Inside Tólfan: The Iceland supporters behind the ‘viking clap’

Euro 2016 saw Iceland fans secure their place in footballing folklore with what became commonly known as the ‘viking clap.’

Thousands would raise their hands in military-like sync, before letting out a thunderous clap accompanied by a daunting “HUH” – a phenomenon that will bring the bleak memories flooding back for England fans.

The Three Lions were dumped out of the competition via goals from Ragnar Sigurdsson and Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, in what proved to be one of the worst days for English football in a very long time.

For Iceland though, there was ecstasy and the traveling Tólfan were rewarded for their support with a trip to the quarter-finals. Unfortunately the French awaited, and a team packed with world-class talent proved to be a task too far.

The side had already exceeded expectations though, and with the help of the Tólfan in the stands, they had left their mark on the competition and footballing pop culture for years to follow.

Football on a volcanic island

Árni Thor Gunnarsson is an Icelandic football fan from the neighbourhood of Breiðholt in Reykjavík. A supporter of Leiknir, Árni is a member of the famous Icelandic supporters group known as the Tólfan, which supports the national teams in Iceland.

As part of the Goal Click project, equipped with a disposable camera, Árni travelled to a number of matches in Iceland, documenting the fan culture that he holds dear to his heart.

“I took photos of people that I met along on the way of my football journey over nine months. Most people in the photos are members of Tólfan, Icelandic football fans and players. Most photos were taken in Reykjavík but there are photos from Selfoss, Njarðvík and Grenivík also.

“I wanted to naturally show the life of an Icelandic football fan. At the start I thought the weather would be a perfect theme because weather is ALWAYS a factor here in Iceland, but I found out quickly that it is very hard to capture weather in a photo!

“Iceland only has about 330,000 people living here on this volcanic island and about half of those are in the capital. Iceland does not have a professional league – we have a semi-pro league, so that means that every player here is in school or has a full-time job alongside football. The setup means that every person you see working on the fields or in the ticket office is a volunteer.”

Tólfan’s influence on Icelandic football culture

“The people of Tólfan, young and old, come from all over the country and some travel very far to be at the games of the national team at Laugardalsvöllur. When everyone comes together we have this common goal to help Iceland to get a result by supporting the team. In other aspects in life we might not have anything in common, but on game day we are joined together in this task to try to do what we can to support our team.

“It has been said that Icelandic fans are brilliant, loud and fun, but that was not always the case! Not so long ago we were once the quietest stadium in Europe, if not the world. It really needed the effort of forming Tólfan and getting the loud people together because fan culture was non-existent just 10 years ago. Tólfan was formed in 2007 and it really was a baby-step process, but slowly fan culture was raised up one or two levels. 

“I remember in 2004 when the men’s team were playing against Germany and Iceland was playing well. The man sitting behind “shushed” me…he literally put his finger on my back and “shushed” me! He asked me kindly to sit down and be quiet because he was trying to watch the game!

“Now today we see the whole stadium stand up, with hands up high and clapping their hands in a synchronised and organised motion and the “HUH” sound, spreading terror to the away team with an act which has been called the ‘Viking Clap’ or the ‘Thunderclap’ by some. It really shows how far fan culture has come in a short space of time here.”

Football’s uniting power

“Football brings people together. In a country where there are harsh weather conditions especially over the winter you need a venue of some sort to get people together when summer comes around. Football is very successful in doing that here.

“I went to the women’s match against Germany. We at Tólfan showed up with drums and the national stadium Laugardalsvöllur (9,800 capacity) was full for the first time. I was so proud of this moment because it shows you that this sport can break gender boundaries and so long as you keep up the standard of the game, people will show up to see it.

“Football is by far the most popular sport here, with handball and basketball coming in 2nd and 3rd. The role it plays is huge. The FA here has invested a lot to have football accessible to everyone by building artificial grass fields in every school and town in the country, and also investing to build these indoor football halls that have revolutionised Icelandic football. Now we can play all year round.

“Football is very important to me. There is not a day that I live that does not have football in it one way or another. Football is the only sport I know that can produce the emotions that the beautiful game has. There is nothing like it when your team scores or wins with a dramatic injury time winner – and I love it! Even if things are not going so well I am crazy enough to believe that I, the fan, can help the team (with other fans) to raise their game and get a result…and I really believe this!

“We have everything in place to keep up the high standards of football here. If we keep the maintenance up on our facilities here along with making sure that coaches get the right education to be able to grow in the sport, I don’t see why we can’t keep up the good work. 

Goal Click is a global football storytelling platform, finding people from around the world to tell stories about their football lives and communities – all initially through analogue photography and their own words.

Goal Click finds the most compelling stories; from civil war amputees in Sierra Leone to Brazilian futsal players and women’s football teams in Nepal and USA. Goal Click gives people the chance to tell their own story and show what football means to them.

Follow the Goal Click journey on Instagram.