It was a tough week for England.
First, the UK voted to leave the European Union, a decision that has left many people scratching their heads as the British economy tanks and the pound continues to nosedive into free fall. “But we’ve taken our country back!” say the supporters of Brexit jubilantly. At least the ones without buyer’s remorse. It’s not clear what “taking our country back” means since the UK would be no more sovereign as non-member state than it is presently as member of the EU. And the promise made by supporters of Brexit, that the money going to the EU can instead go to national healthcare has been exposed as a lie. Some have suggested that breaking away from the EU will mean that the UK can better control its border though just how or why is unclear. The UK is not part of the Schengen Area, meaning the British government (not the EU) already has full control over the UK’s borders. Many have explained the vote as nothing less than the triumph of nativist, xenophobic, nationalist hysteria spread about by ambitious demagogues. Imagine that. Bewildered Americans should not be too smug.
Then things got even worse. England’s 2-1 loss to Iceland in the Round of 16 of the Euros is one of the biggest upsets in European soccer history. It's true that England has in recent years been a bit delusional about their soccer ambitions. And yes, anyone who watched the qualifying campaign and Group matches would have noticed that Iceland is for real and that England’s play has been a bit shaky. Still, for a traditional powerhouse like England to lose to a tiny island nation with a population half the size of Vermont is stunning. (Supposedly, 10% of all Icelanders are in France watching the tournament.) England hasn’t endured this kind of humiliation by Scandinavians since Torkfell the Tall sacked Canterbury in 1012.
Many Americans know Iceland only as the place where Game of Thrones films the scenes north of the Wall. (It's the primitive land of endless winter, where the White Walkers dwell, threatening to breach the Wall with an army of the dead. The scenery is beautiful and tourism in Iceland is booming.) But the Brits have tussled with Iceland before. Beginning in the 1950s the UK and Iceland clashed over fishing rights in a series of confrontations known as the Cod Wars. It may have been the closest two NATO nations have ever come to a shooting war. The NATO-negotiated settlement largely favored Iceland. England’s fishing industry has been in decline ever since.
And Iceland isn’t finished. On Sunday, Iceland plays France in the Quarterfinals in the Stade de France, just north of Paris. The stadium is less than two miles from the medieval Basilica of Saint Denis where France buried its kings for centuries. France is the host country of Euro 2016 and Les Blues, having come from behind to beat Ireland 2-1, will like their chances against Iceland. They should be wary. The French were also overconfident in the year 845 A.D. when Viking ships ran up the Seine and sacked Paris.
Take nothing for granted.