This article was brought to you by The Culture Division as part of The Away End. The Culture Division is a group of creatives, showcasing their love for the game through their creativity. Whether it be how fashion affects football, a story from a remote island or how a creative in the culture is paving the way for similar.
The midnight sun continued to gleam as one day passed into another: it illuminated the sky, and it reflected into the sea; it’s light expanded across the ice sheet, and it’s all-encompassing touch revealed the true extent of Greenland’s beauty. For the weary travellers – setting their eyes upon this new land – it was everything that they had hoped it would be. There had been whispers, from the cold north of Iceland, that another great land lay west.
And when Erik Thorvaldsson – better known as Erik the Red – was exiled from his home, he wanted to test this narrative. Erik set off from Snaefellsjokull, on the west coast of Iceland, with a small crew and the taste for the unknown. Their longboat pierced through a frozen surface, which was becoming more common and dense as they sailed further into the Arctic north. The men’s beards were now snow speckled, the cold pierced their skin and chilled their bones; the air froze as they exhaled. Undeterred, they continued in search of their new home.
They settled at Eriksfjord – now known as Tunulliarfik Fjord – on the south-west tip of the island: not too far from modern-day Qaqortog. According to the Icelandic Sagas, Erik named the island Greenland in a sly attempt to lure people away from Iceland to the shores of his new icy tundra. However, it wouldn’t be more vikings – or vikingur – who would call it home. Erik’s son, Leif Eriksson, also yearned to learn what was west, and he soon found out: North America. From this new continent came the Inuit’s, who gradually replaced the Vikings as the island’s inhabitants.
The Inuit’s have a culture entwined in the cold Arctic north; their beliefs have been shaped by it – namely what the Northern Lights represent. The dancing green and yellow solar flares have inspired warrior-poets for generations, often a source of hope and inspiration. However, for the Inuits, they serve as a reminder. They believe the lights to be the spirits of their ancestors playing a celestial game of football among the stars, the stuffed head of a walrus as a ball.
Underneath this colourful Arctic sky, Greenlanders played too – alongside their ancestors – they played on ash; they played on sand; they played on gravel: with a stuffed walrus skull or a football, the passion for the game was evident.
In 2016, Iceland – tiny, bold Iceland – blazed a trail for other footballing minnows to dare to follow by qualifying for Euro 2016. It was almost unthinkable that an island nation, isolated in the Northern Atlantic, with a population of 357,000 (roughly that of Bradford) could qualify for a major tournament and then two years later to repeat their feat at the World Cup. And yet, for Greenland, it provided hope: not that one day they too could play in a major tournament, but that they could play internationally.
There is an old English proverb: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” and it’s a mantra that Greenland has moulded itself on. Greenland is not a member of UEFA or FIFA, and its teams are amateur, so they do not compete in international competition. For an outsider, it’s not hard to see why: temperatures – in some parts of the country – can reach -50 degrees Celsius over the winter, and daylight is absent for days at a time. Grass pitches turn into war-torn quagmires of mud, due to glacial runoffs and the abundance of moss, so gravel pitches are more commonplace. Still, despite these – sizeable – obstacles, a league system does exist. Regional qualifiers are held between May and September, the only month’s football can be played, and culminate in a week-long tournament in a selected host town.
It’s a constant struggle, against the elements, to house the game; Greenland’s beauty is their ultimate downfall. The glaciers – that cut through the heart of the island, giving it its unique scenery – are what is stopping them progressing. Settlements are few and far between thus most of the budget is spent on plane or boat tickets to reach away games, leaving pitches derelict. And yet, there is a rugged beauty in it all – a sense of impossibility at the edge of the world – netting that clings to a half-rusted goalpost as a snow-capped mountain watches on, stoically, in the distance.
International football has always been the end goal, and if all the geographical issues can be fixed, Greenland still faces one – rather large – obstacle: it’s not a country. Greenland – like the Faroe Islands – is an autonomous region of Denmark. Both suitors attempted to woo UEFA to venture to their Arctic shores in the 90s, one more successfully than the other. In 1994 the Faroe Islands joined UEFA, but in 1998 Greenland had the door slammed on them. UEFA cited the inability for Greenland to host football year-round as the deciding factor in the decision, and soon after changed their policies around applications. However, in 2013, after a long-and-drawn-out application procedure, Gibraltar joined UEFA and in doing so, created a glimmer of hope for Greenland.
Gibraltar had proved that a team could circumnavigate UEFA’s policy on independent nations. Hopes were further boosted by the success of Iceland’s footballing houses, and the subsequent commission of the Arktisk Stadium, a heated, indoor, FIFA approved stadium in Nuuk.
Interestingly, UEFA – and Europe – may not be Greenland’s end destination. Geographically, Greenland is part of North America, and such has a claim to join CONCACAF, whose rules around nations are laxer than their European counterparts. Similar situations already play out in North America: Bonaire, a diminutive island off the coast of Venezuela, is an overseas Dutch territory who have a national side in the confederation. The same can be said for the Cayman Islands (UK), French Guiana (France), and Puerto Rico (USA) among many others. And with FIFA now allowing national teams to play on artificial surfaces, like the one at the proposed Arktisk stadium, CONCACAF could be the more viable route into the international game and the eventual FIFA funding.
The ultimate question mark is can Greenland host football in those cold dark winter months when the sun doesn’t shine, and darkness rules the land. The Arktisk stadium, if completed, is a major step forward, but would only affect the national team with club sides continuing to play on makeshift surfaces in the summer months.
The passion for football in Greenland is evident in the lengths they go to just to stage a fixture, with those long boat trips past melting icebergs wandering through fjords. The images serve well for photographs, a snapshot not just into the lives of those captured but a reminder of what football – at its core – really is. It’s meant to be fun. It can be played anywhere. Beyond the backdrop, it’s these grounded roots that make those photos even more special. There may be a time in the future when Greenland makes its appearance on the international stage, but for now, the game is thriving its own isolated ecosystem in the frozen north.