An evening of pure, unadulterated joy that would move the stoniest of hearts
Nick Ames was in Nice to witness an evening of pure joy that could turn out to be a transformative night for Icelandic football.
It was the kind of night that rarely comes along at international tournaments – an evening of pure, unadulterated joy at the achievements of a team that would move the stoniest of hearts. When Iceland’s players emerged, almost two hours after the game, from the dressing room in Nice it was clear in some cases that the scale of what they had done was yet to sink in. Embraces, long and meaningful, were exchanged with journalists and other friends from back home; an entire country is on this journey and, against the odds, it will continue with destination unknown.
What a victory this was, and what an unlikely scenario after Wayne Rooney’s penalty had put England ahead so early. Gylfi Sigurdsson admitted afterwards that he was “gutted” when that goal went in and it was difficult to see anything but a professional picking-off of Iceland from there. The equaliser that followed immediately afterwards changed the game entirely; Iceland’s surge in confidence was visible and by the end they were convincing, comprehensive winners, outplaying their more garlanded opponents in all areas of the pitch. They ran to their delirious supporters at the end while England, second-best throughout, slumped to the floor.
“There have been a lot of jokes about how small we are, how you can pick the team from sheep herds or whatever, and it’s been kind of strange to read it – that’s why it’s satisfying,” said their co-manager Heimir Hallgrimsson of the shockwaves Iceland produced. But nobody will call them underdogs anymore. The quiet assuredness and self-confidence that radiates from all areas of their setup were blended with a grit and steel that far outweighed anything England were able to put in; it is the closest-knit of camps and that is why Iceland were able to pull together and turn the game around.
“[Mentality] is a huge part of everything you do at this level,” Hallgrimsson said. “If you are mentally prepared like these guys … what good characters they are. If you have been around this team it’s fantastic how everybody has a part to play, everybody is friends, everybody is willing to work with each other. That’s a mentality you need for a small country to achieve things. You can’t do it with individuals – we are a family.”
The parallels with Premier League champions Leicester City are, of course, hard to resist and Iceland are certainly another example of a formidable collective – one that is happy to cede possession and hit opponents when they least expect. That was certainly the case when Kolbeinn Sigthorsson scored the winner after their first genuine passing move of the game, England seemingly happy to stand off and let the danger develop.
There are heroes everywhere in this team, from Sigthorsson up front, via the indefatigable captain Aron Gunnarsson, all the way back to the goalkeeper, Hannes Halldorsson – although one performance stood out in particular on Tuesday night. Ragnar Sigurdsson plays at a good level for Russian side Krasnodar but, at 30, his chances of playing in a top league appeared to be receding. But the centre-back was colossal, scoring Iceland’s first, coming close to another, craning his neck to repel everything England could throw at him and making one impeccably-timed tackle with zero margin for error when it seemed Jamie Vardy was getting away in the second half.
“He was absolutely fantastic – I’d be really surprised if a big team was not writing his name on a sheet and calling his agent tonight,” Hallgrimsson said. That will probably be the case for many of Iceland’s players, the highly impressive Basel midfielder Birkir Bjarnason among them, in truth but the ripple effect may change Icelandic football’s wider picture for good too. “I don’t think there are bigger chances than this for Icelandic football,” Hallgrimsson said before the game. His team grabbed the opportunity and afterwards he expanded on the possible consequences.
“For football in Iceland this is amazing,” he said. “It gives everyone working in it a lot of confidence and, if you’re talking about the currency of Icelandic football, it will increase how people talk about players, clubs and so forth. A standard Icelandic player might have better clubs and salaries [to choose from], for example. It is not just these [national team] players.”
The thought occurs that this is exactly the point of international football – to develop a country’s entire sporting landscape via success on the field. There will be a bounce in the step of the national champions, FH, when they play Irish side Dundalk in the Champions League second qualifying round next month; there will be an extra sense of possibility for the boy in a Reykjavik suburb who goes to train with his friends in one of the country’s outstanding government-subsidised facilities this week. The entire context in which Icelandic football operate has suddenly turned on its head.
The benefits will be many, and they will be even greater should France be defeated – a bridge too far, you might think, but nothing is beyond this team now – at Stade de France on Sunday. “Beating England and now playing France in Paris is something you never dreamed of as a kid,” Gylfi Sigurdsson said. Now, perhaps, future Icelandic generations can regard this as the level at which they truly belong.
Nick Ames - on Twitter: @NickAmes82