It was early during a trip to Greenland’s west coast that I first encountered signs of this nation’s love affair with football. With hours to waste away before a connecting flight and an eagerness to sample the Arctic environment outside, I decided to wander the surrounding area of Kangerlussuaq international airport. This stroll didn’t disappoint: fjords carved their presence into the skyline, demarcating the aerial and terrestrial with a sharp, brutal efficiency. The springtime air was fresh, the breeze cool. Small, unassuming buildings and rectangular apartment blocks were sparsely scattered across tundra of varying brown hues. This brownness becoming, quite abruptly, brilliant white snow-cover as one’s eyes climbed the steep mountain walls; the effect not too dissimilar to observing a vast Rothko painting. I felt a world away from England and its dense urban sprawls, its cacophony of noises, faces and football chatter. Then something catches my attention: a large, strikingly-red cloth dangling from an apartment window, flapping haphazardly in the breeze. It only takes a moment’s glance to decipher the details: a flag adorning the Manchester United F.C. emblem was proudly being displayed. So much for feeling like an Arctic explorer.
Upon reflection, football’s popularity in Greenland is fairly unsurprising, at least in the sense of following the big international leagues. The modern game possesses a global appeal that transcends cultures worldwide, from the Amazon rainforest to downtown Tokyo, its ubiquity unrivalled by any other sport. This fact is not lost on Europe’s biggest clubs, with global marketing becoming an increasingly important part of their modus operandi. And with football incredibly popular in its Nordic and European neighbours, it was unlikely Greenland would ever be immune to football’s global reach. Indeed, much like in Scandinavia, it is the English Premier League that is most followed, especially the two red giants of the English game – Liverpool and Manchester United. As Malik Milfeldt of Visit Greenland notes, such is the level of fanaticism, Manchester United clinching the title can lead to “15-20 tooting, flag-waving and very enthusiastic drivers wearing the capital’s roads thin”. (It should be noted for those unfamiliar with Greenland that whilst 15-20 drivers may sound minuscule, when compared to Nuuk’s small population of 15,500 and limited road space, this is actually quite a sizeable motorcade). And it’s not just the capital or major settlements where football’s presence is felt. Take for example the 2012 documentary Village at the End of the World, set in the tiny, remote village of Niaqornat; in most scenes we see Lars, the film’s teenage protagonist, wearing his Liverpool F.C. shirt.
Personal experience in Greenland attests to this popularity. I’ve lost count of the number of times when conversations with male Greenlanders have swiftly turned towards football-related matters once it is established that I am English. I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing a music group begin their set with renditions of Manchester United and Nottingham Forest chants in honour of my attendance (Full Disclosure: there were no more than five people in the bar at the time). And when dog-sledging across snowy tundra in the northwest, the unmistakable colours of Barcelona’s home kit could be seen peeking out from below my driver’s coat throughout the ride. If you observe closely, Greenland can appear as football-mad as it is possible for a country to be.
Passionately following international leagues is only one aspect of this sporting love affair, however. For despite Greenland’s paucity of grass – surely this is the most ironically-named place on earth, at least in English? – and subsequent lack of football pitches, the game is still frequently played by many throughout the country. Witnessing children running through the snow chasing a brightly-coloured orange ball is a common sight at certain times of the year, as are games on gravel terrains where impromptu goalposts are created from wooden crates. The game is played in schools, though often indoors in the form of Futsal – a variant of football similar to 5-a-side matches – due to the Arctic climate and lack of suitable outdoor pitches.
Given this enthusiasm in both support and participation, it is a real shame that a combination of factors substantively hinder the development of Greenland’s league and national team. Like many things in Greenland, geography is no small obstacle: the infrastructural and logistical struggles of organising a league season on a vast island with no road connections between settlements and unpredictable, harsh weather conditions is challenging (that’s putting it mildly). To negotiate these difficulties, the ‘national league’ takes a format of smaller local tournaments where winners proceed to regional tournaments and then eventually to a final national tournament which takes place over a two-week period (See Note 1). Far from ideal, but it does ensure that something resembling a national league does exist.
The scarcity of suitable pitches is slowly being tackled. Until recently, the only town hosting an artificial-turf pitch was Qaqortoq in Southern Greenland. Now Maniitsoq can add its name to the list (See note 2). There are even discussions of an indoor, weather-proof pitch in Nuuk. However, even if all infrastructure challenges are somehow overcome, the biggest obstacle for Greenlandic football is its lack of recognition by FIFA. As the head of Greenland Football Association John Thorsen explained to the Arctic Journal, “We can easily admit that becoming a FIFA member is one of the biggest dreams we have for football in Greenland”. Without this recognition the Greenland national team are constrained to playing in competitions like the Island Games with other unrecognised football nations such as Tibet and Falkland Islands. Whilst some of FIFA’s reasoning about lack of adequate playing surfaces seems fair, the requirement to be an independent state seems unduly harsh, especially given that the Faroe Islands have gained FIFA and UEFA approval with a similar status within the Kingdom of Denmark.
With passion for the game so pronounced and infrastructure gradually improving, FIFA recognition could act as a spark that takes Greenland’s relationship with football to another level. And as Greenland continues to establish itself on the world stage, what better way to present a national identity to the world than a flourishing national football team. There is a lot of work to be done and one suspects something of a ‘chicken and egg’ situation exists with regards to funding football development: politicians are more likely to allocate funds if FIFA membership is in place, but obtaining membership infrastructure improvements requires initial funding. Nevertheless, the future of Greenlandic football is an intriguing and exciting prospect, and one that many are following with keen interest.
1. See the wonderfully comprehensive Football in Greenland site for all the information (in English) you could ever want regarding Greenlandic football.
2. For more, see http://arcticjournal.com/culture/689/footballers-ice