The fairytale, deliciously, is still alive. Euro 2016’s most romantic story takes another compelling step forward tomorrow when the smallest nation ever to take part in the tournament negotiates the latest hurdle in its rollercoaster ride that has left its players, a 10,000-strong army of fans with their scary-sounding Viking chant and a whole country bursting with pride.
Barring the mother of all upsets, Iceland will reach the end of their remarkable journey against Roy Hodgson’s England but are in no mood to go down without a fight in Nice. The last time the teams met in 2004, England, under the stewardship of then-manager Sven Goran Eriksson, handed out a 6-1 thrashing, but these days Iceland are made of far sterner stuff.
No-one who was at the Stade de France last Wednesday can fail to have been moved by the dramatic 94th-minute winner over Austria that provided the most uplifting moment of the tournament to date with the whole bench rushing on to congratulate goalscorer Arnor Ingvi Traustason – as well as the most emotional piece of commentary from Icelandic broadcaster Gudmundur Benediktsson, whose screams of uncontrolled delight have already become the stuff of legend and have gone viral.
Tellingly, the result helped push Portugal into third sport, the perfect response to Cristiano Ronaldo’s churlish comments about the remote North Atlantic outpost having a small mentality after the teams drew 1-1 earlier in the competition. The previously revered Ronaldo has gone from hero to zero in Reykjavik and as he looked ahead to England tomorrow, Iceland’s joint coach Heimar Hallgrumsson was inevitably asked again about the comments of the Real Madrid galactico who cost millions more than his entire squad put together – and then some.
“What Ronaldo said is irrelevant to us,” came the reply. “We don’t care what other people think of us. Our main object is always to leave everything on the pitch. Anyway, we have moved on.”
To understand Iceland’s Mission Impossible and how the minnows have got to where they are, you have to take account of the infectious camaraderie between the players, most of whom have come through the ranks from juniors and who regularly socialise together. Also, between the players and both fans and media in a country of 330,000, one third of whom are roaring on the team in France. It isn’t every day that international footballers exchange high-fives with reporters which has been the case at Iceland’s training base. Or that a national team captain takes selfies with supporters which is how bearded skipper Aron Gunnarson chose to celebrate in the aftermath of that heart-stopping 2-1 win over Austria. “In the last 30 minutes when Austria came at us, I thought I was seeing stars,” says Gunnarson. “This is something every one of us will treasure for the rest of our lives and now we go again.”
Man of the match Kari Arnason, once of Aberdeen, explained the mentality that bonds the team together. “We’re a very tight-knit group,” he said. “We all go out together. To have done this with your best friends is fantastic. It’s extra sweet. I never thought I’d see this day.”
And now England. Almost everyone in Iceland supports a Premier League team. It’s a national pastime. The whole nation in fact is obsessed with English football. “This is a dream come true,” said Arnason. “Everyone supports one club or another. I’ve always supported England in big national tournaments. But not this time.”
The current squad may be the best ever (it only narrowly failed to qualify for the last World Cup) but Iceland’s emergence from no-hopers ranked 133 in the world four years ago to a current position of 47 is not just down to good fortune, although there has been a fair chunk of it in France. It can also be explained by a sophisticated national development programme and a highly progressive coaching set-up, with qualified coaches at every level from six upwards and full-size all-weather pitches springing up across the country. Iceland may have no fully professional club sides but their coaching network is second to none. Currently there are around 600 qualified coaches, 400 with Uefa B licences, or one per 825 of the population. Whether kids are six or 16, chances are they’ve been coached by someone with a Uefa license. “It’s hard to over-estimate the role of the coaches,” Gunnarson, who plays his club football at Cardiff, told Scotland on Sunday. “It’s had a massive influence and takes us places. Hopefully we can keep on producing players who can play in the big countries.”
And coaches of the calibre of Hallgrumsson, whose day job back home is a dentist in the Westman Islands off Iceland’s southern coast but who has proved a shrewd and thoughtful tactician, working alongside the experienced Lars Lagerback. Hallgrumsson is giving no secrets away but says his players have the ability to hurt England, who will come up against a blue wall but could be punished if they over-commit, as others have.
“Our national holiday is 17 June, maybe now we’ll have to change it to 22 June,” the refreshingly modest Hallgrumsson quipped after beating Austria, the team’s greatest feat. “There were a lot of tired legs because unlike other countries we don’t have the resources to rotate. But we will sacrifice everything, we will not be afraid. We are English football-crazy and know everything about them.”
Wherever you look across the Icelandic team, there are unusual individual stories. Goalkeeper Hannes Thor Halldorsson, who has played at nine different clubs and has been a revelation, is a part-time film director responsible for the video for his country’s Eurovision Song Contest entry four years ago. Can they make it a horror show for England, the build-up to which has been higher in the news agenda than even this weekend’s Icelandic presidential election?
“England are different to how they have been recently – a good passing team and a lot of movement,” says Hallgrumsson. “We will have to have the perfect game in terms of hard work, concentration, fighting spirit. Even then we could still lose but if we show these values and keep a smile on our faces, everyone will be happy no matter what the result is.”