maybe that impacted the result.

Paul Gascoigne’s goal was amazing. David Seaman saved McAllister’s penalty and my heart sank, along with 9,999 other Scotland supporters. I was there with a great group of friends, David Moyes among them.

Cheering on your country in the opponent’s stadium is not for the faint of heart. Sure, you’re seated amongst your compatriots, but still, you can’t help but feel the eyes on you and the duty you assume to be that much more of a factor in the game. 10,000 Scots is a good size, but we had to represent millions more.

1992 – Glasgow Rangers v Leeds United
Scoring on a diving header is one of the goals every player (and I mean EVERY PLAYER) dreams about, and McCoist did just that. I remember everything about it, and that means I remember where I sat, what I wore, how I felt. Of course, these memories had to come back to me over time – it was all a blur in real time. The “Battle of Britain” indeed, and even more than that, as the article rightly points out. What a game. What an environment to be in.

I’m fortunate enough to have to narrow down my fan experiences to these five, and that’s not lost on me. Now more than ever, I know that being a fan at the game is not a certainty, it is a privilege, and one I take seriously. After all, my being there impacts the game.



Tour Director Spotlight: Alethea Brown

Meet Alethea Brown, Tour Director for WorldStrides Sports!

How long have you been a Tour Director with WorldStrides Sports?
I have had the pleasure of working with WorldStrides on two occasions for American groups visiting France.

What do you like most about your job?
I thoroughly enjoyed the daily challenge of meeting my groups’ expectations by replying to their requests and wishes before they could even ask. I like surprising the group with wishes they thought would have been impossible due to logistic matters or availability. I take note of the fine detail with regard to the nature of the group. I do research before they come, to find out where they come from, what is specific about where they are from, the club and its history, ranking and achievements. I memorize groups’ names as soon as possible.

Tell us a bit about your professional background – what led you to your role as a Tour Director?
I started off studying hotel management in Germany and worked at the Munich Park Hilton Hotel. I learned all about customer relations, satisfying the simplest to the most difficult requests. It’s all about being up close and personal, yet keeping very discrete and knowing one’s place, anticipating situations and then reacting upon them. Never to let on that you are paddling for dear life down under, while the water is all still and calm where the client is. Unfortunately, circumstances had it that I was not able to follow the tourism field. I worked in an international logistics company in both Germany and France for 4 years and then in an international aeronautical company in France for over 12 years. My interaction with people from all walks of life in these industries taught me how to adapt to different work codes, cultures and traditions. I longed for a change and to broaden my horizons until I was asked to accompany sports teams. I left my office job and took on the job as a tour director and have had several incredible experiences since. Traveling and spending time with groups also allows me travel and to learn more about the country my group is from. I take along each lesson in experiences to each new group.

What do you see in American soccer players that strikes you as unique?
So far I have only traveled with female soccer players from the US and I remain impressed by the approach the staff has with regard to the sport and what it could bring to young girls and older female players. Commonly a sport for boys and men, it strikes me as there is much more to it than just a girl kicking a ball. The sport offers voice, personal growth, and empowerment to young girls and women. About soccer in the US, I find it unique that the young players can train in a school team, in a club team and also have a personal trainer. This is something I have not heard of anywhere else.

What do you think American soccer players realize about the sport once they’ve seen it in another country?
I have been told that most American players realize that the rest of the world is engulfed in soccer. That it is everywhere and everyone talks a soccer language and possibly sees a future in it.

If you could put together a dream international soccer tour, with an unlimited budget, for yourself and your friends/family, where would you go and what would you make sure to include?
I would like to be able to put together a team of 16 players from all over the world with one player from a chosen country such as the US, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Nigeria, and South Africa. (Players from NZ, CH and AUS are too far out.) I was fortunate to be a team liaison officer for the German National Team during the 2018 World Cup and it left me strong memories and I gathered so much experience from this one event.

I would have local substitute players in each country join the team. My international female soccer team of 16 players would travel to the countries they have been chosen from. They would attend training sessions and participate in workshops with local clubs. They would play one friendly match and would act as global ambassadors in each country. Each theme would be based on the country they would be visiting. This would shine light on female soccer, as they still remain in the shadow of male players. We will inform the local media and have the entire adventure covered on Instagram. In addition to bigger international sponsors, I would seek out one company in each country to follow the team giving them exposure. It would be a company which has suffered due to the 2020 COVID pandemic. I would love for young girls to know that they have their place on a soccer field. In many countries sport is often the only way for girls or women to express themselves.

Any additional anecdotes or stories that you’d like to share about your experience as a Tour Director?
I once had a tour group from South Africa. It was during a time when the farmers were striking all over France. We were not able to get to the game on time and it was canceled. I had to come up with a plan real fast to compensate for this mishap. I made a few calls and managed to drive the group to a very popular club at their facilities. The initial idea was to tour their facility and learn about their club. The professional players were about to leave for a training camp, but when they heard of my group visiting they came over and met with the young players. The jaws dropped and the boys could hardly believe their luck, meeting and shaking hands and exchanging with the professional players they have only seen on the television before. I was very happy that my quick reaction solved a problem in such a pleasant way. We left the club with many good memories.

Program Spotlight – Maryland State Youth Soccer Association

Catching up with Flo Egan, Executive Director of Maryland State Youth Soccer Association, and a WorldStrides Sports partner for 22 years. In the photo below, Flo and Eric McAleer, Senior Vice President at WorldStrides, are signing our latest three-year contract.

First, we hope you and your family are safe and healthy. Can you let us know how you and your staff at MSYSA have adapted to the pandemic?
The staff at MSYSA have worked hard learning to adjust to the ever changing world we have found ourselves in. We strive each day to create new and sometimes different ways to serve all the members of our association. We have found ways to be able to continue to work both remotely and within our new office space. We continue to keep ourselves and others safe by following safety protocols that are currently in place.

MSYSA ODP has traveled with WorldStrides Sports on an annual basis for 22 years now. What does the international program offer MSYSA ODP and what benefits has it provided to the MSYSA community?
Worldstrides Sports has become a trusted partner of MSYSA throughout the years, providing a first class experience for all our players and families. Worldstrides Sports has offered the ODP players/families of MSYSA the opportunity to experience the world’s game through the eyes of various cultures across the globe. Learning to embrace the customs, traditions and even cuisines of different countries has provided a unique experience for young players as they continue to pursue their dreams.

In your position, you have been able to travel around the world for soccer. What is your favorite destination and why?
It is so hard to decide which destination I would choose as my favorite. The team I once traveled with enjoyed a trip several years back that took us into 5 different countries within 1 day (England, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany) that was incredibly fun!  Watching our players experience the atmosphere and community when attending professional games, meet and greets with players, and touring stadiums, created many lasting friendships and wonderful memories that has continued once back home.

We are very much looking forward to the world getting back to normal so that we can get back to doing the things we love doing more freely. What things, both professionally for MSYSA and personally, are you looking forward to?
Through our partnership with Worldstrides Sports, we are looking forward to offering the international experience of the beautiful game to our newest ODP players and returning players as well. Once the Worldstrides Sports team has deemed travel safe again, we look forward to that piece of “normalcy” for our families allowing all to create new memories.

We’re excited to announce that this past year MSYSA signed to renew their partnership with WorldStrides Sports to be your exclusive international travel provider. Can you talk about some of the reasons why you chose to partner with WorldStrides Sports?
MSYSA has chosen Worldstrides Sports as their partner for international travel for a multitude of reasons:

The professionalism of their staff is second to none.
The length the Worldstrides Sports team goes to making the experience the best it can.
Coordinating the details of each itinerary and willingness to work through any unexpected circumstances that could potentially arise.
Worldstrides places safety of their partners at the top of their list in all areas.
The variety of different destinations for teams allow our returning players to travel to  different countries from year to year.
The flexibility that Worldstrides has in working with MSYSA and being open to any changes or updates that we recommend allows the partnership to grow stronger throughout the years.

Thank you, Flo! We wish you and MSYSA the best of health and happiness for all of your players, coaches, parents, referees, and volunteers.

Tour Director Spotlight – Robin “Woody” Wood

Woody has been with Excel since our first trip in 1998! From Scotland, has looked after teams in all parts of Europe and is a season ticket holder at St. Johnstone FC! He holds a UEFA ‘B’ level coaching license and has coached numerous football clubs in Scotland, including a semi-professional club based near his hometown of Perth, Scotland. He was also a semi-professional player for sixteen years, scoring numerous goals as a striker with various clubs. Woody is by far our most experienced staff member. He has led youth, ODP and college teams through Scotland, England, Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Holland and Sweden.


You’ve been a part of the organization since 1998. How did you and Eric McAleer meet?
I first met Eric in the Summer of 1995. We had both been invited out to America to coach soccer camps. That summer we ended up sharing a room in the apartment provided for us, and it became pretty obvious that we shared a lot more in common than our love for the game.

What stands out to you most about the early days with Excel Sports?
In the early days Eric and I pretty much done everything, we drove the mini buses, we did the laundry, we had Eric’s mother making packed lunches, coached the groups, managed their games and were the social conveners for the duration of the trip.

We involved everyone and made time for everyone, we had fun and the participants had fun.

I believe that it was being so personable and approachable that made the company the best in sports travel, and these are the biggest attributes that we still look for when recruiting any new tour directors today.

What, in your opinion, is unique about American soccer players?
We have to remember that soccer in the US is still a very young sport. I remember first coaching in the US in 1994 and you could hardly find a soccer field.

But from my first encounter with players in the US, I have always been impressed with their hunger for knowledge and how they can improve their game.

When we organise professional coaching sessions for our visiting groups, that is still the feedback I get back from the coaches.

As a Tour Director, you’ve seen a lot of groups over the years. If you could put together the ultimate soccer tour, with a blank check and no concern for money or access, what would it look like?
This is a great question. Working with WorldStrides Sports, I have been privileged to travel to some of the biggest hotbeds of soccer across Europe.

But for me, my tour would be split between two destinations: Barcelona in Spain, and the northwest of England.

Barcelona has everything in a city: it has the architecture, culture, food, beach, mountains, weather and, of course, soccer. Being in a full Camp Nou is an experience never to be forgotten.

From the sunshine of Barcelona to the northwest of England, whether we stay in Manchester or Liverpool, in both cities, football is not just football. It is religion. And for any soccer player to get the opportunity to play in this part of the world is an experience never forgotten.

I have been in the stadiums of Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United, and Manchester City and the atmosphere is electric. I have felt the hairs on the back of my neck rising as the Liverpool fans sang their anthem “You will never walk alone”.

Program Spotlight – Iceland

Fire and Ice and Football

In the last 15 years, Iceland has seen an incredible increase in visitors. The credit for that goes to a number of reasons: Iceland Air, Game of Thrones, it’s otherworldly landscape, good old fashioned global wanderlust, and plenty of others. Whatever your reason for going, it’s an experience impossible to forget.

Soccer in Iceland has risen in the ranks lately, too, bringing the country’s infectious fandom along for the ride. Passion, teamwork, pride – nothing is more apparent, win or lose, than the energy of the Viking Clap. Shivers down your spine, every time.

Fairfield University signee Sam Kersey traveled with the East Region ODP team to Iceland on a WorldStrides Sports program in 2018. We caught up with her about that experience – how the games went, her thoughts on the weather in Iceland, and her advice for soccer players who are deciding on colleges.

Was this your first time playing abroad? How would you describe the feeling of playing soccer in another part of the world?
This actually had not been my first time playing abroad. My first time was about two years earlier, when I traveled to Spain. I would describe playing in another part of the world as both an eye opening and beautiful experience. Being able to play abroad allows you to learn more about other country’s styles of play, and beyond soccer it allows you to learn about that country’s culture and see its landscapes.

What was special about your team’s experience in Iceland?
One thing in particular that I found special about the trip was our hotel. It was a small one, and was very authentic to the Icelandic culture. With animal print rugs, and other Icelandic details, it truly made it feel like you were living in an ordinary home in Iceland. Another thing that was very special were the sights that we went to when not practicing or playing. We went to the Blue Lagoon, which was such an amazing experience! We saw natural hot springs spew from the ground, we saw amazing waterfalls, and we went to fields late at night to try and find the northern lights.

Tell us about the games you played and what you’ll always remember about them.
We played four games. We won 3 and lost 1. In our first game, I will never forget the weather. It was very windy and raining. It felt like rocks were hitting my skin. It was very cold and a tough game to play. It was probably the harshest conditions I’ve ever played in, but it made it so much fun. That game we won 1-0, and I assisted the goal. The second game we played indoors and fell short to a very talented team. The third game we played on a gorgeous field right on the water. We won 4-2 and I scored two goals. The final game was in a stadium and we won! One thing I’ll always remember is after every game, we’d exchange pins with the teams we played, and I still have them to this day, two years later.

You’ve recently committed to Fairfield University. Congratulations! What was that process like for you and what would you recommend to other athletes navigating the college signing process?
Thank you so much! Luckily, prior to COVID I had attended a Fairfield ID camp, that is where I was first seen by them. Then, they came to my games in tournaments and I continued to go to ID camps. The coaches at Fairfield and my club coaches remained in contact because it was before I was able to talk to them. Once June 15th came around, and the dead period was in place, we had countless phone calls and Zoom calls, filled with presentations about Fairfield, questionnaires with the team, and just talking about soccer in general. I went to Fairfield one more time, but had to stay in my car due to COVID reasons and could not see the coaches because of the dead period, and that’s when I decided that Fairfield was where I wanted to be. I continued to talk with the coach and then committed when I was fully sure it was the right fit. My advice to anyone going through the process I went through would be that, you get what you give, and to not stress. You must put in effort, and colleges will begin to notice you. Email colleges for tournaments and games, go to their ID camps, show that you’re interested. And I know with COVID it’s hard to say “don’t stress,” but you’ll end up where you’re meant to end up, so make an effort, but don’t stress too hard!

Watch the video Sam and her mom created when they returned from Iceland. What a great way to capture their trip experience. Thank you for sharing this with us, Kerseys!

10 for 10 with Jamie Kent

Who are you and what do you do at WorldStrides?
Jamie Kent, West Coast Sales Team Lead. I look after our sales on the west coast and manage a team of folks who work directly with coaches, technical directors, athletic directors, and parents to create amazing experiences that change the lives of youth athletes forever!

How long have you worked with WorldStrides?
Almost 3 years now.

WorldStrides goes to so many destinations, but what has been your favorite destination that you have visited while working for WorldStrides?
Paris, France during the Women’s World Cup in 2019!

What are the top three things you did while you were in Paris?
I got to watch four (!!) World Cup games, including three USA games and the epic Scotland vs Argentina 3-3 tie with VAR controversy!

Traveled with one of our groups for the day to play against a local girls team in a beautiful little village on the outskirts of Paris, and afterwards we got to meet and socialize with the locals.

I got around to see nine of our groups whilst I was there for two weeks. It was so rewarding to see all of their faces and how excited they were about everything.

What’s the number one thing you would tell somebody to NOT miss if they visit Paris?
The obvious tourist attractions are easy, but you absolutely have to sample the Parisian cafés and their outside seating. The atmosphere and ambiance is truly remarkable.

Do you know any weird or strange facts about Paris?
This isn’t necessarily weird or strange, but I think it’s interesting how Paris became known as The City of Light (that’s “light” singular, not plural) – because it was the first major city to adopt street lights.

What was your favorite food or drink you tried while there?
I did try escargo whilst I was there, and I have to say they were quite tasty. I also ate a delicious croque monsieur!

Did you buy a souvenir and if so, what was it?
Nothing for myself but I bought my daughter a bunch of clothes. For my son, I brought back a plush toy Eiffel Tower…that he’s played with once and that’s about it!

If you could pick your next trip, where would you go?
Australia and New Zealand for the next Women’s World Cup in 2023!

What’s the best travel tip you could pass along to future travelers?
Travel light. It makes a huge difference moving through airports and on ground transportation.

10 for 10 with WorldStrides Sports – Morgan O’Donnell

Who are you and what do you do at WorldStrides?
Morgan O’Donnell. As a Senior Account Manager, I help manage some of our key clientele & work with our operations team to create once in a lifetime trips!

How long have you worked with WorldStrides?
A little over 5 years, I started on June 1st, 2015. Time flies when you’re having fun! 😊

WorldStrides goes to so many destinations, but what has been your favorite destination that you have visited while working for WorldStrides?
Copenhagen, Denmark

What are the top three things you did while you were in Copenhagen?
Visited Tivoli Gardens, the 2nd oldest operating amusement park in the world!
Copenhagen Canal Tour
Climbed the winding staircase to the top of the “Church of our Saviour” which had some of the best views of the city!

What’s the number one thing you would tell somebody to NOT miss if they visit Copenhagen?
Nyhavn, one of the most picturesque places in in the city!

Do you know any weird or strange facts about Copenhagen?
There are 5 times as many bikes as there are cars in Copenhagen. Biking is their preferred mode of transportation!

What was your favorite food or drink you tried while there?
Rather than a favorite dish, I’ll share my favorite spot to grab a bite to eat, Torvehallerne. It’s a glass market that has a variety of food and drinks to try.

Did you buy a souvenir and if so, what was it?
Unlike some of my other co-workers (I won’t name names), I didn’t buy anything too extravagant when I was there. I kept it more simplistic and bought a water painting of Nyhavn.

If you could pick your next trip, where would you go?
Portugal! Our teams that travel there always come back and share how amazing the country is.

What’s the best travel tip you could pass along to future travelers?
Bring a portable phone charger, you’ll never know when you might need to use it!

10 for 10 with WorldStrides Sports – Jonny Brown

Who are you and what do you do at WorldStrides?

Jonny Brown, Sales Operation Specialist

I manage many of our key ODP and NCAA accounts.

How long have you worked at WorldStrides?

Just over three years.

WorldStrides goes to so many destinations, but what has been your favorite destination that you have visited while working for WorldStrides?

I have been lucky to travel to a few places while working for WorldStrides Sports, but my favorite would have to be visiting London & Manchester with Marquette Men’s Soccer.

What are the top three things you did while in England?

  1. Saw the Queen at Buckingham Palace.
  2. Toured Old Trafford & Anfield – two of the most historic and famous stadiums in the soccer world.
  3. Visited the Cavern Club in Liverpool, which is where the Beatles first started playing together.

What is the number one thing that you would tell somebody to not miss if they visit England?

Make sure you take a guided walking tour of London so you can see the House of Parliament, Tower of London, the London Eye, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, and many more landmarks.

Do you know any weird or strange facts about England?

The taxicab drivers you see in London must pass a test called The Knowledge, which can take 2-4 years to prepare for, in order to drive a taxi (referred to as a black cab) around the city!

What was your favorite food or drink that you tried while there?

Fish and chips in London, high tea in Oxford, and a pint of Guinness in the Nag’s Head in Manchester!

Did you buy a souvenir and if so, what was it?

I bought some clothing from the Manchester United megastore, which is said to be the biggest team store in the world.

If you could pick your next trip, where would you go?

Barcelona would absolutely be my next choice.

What is the best travel tip that you can pass along to customers?

Try and be active as soon as you arrive to your destination so that you stay up all day, get a good night sleep on the first night, and beat the jet lag!


How Eric met Sasho…

I first met Coach Sasho Cirovski in the Summer of June of 1997 as a Soccer Camp Coach at the University of Maryland. We have been friends since and I’ve been super fortunate to be around one of the top NCAA soccer programs in the country – and one of the top coaches in the country. Maryland Men’s Soccer have traveled internationally in 2004, 2008 and in 2018 and we were honored to be chosen as their travel partner on each occasion. All three trips were to the UK and NCAA National titles were won in 2005 and in 2018! They’ve played against teams such as Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United, Glasgow Celtic (who were coached by the legendary Tommy Burns), QPR, Hearts and Crystal Palace. They’ve attended top EPL games involving Manchester United, Spurs, Arsenal and Brighton. I’ve personally traveled on all three trips and had the great fortune of seeing top players such as Jason Garey, Maurice Edu, Zack Steffen and Donovan Pines play against some of the best young professional players in the UK. The high level of the Maryland program was evident against such high quality opposition. One game v’s Crystal Palace in London had 10+ pro scouts in attendance watching Zack Steffen who, just recently, signed a 7 million pound deal with Manchester City. We are very proud to have played a part in this awesome journey – Go Terps!!

Fire, Ice, And “Hidden People”: How Iceland’s National Team Reflects the Landscape

There’s a thunderclap. And then plumes of hot volcanic ash arrive like a Viking invasion.

In April 2010, the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Southern Iceland erupted, shutting down European airspace and causing the worst disruption in international travel since September 11, 2001. According to the Huffington Post, the giant ash cloud that hovered over northern Europe affected 10 million travelers, and airlines lost at least $1.7 billion.

Still, Eyjafjallajokull’s ash cloud had a silver lining: Iceland, a small, remote island in the North Atlantic, home to more sheep (800,000) than people (350,000), was now on the tourist map. Travel to Iceland from North America was up 13% in 2010, and by 2017 the number of foreign visitors exceeded 2,000,000 for the first time.

But the Eyjafjallajokull eruption can be viewed another way, too. Maybe it was nature’s response to the 2008 financial crash that saw the collapse of Iceland’s three major banks and the Icelandic krona lose almost half its value overnight. Or maybe the volcanic eruption was the heralding of Iceland’s national soccer team, and a thundering precursor to the rise of a soccer-mad nation.

Since 2010, Iceland has quietly become a soccer powerhouse. They shocked the world by beating England 2-1 in a last-16 match at the 2016 European Championship, and then shocked it again by qualifying for its first World Cup in 2018.

“Afram Island!” (Onward Iceland!)

Iceland National Team

Iceland is a land of sagas, and the story of the men’s national team is one of the best. The squad jumped 91 places on the FIFA World ranking in five years, cracking the Top 20 for the first time in March 2018.

The team’s style of play is calm, composed, patient, and heavy on defense –a point Ronaldo emphasized after Iceland and Portugal played to a 1-1 draw in the first fixture of the 2016 European Championship –with flashes of counterattack after an opponent makes a mistake.

Iceland favors set pieces like corner kicks and throw-ins, and have revived the long throw, a specialty of midfielder Aron Gunnarsson, who, like “Thor the Hammer Hurler,” repeatedly catches defenders off guard by launching bombs into the penalty area.

In comparison to Germany, Argentina, and Spain, Iceland evokes a slow, deliberate, unforgiving, and almost glacial style of play. Some critics call it boring; in fact, commentators at the 2018 World Cup said Iceland’s defensive style was an affront to the beautiful game. Others call it underdog football.

In fact, the team’s style of play is a lot like the Icelandic landscape –fire and ice. A typical Iceland match features 85 minutes of glacial floodplains, frigid mountains, and deep, quiet fjords, followed by five minutes of majestic waterfalls, rocketing geysers, and fiery volcanoes.

Watching an Icelandic football game is like waiting for the Northern Lights to appear; maybe something spectacular will happen -a highlight reel goal from an impossibly narrow angle, a long-range strike, a flying volley –but more often than not the goals are utilitarian, selfless, efforts of collaboration and teamwork rather than pure strikes, and the games are decidedly low scoring affairs.

Maybe it’s the close-knit nature of the Icelandic players that’s the key to the team’s run of success. Or maybe the squad’s passionate fan base has something to do with it, a fan base that’s reached beyond the borders of Scandinavia, bringing its thunderclap and Viking horns wherever it goes, creating a global hysteria whenever the team takes the pitch. Perhaps it’s the country’s commitment to high-quality coaching and the fact that it’s invested in several full-size, indoor soccer facilities in the past 15 years.

Or maybe Iceland’s “hidden people” –the elves, sprites, and trolls that make their home in the country’s landscape, are simply working their magic.