On Saturday, Iceland drew Argentina 1-1 to snag an unlikely point in its first ever World Cup match. The result was surprising for many reasons. Argentina is a two-time World Cup champion, while Iceland is an upstart with limited history of international success. Argentina has arguably the world’s best player in Lionel Messi. One of the Icelandic defenders assigned to stop him spent the run-up to the tournament working as a salt packer at a warehouse. Argentina is ranked No. 5 in the world. Iceland is ranked No. 22. And whereas Argentina is home to 43.85 million people, Iceland has 334,000, or about as many as Santa Ana, California.
In other words, it was a big freaking deal that Iceland was even in position to play Argentina, let alone draw the star-studded opponent. And no one in Iceland was about to miss it. Well, almost no one.
The AP reports Monday that, per the Icelandic football association, 99.6 percent of people in the country who had their TVs on Saturday were tuned into the game. By comparison, the Super Bowl typically hooks around 45 percent of viewers in the United States.
Iceland fans were pretty hype about their first-ever FIFA World Cup goal! pic.twitter.com/z0KAXPH22w
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 16, 2018
It’s obviously no surprise that probably the biggest sporting event in Iceland’s history drew a massive television audience, but still… 99.6 percent. Pretty remarkable. When people talk about an entire nation shutting down during a World Cup match, that’s what they mean.
Of course, when your country has pulled a series of shocking upsets to reach a stage it has never seen before, then plays improbably even with one of the world’s dominant teams, what else is there to watch?
UPDATE: A reader points out 99.6 is actually not the high-water mark for Icelandic soccer television viewership. In 2016, 99.8 percent of viewers watched Iceland beat England at the European Championships. Iceland has at least two more chances at the World Cup to beat that figure, and we certainly won’t rule it out.