Iceland – what happened to the fighting spirit??

The results from the preliminary round in the World Championship suggested smooth sailing for the Icelandic Viking ship.  They brought the maximum of four points to the Main Round and seemed to have had a relatively easy time in most of their five games.  It clearly looked as if it would be realistic to gain two or four more points in the Main Round, which then would help secure a place in the semi-finals.

But this was not to be.  Of course, if one looks at the final ranking, a sixth place and a spot in the Olympic qualifying do not seem so bad.  And one should not expect that the results from the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 European Championship could be repeated every time.  But the issue is HOW it all happened!

One might say afterwards that perhaps winning the preliminary group so easily created an illusion, because this group is likely to have been the weakest one, with Austria, Brazil and Hungary playing below normal standard.  But when an Icelandic team needs to get two-four points out of three games, then they normally get it.  Or at the very least, they fight to the last drop of sweat (or blood!) to try to do so.

There have been many instances of this famous fighting spirit in the past.  Personally, having been present, I remember primarily the final preliminary round match against France in the 2007 World Championship.  Iceland had “messed up” against Ukraine and now absolutely needed to win against France to be in the Main Round.  This seemed too big an obstacle, but the Icelandic team came at it with an attitude that just helped demolish the baffled French opponents, 32-24.

The player who for many years personified this attitude was Sigfus Sigurdsson.  Being somewhat of a giant, he is a really friendly person off the court, but on the court he was always a “tiger”, amounting to a real challenge for both the opponents and the referees.  His methods may sometimes have been a bit “borderline”, but he sure knew how to fire up his teammates.

This year’s team really seemed to miss Sigfus.  In the critical opening game in the Main Round against a desperate German team, it was the Germans who took charge by playing an enormously spirited game.  And after Iceland seemingly unnecessarily lost this game, it seemed as if any remaining fighting spirit was completely gone, so both the remaining two games against Spain and France were lost, as was the fifth place game against Croatia.

And it is not as if Iceland is without stars and players with substantial top club experience.  They had no less than nine players with more than 100 games for Iceland, most of them also playing for top clubs in Germany and elsewhere.  And they had Olafur Stefansson, a world-class player for many years, and a team leader with tremendous personality.  But perhaps Olafur is no longer able to “carry” a team in the same way he was, and he is not really a Sigfus character.

Whichever team an international handball fan is supporting, there would always be a special fondness for these remarkable Icelandic players, who have done such a fantastic job in drawing on their limited resources in terms of overall population.  The handball fanaticism is enormous there, and no other country (except Greenland!) has more handball players per capita.  But all of us really have come to expect not just strong results and great player; above all we have come to enjoy that special fighting spirit.  Let us hope it returns soon!

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