One of the fun things about the European soccer championship currently underway is watching teams play that aren’t in Europe, politically or geographically. Russia, for example, is currently under sanctions by the European Union and was thumped 3-0 by Wales last week. Turkey, which has been trying to join the EU and its predecessors since 1987, didn’t get out of the group stage.
We can now add a few more countries to the list of wayward European nations after the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU last week. The largest member of that union, England, will face Iceland tonight (June 27) in a last-16 contest that is as resolutely anti-European as it gets. (Here’s how to watch in the US and in other countries.)
In this battle between two small, fiercely independent islands, Iceland’s history with the EU may be even more complicated than Britain’s. The tiny island of 300,000 in the Atlantic Ocean has objected to joining the EU over its fishing policies, which control fishing levels across the bloc. In 2008, Iceland preceded a rash of sovereign debt crises when its economy collapsed after it somehow let its three biggest banks grow to 10 times the size of its economy. The country was bailed out by the IMF and considered the benefits of being part of something larger for the first time.
Iceland—still quite reluctantly—formally applied to join the EU in 2009. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Last year, Iceland dropped its membership application. “Iceland’s interests are better served outside the European Union,” a minister said, in a foreshadowing of Brexit. (Never fear, EU. Turkey is still waiting to join.)
Iceland and England also have a bit of shared history. They have fought over the right to fish in distant waters, leading to scuffles between the Icelandic Navy and British trawlers in the 1970s a series of disputes dubbed the Cod Wars—in which Iceland actually prevailed. “This was the only time Iceland went to war,” said one of the Iceland team’s coaches, who is a dentist when he is not coaching international soccer matches. “We are too small to have an army and lack manpower, so would be easily beaten rather quickly.”
As for the other side of tonight’s clash, every region of England voted to leave the EU, except the capital of London (paywall). Obviously, a fair few of the voters were soccer fans, as some of the more loutish travelling fans in France were heard chanting “Fuck off Europe, we’re all voting out!” ahead of clashes with the police at the start of the tournament.
At the weekend, two smaller members of the UK—Wales and Northern Ireland—also met each other in a “Brexit derby,” in which Wales triumphed. In the vote, Northern Ireland wanted to stay in, while most of Wales voted to leave. Which led the green side of the stadium to chant at the Welsh fans, rather cheekily:
We voted remain!
We voted remain!
We’re not stupid,
we voted remain!