Commentary

Iceland soccer team celebrates big

Updated: May 15, 2011, 2:06 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

REYKJAVIK, Iceland -- Steam wafts off the impossibly azure waters of the famous Blue Lagoon, where Icelanders have come to bathe for more than 1,200 years.

Five players from Stjarnan FC, a team in Iceland's premier soccer league, cavort nearby for a photo shoot, dressed in their white uniforms and some slick new gear from one of their sponsors. The background, freakishly undulating moss-covered magma, looks like something from a lunar landscape.

"We are all very good friends," says Bjorki Eysteinsson, a mischievous look creeping across his handsome face. "Except the captain -- we don't like him."

Captain Daniel Laxdal shakes his head as his teammates convulse in laughter. It's pretty obvious they've known each other since they were 5 or 6 and enjoy each other's company.

"I think that most of us wanted to be professional soccer players," says Halldor Orri Bjornsson, the team's leading goal scorer, "but we didn't know that we would get so much attention and be so famous around the world for our celebrations."

The origins and evolution

There was a time when sports heroes like Jim Brown simply handed the ball to the referee after scoring a touchdown. But today, celebrations in sport seem almost mandatory -- the Gatorade splash, pioneered by linebacker Harry Carson and the New York Giants; the Green Bay Packers' Lambeau Leap, which was born in 1993 after LeRoy Butler scored a defensive touchdown; Sammy Sosa's complicated handshake; the Bryan Brothers' chest bump; and the leap into Poppy's Pond at Mission Hills Country Club. Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco are practitioners of the look-at-me celebration; in fairness, T.O.'s Sharpie play was out of the box. So was Brandi Chastain's bra-baring after scoring the winning goal against China in the 1999 World Cup.

[+] EnlargeIceland soccer
ESPNOne of the team's many celebrations.

In Iceland, a very different kind of celebration evolved within the young family of Stjarnan FC. And to understand how and why this spark of the human spirit ignited here in this harsh place, we must go back to the beginning, when these boys were 6 and 7, already dreaming of playing professional soccer.

They grew up together in Gardabaer, a suburb of Reykjavik with a population of about 10,000. For more than a dozen years, they've been wearing the Stjarnan club logo -- a sporty "S" in an eight-pointed star -- on their chests. The best players matriculate to the semi-professional team that plays in the 12-team Pepsi League. The players make a decent living and are generally in their early 20s. Most have part-time jobs or attend one of the local universities. The unabashed joy of their celebrations has roots in their deep friendship.

"We are a very close group," Laxdal said, "so it just morphs together."

Haldor Orri Bjornsson did not set out to join this pantheon of post-scoring hoopla last August when a friend casually tossed him the idea that would set off the chain of events that propelled Stjarnan into a YouTube staple. He told his teammates what he had in mind, but they never practiced the routine.

Bjornsson took a long, looping ball on the left wing and, with a sly right foot touch, sent the ball into the net for the game's first goal against Keflavik. As he wheeled back toward his teammates, they stopped just short as he approached. Bjornsson took out the first two with fake punches, the next three with his hand shaped like a pistol; there was bad acting all around. And then, with the field strewn with teammates, he raced to the midfield line and slid onto his stomach into a sniper's position and took down his goalie. This last sequence was lost to posterity because the camera operator didn't follow him to the big finish.

The Rambo celebration, 15 seconds long and replayed on local television, captivated Stjarnan's fans. Suddenly, there was pressure to create another. Bjornsson, a natural scorer, delivered.

"I had the idea on a fishing tour with my father earlier in the summer," Bjornsson remembered. "I wasn't getting any fishes, so I had a lot of time to think."

Again, he sketched out the rough details to his teammates, but there was no elaborate choreography. "The Salmon," a semi-spontaneous intersection of performance and art, is exquisite in its simplicity and detail: Bjornsson scored the game-winning goal in the 90th minute on a short chip shot and ran to a spot to the right of the goal and launched into a mighty cast. Soon, freckle-faced Johann Laxdal came flopping into the picture like a hooked fish. Bjornsson and two teammates picked up the limp Laxdal and Baldvin Sturluson, who hesitated before remembering his role, scooted around and snapped the triumphant photo.

Lax, in Icelandic, means salmon, and Johann played the part chosen for him by Bjornsson with breathtaking precision. The single element that helped send "The Salmon's" YouTube hits soaring into the millions was his uncanny side-to-side bouncing from shoulder to hip across the artificial turf.

"Just spontaneous movements," Laxdal said.

It's genius, he was told.

"Yeah," he said, laughing. "You could say that."

A dark, dry humor

Ari Kristinn Jonsson, who used to work for NASA, is the president of Reykjavik University. He sees a connection between these celebrations and the hardships suffered by Icelanders.

[+] EnlargeIceland
Nancy Devaney, ESPNIceland has its beauty, but it also has its challenges.

"There is a certain level of resilience that we have learned after 1,000 years," said Jonsson. "Nature has been fighting us almost every step of the way, and there is something in our character that when a volcanic eruption buries all of your fields under a foot of ash, well, pick yourself up and start shoveling. Try and make some fun out of it and get going again."

Two of Jonsson's students are Stjarnan players. When he first saw The Salmon, he said, well, it blew his mind.

"Convincing somebody that you, as a person, on a field of grass that you are a salmon -- where people get it the first time -- is amazing," Jonsson said. "I had to see it again in the replay to appreciate how well they did it."

Jonsson said Icelanders pride themselves on their creativity. Halldor Laxness won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1956, and singer Bjork Guomundsdottir, known worldwide by her first name, is probably the best example of that trait. They believe it is related to the harsh living conditions on this remote island that sits between the Greenland Sea and the northern Atlantic Ocean. Reykjavik, just south of the Arctic Circle, is the northern-most capital of a sovereign state in the world. Winter days can offer as few as five hours of sunlight, if any. Iceland, according to studies, has an extraordinarily high rate of alcoholism.

In October 2008, the three national banks went under and the nearly bankrupt government essentially collapsed. A $6 billion grant from the International Monetary Fund stabilized the country, but soaring unemployment and rising prices have left Iceland on its heels. And then the volcano erupted last year. Eyjafjallajokull, a glacier in southern Iceland, spewed ash and smoke and debris and became a news story around the world. This was another blow to the Icelanders' tenuous self-esteem.

"You can't really plan for things here in Iceland," said Magnus Scheving, a television star and supremely successful entrepreneur, "there could be a volcano tomorrow. Icelandic humor is a bit dark, dry, but they want to please people, make them happy, make them smile."

Scheving, a former European aerobic gymnastics champion, plays Sportacus in a wildly popular television series that airs in dozens of countries, a goofy, but irresistible superhero. Scheving roots for another premier team, but he admires the artistic content of Stjarnan's celebrations.

"It is harder to write a short letter than a long letter," he said. "That's what's beautiful about these celebrations. They are so clever. I saw the human toilet and he had a paper in his hand. That's a [great] idea.

"It is maybe a new art form. Maybe it is."

Spawning new celebrations

The world has begun to take note -- television crews from France and Belgium, reporters from Austria, Norway, Brazil and Mexico. There were radio requests from the United Kingdom and Australia, and it was sometimes hard to focus on soccer.

Iceland Soccer
ESPNThis celebration is "The Salmon."

"After 'The Fish,' we got so famous we couldn't stop," said Johann Laxdal. "The only reason we were doing it was for ourselves and our fans. It was pretty hard to adjust to the reaction."

Despite the sudden pressure, they continued to produce more gems, like the aforementioned human toilet, the bobsled, the bicycle, the grenade, rowing, ball room dancing … and the birth.

Here's how the birth was born: Bjornsson scored a goal, then followed the ball into the net. He collected it, stuffed it underneath his shirt, jogged to a spot near the goal and laid on his back, lifting his legs. With two teammates acting as the stirrups, Johann Laxdal reached in, discreetly screened by more teammates. After a dramatic pause, the doctor triumphantly hoisted the baby for all to see. "Like in the Lion King film," Bjornsson said, smiling. "A girl from the United States that was playing with the Stjarnan women's team actually came up with that idea."

Not everyone like the celebrations. Some opponents are not particularly amused. It is interesting to watch the body language of opposing players in those YouTube clips. One team went so far as to stage its own "Kill the Fish" celebration.

The Stjarnan players said they first saw their influence in the post-goal celebrations during a 10-year-old summer tournament in Iceland. Since then, versions of "The Salmon" have surfaced in South America and Japan.

For three hours on most weekdays, Bjornsson visits his old school and works with children, aged 6 to 9, in the area of physical education. They know "The Salmon" by heart, of course, though they have yet to master the difficult wriggling motions. Encouraged by a camera crew, they ran through a few Stjarnan staples, including a bowling celebration that had the children scattering in a realistic approximation of pins.

The best was their own creation, "The Airplane." When they finished, the kids collapsed in a heap, laughing uncontrollably.

To the world … no limits

Bjarni Johansson, Stjarnan's whiskered old-school coach, has an Icelandic championship on his resume. Still, he seems to have embraced his player's new-age celebrations.

"The celebration gives us a little spirit in the game," Johansson said after a practice, "and I think the spirit gave us a couple of points. We had some difficulty in the middle of the season when they sold our best player and our two key players got injured, so we needed it."

It's their popularity that he's having trouble grasping.

"It has gone out a little further than we thought," he said.

Stjarnan, with six wins, seven losses and nine draws, finished eighth in the 12-team league last year. In its 32nd year but only the second in Iceland's top league, the team averaged a little fewer than two goals per game. In the season finale, Stjarnan played Breidablink to a scoreless draw, much to the disappointment of the American camera crew. Breidablink thus clinched the league championship and received an enormous trophy. The Stjarnan players, joyous to the end, celebrated their season with a raucous after-party.

So, the question must be asked, are these players better at soccer, or celebrating?

"Ahh," Johansson said, "that's a difficult question. I would believe that they are better football players."

"Scoring a goal is pretty amusing," said Johann Laxdal, "but when we're all together doing a celebration, it doesn't compare to anything."

Stjarnan's first game of the 2011 season was May 2, against Keflavik.

"The offseason is a long time, seven months," said Bjornsson, the alchemist behind these set pieces, back in September. "We have a lot of time to think. I can promise you that we'll have some new, fresh ideas."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.