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'Our '72 Summit Series:' Tiny Alberta town feels strong connection to Iceland

Last Updated Jun 30, 2016 at 1:20 pm EDT

Bernice Andersen, a descendant of the first Icelandic settlers in Markerville, Alta., shows her support for Iceland's soccer team Wednesday, June 29, 2016.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

MARKERVILLE, Alta. – Whether they’re soccer fans or not, people in at least two Prairie communities will have more than a casual interest in Iceland’s Euro 2016 quarter-final soccer match against France on Sunday.

The Manitoba town of Gimli and its connections to Iceland are well known. The area is called New Iceland and is home to the largest concentration of people of Icelandic ancestry outside the small Nordic nation.

But in the tiny hamlet of Markerville, Alta., about 30 kilometres off the main highway between Calgary and Edmonton near Red Deer, there is an Icelandic soccer fever that’s equally fervent.

Markerville was established in 1882 and boasts that Iceland’s beloved poet, Stephan G. Stephanson, settled in the area in 1889. Locals say it is one of two must-stop spots, along with Gimli, for any Icelander doing an Icelandic tour of Canada.

What Markerville lacks in size, it’s people make up for in passion. When The Canadian Press arrived this week to take the temperature ahead of this weekend’s match, 20 people showed up at the local soccer pitch donning Viking helmets, waving flags and chanting.

Markerville has a population of 40.

“I’m very proud,” said Ellen Nina Ingolfsson, who was wearing a T-shirt that read “I’m Icelandic! What’s your excuse?”

“This is my country and Canada is too. But it’s like if Canada was winning in hockey — I’d be very proud and now I’m very proud of Iceland.”

Shane Budvarson just returned from visiting family in Iceland and was there for two of the games, including this week’s stunning victory over England that set up this weekend’s game.

“To them, it’s like our 1972 Summit Series,” said Budvarson. “They tear up when they talk about it. We went there and just kind of caught the fever.

“There were lots of flags, lots of partying, lots of drinking.”

There is no pub in Markerville so fans were looking at getting together to watch the match at someone’s home or making the 90-minute trip to Calgary for a get-together with other Icelanders there.

A number of Markerville residents admitted to not being soccer fans, until now.

“We’re kind of jump-on-the-bandwagon soccer fans. But we’re just proud of Iceland,” said Bernice Andersen, describing herself as an FBI — a “full-blooded Icelander.”

Some happily tried to participate in the clapping and grunting chant the team does after games.

“That is not really even a Viking clap,” laughed Ingolfsson. “It might even have come from Wales or England or some crazy place like that. I’ve never heard it before at home.”

Across Canada, nearly 95,000 consider themselves Icelandic by ancestry, according to 2011 figures from Statistics Canada. Just this weekend, Eliza Reid, who grew up in the Ottawa Valley, was ushered in as first lady of Iceland after her husband, Gudni Johannesson, was elected as the country’s sixth president.

Not to be out done in Gimli, Scott Carman, the owner of the Ship & Plough Gastropub, was expecting a full house on Sunday and said it will be “off the hook.”

He’s planning to bring in Icelandic beer and liqueur and hand out Iceland flags. He may also add a TV to the patio for overflow.

Carman, who is not Icelandic, said he expects everyone to be Icelandic on Sunday, at least in spirit.

“Even if you’re not an Icelander or of Icelandic descent, I think people still have the sense that there’s something exciting going on and they want to be part of it.”

— Follow @BillGraveland on Twitter