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Official Review by Sean MacDonald, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
Iceland is becoming one of Europe’s most popular offbeat tourist destinations, largely due to Icelandair’s brilliant promotion that offers a free stopover on the way to Europe. In March 2006, 25,619 foreigners made their way through Keflavik airport; that number was 83,855 in March 2015. With flights just six hours from New York, this number should continue to rise. There is much to see and do in Iceland, and most of it involves incredible scenery and natural attractions, such as mountains, geysers, hot springs, waterfalls, and the Northern Lights.
When it comes to sports travel, there isn’t much that would get you here. Iceland does have a semi pro hockey league, but the quality is not particularly good and games are poorly attended despite being free. So you are pretty much left with soccer, which is played during slightly warmer months. Here too the league is semi-pro though, as most talented players leave Iceland for Europe.
So if you want to see the best that Iceland has to offer in terms of sport, you have to watch the Iceland national soccer team.
Currently ranked 37th in the world by FIFA (in June 2015), Iceland boasts the best ratio of FIFA points per capita in the world. In other words, this tiny nation of 300,000 is fighting well above its weight. They lost to Croatia in a playoff for one of the final spots at the 2014 World Cup, but have not let the disappointment linger. Halfway through, they were second in Group A in Euro 2016 qualifying, a point behind Czech Republic and ahead of heavyweights Netherlands and Turkey.
With all that in mind, Stadium Journey decided to pay a visit to Reykjavik for a crucial match at Laugardalsvöllur, Iceland’s national stadium. Here’s what you can expect should you decide to do the same. Note that all prices are in Icelandic Krona (ISK), which at the time of writing is exchanged at a rate of 132 ISK to 1 USD.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
There are a few tables scattered around the small concourse with limited, inexpensive options. The only hot food is pizza slices, at 300 ISK a relative bargain. Popcorn and chocolate bars round out the offerings. If you want something local, try a Toffí Sleikjó for 50 ISK , which are lollipops made from caramel, cocoa, or licorice. Try finding anything for under $1 at an American or Canadian sporting event.
Coffee and water are 200 ISK, while a small cup of soda (Coca-Cola products) is 300 ISK. Alcohol is not available.
In general, you don't come to a soccer game to eat, you come to watch soccer. The match lasts less than two hours, so snacks are all you need and there is enough variety here if you are a bit hungry. Do get here early though as the lines get long as kickoff approaches.
Matches are generally played at 6:45 pm, so you have plenty of time afterwards to get a full meal in Reykjavik.
Laugardalsvöllur consists of two seating areas, the larger main stand which faces east, and the smaller secondary stand facing west, which also includes a couple of sections for visiting fans.
Both are covered and offer views of the surrounding countryside, with mountains to the north the most dominant feature. Firm plastic seats are on both sides, with plenty of leg room. There are no seats in either end zone, though you can watch the game for free from the south end zone, which several fans will do.
Fans who actually enter the stadium are given large placards to hold up during the pregame. These are then folded to make clappers, which are used throughout the game. The supporters section is seated on the far side and is at full throat the entire game. In one case, they chanted "Go Iceland" (or something similar) and the main stand replied with the same. It is pretty impressive for just 10,000 fans.
There are no promotions or other such distractions that you see at American sports. All international soccer follows the same script - the players march out with each country's flag on display, the anthems are sung, pictures are taken, and then it is kickoff. This is how a game should begin, the anticipation need not be enhanced by fireworks and shouting.
At halftime, there was a brief competition where three guys kicked a ball at the net, but I couldn't decipher the purpose. That was the only time anything happened that wasn't related to the game.
The only problem here is that the pitch is surrounded by a running track so fans are not as close as they could be. I realize that smaller countries may not be able to afford to create two separate facilities for soccer and track, but it is still a minor annoyance that slightly affects the overall atmosphere.
Laugardalsvöllur is part of a sports complex that includes one of the main arenas used in the Icelandic Hockey League. The stadium is in a small valley and the closest "big" street is Suđurlandsbraut, just a couple of minutes south up a small hill.
The Hilton Reykjavik Nordica is the top end hotel here and the visiting teams usually stay here.
The Ásmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum is nearby, but for any further attractions, you'll have to head into town, about two miles away on foot, and quite a nice walk in the summer.
Reykjavik restaurants are superb, with Grillmarkadurinn highly recommended for meat lovers. Craft beer seekers are advised to try Frederiksen Ale House and their fantastic fish and chips. There are a few sports bars, with Bjarni Fel Sportsbar a good option for late evenings, when you might be able to catch a game back home.
You might have heard about some negative things about European soccer fans, with their hooliganism and general bad behavior. That is not the case in Iceland, where fans know how to enjoy a game. They show up, most of them dressed in national colors, get their faces painted, and cheer for 90 minutes before dispersing quietly.
Reykjavik is not a big town and if you are visiting in the summer, you can walk those two miles from the city center. You can even walk back, as the sun doesn't set until midnight during June.
If you have rented a car, your GPS will guide you here. The is a free parking lot in front of the stadium and several other lots just a few blocks away.
Otherwise, just take a cab. Public transit is available, but not worth the savings and it is not easy to explain.
Inside the stadium the small concourse fills up quickly as the team sells out most matches so you will want to arrive early if you want to take pictures. There are several washrooms in the main concourse that handled the crowd without any major problems during my most recent visit.
Tickets are 6,000 ISK for the main stand and 4,000 ISK for the secondary stand. That's $45 and $30, a bargain to see one of the best soccer teams in Europe. With food so cheap and no other charges, this is one of the best sporting experiences you will get for your money.
It should be noted that the game will likely sell out online in advance and it might be tough to get tickets in that manner if you do not speak Icelandic. However, many tickets are reserved for UEFA and other organizations, and some of these go unclaimed and are put on sale about two hours before gametime. Get there early and keep asking. At the game I attended many fans showed up at the last minute and bought good seats. I did not see any sort of secondary market in the area.
There is a statue of Albert Guđmundsson out front. He was Iceland's first professional soccer player.
The mountain scenery to the north is breathtaking, and worth an extra point.
A final point for allowing those who didn't want to buy tickets to watch for free. This usually is not allowed in the US, where any free views are policed and fans shooed away.
International soccer is one of the best experiences for the sports traveler. There is no hype, games are affordable, and you can experience the sporting culture of the country you are visiting.
Iceland's national team is making waves and although their stadium is relatively small, it is definitely worth visiting to see this upstart take on Europe. Their last two home qualifying fixtures in 2015 are on September 6 against Kazakhstan and October 10 against Latvia. If you are looking for a truly unique sports experience, consider centering a visit to Iceland around one of these two matches at Laugardalsvöllur.
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Reykjavik, Iceland 101
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