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Euro allowed us to see Icelanders as they see themselves

REYKJAVIK, Iceland -- These past few days in Iceland have been unforgettable for people like me lucky enough to be here as the game approached, and especially for the Icelanders of all ages who will tell stories about this summer for many years to come. People have just been so happy. The past two days, the streets of the capital were filled with people past 5 a.m., the sun never setting at all. On Saturday night, American indie rock bands Angel Olsen and Thee Oh Sees brought a packed crowd to a music club named Hurra and after the show, most everyone found themselves talking about what Sunday's game might bring.

They believed their team would win.

Thousands of people started arriving at the enormous screen set up in the street at the main square between the small prime minister's office and the towering glass performing arts center. Local reports said that nearly 10 percent of the country's population was in France for the game; another 10 percent were expected at the big screen. Vendors sold everything they could find that said "Iceland," including a big stack of T-shirts for the nation's basketball team.

People laughed and held up babies in the air. They brought tall boys of Gull, bottles of Einstok White Ale, 12-packs of Viking and Polar Bear. A woman pulled a bottle of Bailey's out of a Louis Vuitton duffle.

On the screen, the Iceland bus pulled up to the Stade de France and people cheered. In the park, a woman had the flag painted on her lips. Another had it painted in her hair. Someone painted his beard and someone else painted a glorious moustache. Before urging the crowd to clap their hands -- they actually stole the "Viking" chant from the Scottish -- the PA guy made an announcement. "For the foreign press, this is a TV moment."

It started to feel emotional in the last half-hour before kickoff.

These past weeks have been unlike any other in Iceland's history, a source of solidarity and pride. People like being recognized for traits they see in themselves -- a team that fights and scraps and overachieves instead of the things they're usually known for, like being the worst investment bankers in history, or their natural wonderland of waterfalls and volcanoes. The Euros allowed the world to see Iceland as its people do. All that was in the air on Sunday. The people at the main square this afternoon will never forget it. They listened and cheered as the television commentator's now-famous screaming, nearly incoherent celebration played.

Fans in Iceland are ready to welcome home their players like sailors who've returned from the sea.

The sun felt hot on their faces, the sky blue with wispy high clouds.

A French fan waved a baguette in the air and got some laughs. Fans crowded the statue outside the prime minister's office to get a better view, and they climbed on the Viking statue overlooking the water. The crowd did the Viking thing a few times, always at the urging of the guy on stage with the microphone, and then they sang along to an old love song that has become an anthem of this European Championship. All those voices together, right on the harbor, made the hair on your arms stand up. A woman with glittery star earrings closed her eyes.

"I'm coming home!" everyone sang.

The game began, and the dream lasted about 12 minutes.

France scored its first goal and a man near me just sighed. France scored again; another man near me took a sip of his beer and looked disgusted. People started to leave. France scored again and an old couple worked its way through the crowd, holding hands. France scored again and the kids climbed down from the Viking statue. The park started to clear, people looking for bars in the main street a block or two away.

Around the island, fishing boats turned on their engines. Despite the attention Iceland gets as a tourist destination, it's a blue-collar fishing nation at its soul, still sending out longliners and freezer trawlers. A sports mania, like the one that has gripped Iceland these past few weeks, leaves behind almost nothing once it's gone. It's even hard to remember what it felt like, or to describe how much you'd hoped, or how easily that hope can go away. So it was back to work for a lot of people, back to whatever they'd been doing before this team derailed the country for a few weeks. The Arnar, a 194-ton fishing vessel, left during the first half. The Svana left at 8:51 p.m., near the end of the game.

Both headed west to open water.

On the main drag, the bars with televisions filled with people. At a club named Boston, once a playground for bankers before the collapse, a mostly local crowd gathered around the screen. The place looked a little faded; picture a small-town strip club. The fans ordered lobster soup and chicken wings, drinking pints of draft beer. They cheered Iceland's two goals in the second half. When the game finally ended, they all stood up and gave the players a standing ovation, thanking them for the joy and hope of this summer, ready to welcome them home like sailors who've returned from the sea.

A senior writer for and ESPN The Magazine, Wright Thompson is a native of Clarksdale, Mississippi.


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