Were the Vikings afraid of anyone?

If things go well in sport, someone nowadays turns it into a fairy tale. Germany and its footballers experienced the "summer fairy tale" in 2006. The handball players later tried the "winter fairy tale". And since Iceland defeated and humiliated England's national team against all expectations at the European Football Championship, the "Viking fairy tale" has been circulating. The Vikings, they are really the very first idea that comes to mind when thinking of brave guys from the north who defeat an overpowering enemy.

Then the Icelandic fans also like to wear horned helmets, just as the cliché demands. As a result, they are sure to pour huge amounts of beer from the Icelandic brand "Viking" down their throats and then collectively say a pithy "Whoa!" roaring through the stadium. After the successful football raid against the English, the player Ragnar Sigurðsson finally said into a reporter's microphone: "We are Vikings. We are not afraid of anyone." With so much Viking screaming, it would come as no surprise to some if the national team had rowed from the volcanic island in the North Atlantic in a dragon boat to the European championship in France.

The cliché of the Viking serves the ideas of strong men who hardly know what to do with their strength. And if they had a battle ax at hand and no better appointments, then of course they would go off to rob and pillage a bit. Instead of attacking settlements on the English coast with the bat, the football Vikings have now clasped the English from behind. So much for the ingredients from which a Viking fairy tale can be constructed. But the image of the fierce, coarse monster is as powerful as it is wrong.

With regard to Iceland and its national team, it must be said that there are actually a lot of Vikings in both, but completely different from what is commonly assumed. Instead of battle axes, the early settlers of Iceland preferred to swing writing implements and left the world with the richest treasure of Norse literature. Even more, these fine spirits founded the Althing in 930, which is still the name of the oldest parliament in the world today. They organized their country in a way that could be generously interpreted as a pre-form of democracy. They renounced a king and tried to resolve the inevitable quarrels in a semi-civilized manner.

So if you are looking for the Viking element in Iceland's national team, you will not find it in the technically rather sparse and robust style of play. Rather, it is in the strong cohesion of these eleven. In the team spirit, in the willingness to fit into the team and not to put any single player on a throne: That is the Viking spirit with which England was defeated.

For the approximately 330,000 inhabitants of the island in the North Atlantic, the cultural heritage of their ancestors plays an important role. "Above all, Icelanders are very proud of their language," says Katharina Schubert, lecturer in Icelandic at LMU Munich. This language has changed little since the Viking Gardar Svavarsson sailed around the island of fire in 875 as one of the first sailors and founded one of the first settlements on the north coast, the forerunner of today's Húsavík. Immigrants from Norway, other Scandinavian countries and Celtic settlement areas settled in Iceland in the following centuries - and sat there mainly to write stories.

"The Icelanders wrote down more or less everything we know of Old Norse mythology," says Schubert. The Edda, all the other tales of the gods, plus the Icelandic sagas, forerunners of the Nibelungenlied. The early Vikings in Iceland apparently sat more at their desks than in the dragon boat. Their relatives in today's Norway, Sweden and Denmark did not leave behind such a large treasure trove of literature. No matter what, the Icelandic Vikings were more thinkers than demolizers. Like the national team today: they knew exactly what they were doing against England, instead of running headlessly like berserk against the English.

The Icelandic sagas are still part of the curriculum for Icelandic students today. They link language and content to the era of the Vikings around 1000 years ago. The sagas tell the usual stories: quarrels, revenge, ostracized men, and so on. The whole thing formulated in an extremely distant, sober language. If a spear is rammed into the belly of the hero, the victim may comment: "That sat." And then dies. In this respect, the Icelandic football commentator Guðmundur Benediktsson, whose hyperventilated cheering excites the Internet, is completely un-Viking. But: This man refers to another peculiarity of Iceland, the volcanoes of course. You shouldn't take the Vikings too far either: in the sagas, the heroes almost always die in the end. And nobody wants Iceland to be eliminated from the European Championship.