Why is Malta not Iceland?

Iceland seems to have no difficulty achieving that sort of unity, in both football and politics. Malta? In football, it would fall apart the moment we came up against either Italy or England. And in politics, there is simply no chance in hell it would have ever have come together in the first place

Probably for the same reason that a raven is not a writing desk (i.e., it just isn’t. Get over it.) But that would make this a pretty short article, so let’s give that question another look.

Pointless as it seems to me, a lot of people do actually ask it every now and again: whenever the World Cup rolls along, for instance – or the European Cup, the Eurovision Song Contest, and (probably soon) the X-Factor – and it dawns on people there is a tiny nation called ‘Iceland’ – so comparable to Malta in shape, population, and.... um... nothing else, really –  that somehow never lets its humble proportions stand in the way of international success.

How do they do it, people ask? Or, more to the point: how come we don’t? And what follows is usually a comparison along the following lines:

In the past two years, Iceland has managed to qualify for the finals of both the European and World Cup: and while they never got past the group stage, they still exceeded expectations in both those tournaments... earning tonnes of international respect in the process.

Meanwhile, in recent years, Malta’s international football rankings have mostly resembled the flat line on the ‘machine that goes beep’... the one that basically tells you you’re dead. I can’t even remember the last time Malta didn’t end up at the very bottom of its respective qualifying group. But just to avoid having to look up all the relevant charts and tables: let’s concede that there may have been a random blip when we actually placed second from bottom for a change.

All the same: closing an eye at the occasional ‘positive result’ here and there (which usually means we lost by only three goals instead of seven)... in football, let’s just say we’ve always been outgunned, and leave it that.

As for the ensuing argument, it usually goes: Iceland is geographically not very much larger than Malta; its population (350K) is around two-thirds of ours (470K); neither country is blest with particularly abundant resources; and Malta happens to have a larger local Premier League than Iceland.

Hmm. I’ll admit it’s starting to look a little difficult... to digest, if not to actually answer. We’ve already ruled out superiority in numbers/resources – both when it comes to selecting the team, and investing in the local sport – and, barring any unlikely climactic/geographical factor I hadn’t thought about (eg, volcanic dust acts like a performance-enhancing drug when inhaled) – I’m afraid that leaves us with only one possible consideration. The ability to actually play football.

Hey, but don’t take it so badly. Who cares, if Icelanders are just naturally more talented, athletic and more physically suited to the game than we are? There are plenty of other sports we’re much better at than them, you know. Like... like... (quiet, please, I’m trying to concentrate here)... like snooker, for instance (phew).

Ever heard of Fjölnir Þorgeirsson? If so, any hint on how to pronounce the name would be appreciated. But if not – and unless you’re Icelandic yourself, or some kind of psycho snooker-nerd... be honest: you haven’t a clue - how about... Tony Drago? HA! You tell me whose snooker champion is more famous: ours, or the Vikings’...

And that, I would say, just about wraps it up for the contest between our two island nation states. Except that... well, it doesn’t, really. For one thing, there is no actual reason to suppose that the Arctic gene produces better footballers than good old Mediterranean DNA. Scandinavians may, on average, be taller and more physically imposing than us, but: a) that is also true for Italians, Spaniards and Greeks, and; b) football is not a sport that relies on such attributes anyway (just look at Maradona, for crying out loud). And there are other factors – eg, sports education, the ability to play in decent overseas leagues, etc – that would also have to go into the discussion.

The discussion itself will have to extend beyond football, too. Where is Malta’s answer to Iceland’s Bjork? That would rope in all local music artists, producers, record labels.... only this time, without even having to bring racial stereotypes into the equation: nobody doubts that there is musical talent in Malta... only whether that talent is offered the same kind of opportunity as it would in other European countries, that’s all.

Even so, we are left with other discrepancies that are harder to rationalise. Another area where our two islands are sometimes compared concerns politics. Consider, for instance, how Iceland handled its own Panamagate scandal, back in 2016.

Disgraced Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson was forced out of office by public demonstration, after it was revealed that he once owned – and his wife still owned – an undeclared offshore investment company. You don’t need me to tell you that things panned out very differently for Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, who are both still in their positions more than two years later.

But as with the football scenario, there are added complications: part of the reason for widespread anger in Iceland was that Gunnlaugsson’s account also had multimillion-pound claims on Iceland’s failed banks. As The Guardian put it at the time, “such allegations are particularly incendiary in Iceland, which was brought almost to its knees in the financial crisis of 2008 by the recklessness of a small group of bankers and businessmen – several of whom are now in jail – who used offshore companies to conceal their dealings in high-risk financial products.”

There was a good deal more simmering in the volcanic Rejkjavik air that week, than here in Malta... where similar revelations were met with wildly conflicting reactions, along all the usual predictable lines. So even if the core issue remains the same – i.e., trying to hide money in offshore accounts – the direct fall-out in Malta was from the outset always going to be much less severe.

What was – and still is – missing from the equation is a note of personal anger. Unlike the hard-pressed Scandinavians, the Maltese were not exposed to the ruinous consequences of the 2008 banking crisis. Politicians here did not get tangled up in the frenzy of outrage and indignation – directly mostly at bankers and the ‘global elite’ – that erupted almost everywhere else.

But this, too, doesn’t amount to a complete answer. Would the outcome of the Panama Papers have been any different, even if the circumstances were comparable to Iceland’s? Would the minister have had to step down in the face of public opprobrium? And... how much  opprobrium would he even have had to face, anyway?

Hard to say with such hypothetical questions, naturally; but my gut feeling tells me there wouldn’t have been very much difference at all. Roughly half the country would have called for Mizzi’s head on a plate, and roughly the other half would have defended him tooth and nail. All you’d need to complete the picture is David Byrne singing ‘Same as it ever was’ in the background...

And there, I think, is where at least one of the reasons for our dissimilarity really resides. Not in our mutual DNA, or in the opportunities available in our respective countries... but in the fact that we are so hopelessly divided on absolutely everything. That for every extreme opinion, you will have an equal, opposite and just as extreme counter-opinion... with nothing in the middle at all.

But, ah! I hear you think: that only explains the difference in our politics (and even then, only applied to one specific issue). What about football, and all the rest...?

OK: I’ll admit there isn’t really a scientific way to hammer that theory of mine onto our dismal national football record (or, for that matter, Iceland’s shining, glittery achievements). So, I’ll just leave you with a small thought.

The Viking clap: you know, that epochal, primal expression of clansmanship, where literally thousands of people strike a beat together, with the precision of a metronome, to a tune that eventually starts sounding something like ‘We Will Rock You’? It’s difficult for even one person to get right, let alone an entire football stadium. There is choreography involved. The beat speeds up: slowly at first, then faster and faster, until the rhythm finally bursts apart into applause...

And never mind whether it really is an ancient Viking war chant, or (apparently) something they stole from Motherwell in the Scottish League. To pull something like that off on such a grand scale, without missing a beat, you need cohesion on a national level. It involves the ability to come together for a common cause.

Iceland seems to have no difficulty achieving that sort of unity, in both football and politics (and you can work out the analogy with music for yourselves). Malta? In football, it would fall apart the moment we came up against either Italy or England. And in politics, there is simply no chance in hell it would have ever have come together in the first place.

So, like I said at the very beginning: Malta is not Iceland because... it just isn’t, end of story.

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