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Sparsity Blues

Words by
Ragnar Tómas Hallgrímsson

Photography by
Golli

“A brutal ballet of flesh and bone”

It’s Saturday night – and it’s feckin’ freezing. 

Seven below.

Even inside the Egilshöll stadium, my fingers feel like popsicles. Taking notes means pitting the will against whatever half-responsive nerve cells are relaying messages from my benumbed digits.

Inside the locker room, Sigurður Jefferson is screaming his testicles off. 

But not because of the cold.

“We’re the only fucking football team in Iceland!” he yells. “We’re fucking Vikings!” 

It’s not the most original of sentiments – but it gets his teammates going.

And they really need to get going.

It’s halftime, and the Einherjar – literally army of one, referring to the warriors in Norse mythology who met their death on the battlefield and then caught a Valkyrie-driven Uber to Valhalla – are 20 points down. 

34-14.

They’re losing to a ragtag bunch of Romanians called the Bucharest Rebels. 

Everything’s going goddamn terrible.

THE PATH

Let’s rewind…

The Rebels scored a touchdown during the first play of the game. Their quarterback – who had all kinds of time – spied a wide receiver sneaking up the right side of the field with limited coverage. 

Like a cell phone in the boonies.

After he ran into the end zone, the game announcer and his assistant – seated at a rickety table above the bleachers – scrambled to get the game clock going.

“There’s something wrong with this damn thing!” The announcer complained. He was wearing a Lamar Jackson jersey and comporting himself like an office worker caught in a scuffle with a dysfunctional printer. 

“Anybody know how to work it!?” he said, jabbering into the void.

Einherjar hadn’t played a game since last March – so of course they were rusty. That’s one of the things about being the only American football team in Iceland. Not a lot of on-the-job training.

When they gained possession (eight points down), the centre hiked two bad snaps to quarterback Bergþór Philip Pálsson; and each time, Bergþór – who goes by Beggi – pounced frantically on the skidding pigskin as if he were jumping on a pinless grenade. 

And then he imploded.

Despite the rust, the Einherjar don’t break easily. They’ve got spirit and moxie and subscribe to a kind of football mindfulness that involves fully inhabiting every passing parcel of time – without getting needlessly distracted by the calamities that seem to beset each moment.

“There’s only the next play!” someone yells philosophically from the sidelines.

They’re forced to kick it. Rebels’ ball.

The Romanians, who are the strongest team in their national league, progress swiftly upfield – but then one of the Einherjar safeties makes an interception.

When it comes to the Viking Gods of American Football, however, Óðinn is blind in both eyes.

Flag on the play.

“Offside. Defence. Five-yard penalty,” the head referee, a man named Jan Eric Jessen, announces to the crowd. He says something else, too, but it’s barely audible.

The announcer calls “first down,” and a man in his thirties, who’s been watching the game from the concrete walkway above the bleachers – a stone’s throw away from the dysfunctional clock – strolls over. 

“That can’t be right,” he observes.

“Jan said first down!” the announcer fires back.

“Yeah, I know, but I don’t think that’s right,” the man replies, in a voice full of meekness and understanding.

Below them, near the halfway line, a Rebel wide receiver catches a short pass and breaks through a series of abortive tackles.

The announcers begin complaining about the clock again.

Ref Jan Eric – noticing the slow progression of time – walks over to the announcers and suggests they find someone to help out with the clock.

As he walks away, the main announcer calls, “Jan, it’s not automatic first down when there’s an offside!” 

“Yeah, I know,” he replies. “I said third.”

“I dream of developing the sport here in Iceland; that we get the same respect as all the other sports clubs. It’s perhaps an unusual dream for an Icelander.”

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SOME BACKSTORY

The Einherjar football team was founded in the year of our unlordly economic meltdown. 

2008.

They played their first match in 2016 – but all of their games are friendlies. Not yet recognised by the National Olympic and Sports Association of Iceland (ÍSÍ), the Einherjar must fend for themselves as far as their finances are concerned.

Ten days before the game, left tackle Úlfar Jónsson – who also coaches the youth team – stood on the sidelines of the Kórinn sports stadium in Kópavogur, waiting for the clock to strike 10:00 PM. 

If that seems like a pretty late hour for practice – it’s because it is.

“It’s cheaper to rent the last slot of the day,” Úlfar explains, “but we still need to shell out ISK 160,000 ($1,130) a month, which we manage to eke out through practice fees collected from the players. We’ve also got a handful of sponsors, Shake and Pizza at Egilshöll, for example.”

The application process for ÍSÍ has proved a real hassle. 

“It’s been one step forward and two steps back,” Úlfar notes. “Without making them sound like massive dicks: when we first contacted them, they said that the sport would need to be practised in all the six regions of Iceland – but that couldn’t be right. We pointed out that facilities for figure skating were only located in Akureyri and Reykjavík. They then suggested we begin by applying to UMSK [the Youth Association of Kjalarnesþing, for youth and athletic associations in the capital area], and that’s in the works. I get regular updates from our head referee.”

As he says this, a young, scrawny wide receiver walks up and unceremoniously slaps him on the rear end. There’s a spark of static electricity. 

“I’m getting electric shocks left and right!” The man, a bundle of peculiar energy, says – before bursting into laughter.

“I’ll have to speak to the head of human resources,” Úlfar replies with a wry smile. He’s a tall and solid man who has the demeanour of a Viking chieftain, despite his young age. He’s 21, studying sociology and working part-time. 

“This is the dream. Let’s see what happens,” he says solemnly.

“You dream of playing football abroad?” I inquire, not quite understanding.

“No, I dream of developing the sport here in Iceland; that we get the same respect as all the other sports clubs: [the handball team] HK, Stjarnan, etc; that we’re able to conduct regular seasons, similar to the high school seasons in America; that we can offer athletes the opportunity to play abroad – and bring players over here.”

Bergþór Philip Pálsson is 27 years old and began playing football at 13. A jack-of-all-trades to begin with, he took on the role of quarterback – the most prestigious of offices, one could argue – a few years back because “there was no one else.” He’s been a driving force for the sport of American football in Iceland.

He has an earnest look on his face.

“It’s perhaps an unusual dream for an Icelander,” he admits.

Úlfar lived in Belgium from the age of one up to the tenth grade. He played American football for two years during high school, mainly against American soldiers.

“There’s a real sense of NFL culture there. They’ve got two professional leagues. They travel to the Netherlands and Germany; don’t have to go far to find games. The NFL’s everywhere today,” he adds. “People are playing fantasy football and watching games on TV. Sometimes when I’m picking up equipment here, I hear the kids say, ‘Hey, is that NFL!?’” 

I ask him how long before we have two teams in Iceland.

“Depends on how much time we invest,” he replies. “We’re closer now with the under-18s – because they’re motivated. They have two teams that play nine-a-side games.”

When the buzzer goes off, Úlfar takes the field with his teammates as dozens of winded football players – English football, that is – stroll off the field. The Icelanders call it bumbubolti (pot-belly ball), referring to the kind of ball sports played in stadiums across the country by men well past their prime.

The Einherjar are a motley assortment of players, which is one of the charms of American football: there’s a position for all physiques; a heavyset man with long grey hair and a Viking beard, takes his position in front of Beggi. Úlfar, who has long arms and massive shoulders, is, as the Icelanders like to say – “no lamb to play with.”

“Alright, let’s complete every single ball now,” Beggi yells.

Watching the Einherjar practice is like observing some kind of armoured analogy for modern life: people trying to do way too many things in way too short a time; football practices, Úlfar later notes, usually last for two hours, given the complexity of the game. 

The Einherjar only have one. 

They scramble through the three phases of the game: offence, defence, and special teams – only that they’ve allotted the latter phase all of about five minutes. After the centre hikes two rotten snaps at quarterback Beggi, they call off special teams on account of the clock winding down.

I worry what this means for their upcoming game.

SIGURÐUR JEFFERSSON

Ask anyone and they’ll tell you that Sigurður Jefferson is one of the most talented players in Iceland.

His foray into the sport began five years ago, when he was a sophomore at junior college – and when he barely knew what American football was. (Despite being half-American himself.) It wasn’t until a friend dragged him along to practise that he understood. 

He hasn’t stopped playing since.

Handball – which Sigurður’s played since he was nine (he plays professionally) – was his first love, but there’s just something about the NFL that engrosses him. It differs from all the other European sports because it requires a different mindset: a man must be willing to transform his faculty of vision so as to perpetually “see red” – nurturing a kind of homicidal attitude towards his opponents, the kind that has led to a series of gruesome injuries that have long plagued the sport. 

And then there’s all the hype and exaggeration, so often on display in American football stadiums, the kind that doesn’t appear to come naturally to the Icelanders, who very often bristle at American melodrama.

But that doesn’t necessarily hold for Sigurður Jefferson. He has some knack for showmanship.

A natural athlete who’s tried almost every sport he can think of, Sigurður Jefferson proves to be a real menace on the field; 14 points down, Sigurður returns a punt from deep inside the end zone and tears upfield like a soldier who’s just consumed a bowl brimming with stimulants. He weaves and jumps over Rebel defenders and makes it well beyond midfield. 

The crowd, composed of maybe 150 people, goes wild. 

Sigurður’s talents had been restricted to defence for the past two possessions but now transitions into the role of running back. He completes a 15-yard run on the first attempt – and looks very much like a man possessed.

After some good progress, Beggi throws an interception – but the Rebel defender drops it. Sigurður Jefferson tears through the defence again, securing “second and short” – prior to completing an easy touchdown. They kick for an additional point. 14-7. Game on. 

Or so it would seem.

THE GODDAMN REFS

Despite their moxie, the Einherjar gradually lose sight of the Rebels. 

They go 20 points down early in the second half and begin to grow frustrated. One of their defenders – a choleric man roughly the size of a horse-drawn carriage – appears to grab an offensive lineman by the back of his shirt so as to rather violently dispatch him to the pitch. 

One of the referees calls a penalty – and the man loses it. He walks off the field in a fit and begins to vent his frustration to his quarterback, who’s standing there on the sidelines.

“This is precisely why you need to find better refs, Beggi!” he yells. “I hate that ref!” Prior to storming off the field, he adds that the officials show “zero ambition.”

(In his defence, losing is hard. Also, his knee is killing him.)

Three weeks after the fact, I mentioned the incident to referee Jan Eric, who seemed to have little recollection of the event.

“I certainly had an opinion when the incident occurred” he explained, “but as soon as he’s off the field, I’m focusing on the next play. Generally speaking, our interactions with the players have been good; sure, we sometimes get into spats during the game, but after it’s all done and dusted, we usually engage in a productive conversation.”

Jan Eric, who sounds like a stoic father figure, capable of contextualising his kids’ occasional tantrums, observes that because the Einherjar play so few games, many of the players likely don’t have a good enough handle on the rules themselves.

He landed the role of head referee by a rather circuitous route; having taken an interest in the NFL about ten years ago, Jan Eric – who has some experience as a referee in Iceland, in that other kind of football – posted on the NFL Iceland Facebook page to inquire about the rules of the game.

Although he received no response, he did discover a private message in his inbox from Bergþór Philip Pálsson, asking whether he was interested in officiating a few games. Jan Eric said “sure,” and most of the work that he and his colleagues have done thus far has been pro bono. But the Einherjar have, as of late, insisted that they pay them something for their trouble.

They’re an honourable bunch. 

“Given the size of the remuneration,” I speculated, “I imagine that the players must be a little more understanding towards your efforts?”

“Yes – and they are. They remind each other all the time that we’re doing our best. I think the overall mood has been good; tempers flare from time to time, but that’s just part of the game. I’m not easily offended. But I do think that it’s important that the players exercise good sportsmanship because they’re role models for all the younger players.”

All talk of American football in the modern age must at some point broach the injuries that have marred the sport’s reputation. Jan Eric acknowledges the problem – while adding an important point. 

“The rules differ between the NFL and college ball. The rules for college football are much more strict, designed to keep the players safe. And we, like most of the other leagues around the world, follow the college rules. Take targeting, for example: if you target a player’s head or neck area during a tackle, when he’s defenceless – you’re sent straight to the showers. Head injuries are rarer in college ball; of course, the technology and the helmets will improve, but because the risk of injury is higher in American football compared to most other sports, we need to protect the players.”

MAN OF THE MATCH

The Einherjar wind up losing by a significant margin. But everyone seems to be in good cheer after the game. The Romanians line up on the sideline, in front of the audience, and take a bow. They receive a hearty ovation. 

Afterwards, the two teams line up on the halfway line for some pictures. The main announcer hands out a few awards. Sigurður Jefferson, despite being on the losing side, is chosen Man of the Match.

“How do you feel?” I ask.

“I mean, it’s pretty upsetting, in the immediate aftermath,” he admits. “It’s not what we had aimed for defensively. But, I mean, we’ve got a lot of younger players, and the Rebels have been playing league games every week.” 

Playing an average of one game each season is tough; it takes time to get into the zone. 

“It was hard after they scored like five touchdowns; it was all about surviving at that point. But I’m happy with our sense of fight. We kept going. Given our roster and our effort, I can’t complain. We’ve got another game early in 2023. Hopefully, now that the rust is gone, we can get things going again.” 

And no doubt they will. 

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