The last time the United Kingdom voted on a European referendum, it was back in 1975, and England and Iceland were engaged in a different type of battle. The "Cod Wars" were a series of diplomatic incidents in which the two countries disagreed over the territories of fishing rights in the North Atlantic. On that occasion, the UK voted to stay in Europe; last week, it voted to leave the European Union.
So it seems appropriate that the first international match that England plays post-Brexit is against a tiny island that exists, literally, on the cusp of change. Its location is in the middle of the Atlantic and running through its center is the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Every time a volcano erupts in Iceland, those plates separate a tiny bit more.
This concept of separation–and the odd volcanic eruption–has dominated the news agenda in England since the Brexit result came in. England players, typically, did not want to get involved in the debate, with Harry Kane telling a press conference: “Obviously we woke up today and saw the news and a few of the lads were talking about it. But I don't think the lads are too focused on it to be honest. The Euros is the main thing, trying to progress and do well in that. I don't think any of us know too much about it to comment on it. We'll just have to wait and see what happens.”
Other, more experienced, players were less cautious in their responses, with Giorgio Chiellini, Manuel Neuer and Petr Cech all expressing shock at the decision.
The symbolism Monday night will be inescapable. One chant that the English fans sang in Marseille, when skirmishes between rival fans and the police dominated the first few days of the tournament was, “We’re voting out, we’re voting out!” The national anthem’s appeal to sovereignty may be sung with extra gusto in Nice ahead of the game.
With uncertainty swirling around the political system in the United Kingdom, it would be ironic if England went deep in the Euros just after voting out of the EU. It will of course be able to compete in future Euros, much to the relief of ex-England U-21 player Jermaine Pennant, whose confused response to Brexit was to tweet: “Now we are not in Europe what’s going to happen with the next euros 2018??? #eu”
A victory over Iceland will lead to a poignant quarterfinal showdown with France, whose struggling president Francois Hollande has not been helped by the Brexit vote. Hollande, reports the Financial Times, is torn between maintaining France’s relationship with Germany and “playing coalition politics with like-minded states to balance German influence and power.” And who awaits the winner of that quarterfinal? Why, it could be Germany, of course.
This is the backdrop against which England–whose coach Roy Hodgson, a true European, was visibly annoyed at criticism of his decisions in the Slovakia game–takes on the smallest side ever to qualify for the competition. The Iceland Tourist Board describes its island as a country of sharp contrasts: “A place where fire and ice co-exist. Where dark winters are offset by the summer’s midnight sun. A country where insular existence has spurred a rich and vibrant culture.”
Perhaps England might have a thing or two to learn from this “insular existence.” After all, that’s exactly what its public has just voted for. And before England gets too complacent about facing a team whose starting XI (against Portugal) cost £16 million–compared to the England XI’s (against Russia) £131 million–it’s worth remembering this: in the end, Iceland won the Cod War.