Meet 'the weakest right-back' tasked with taming Dimitri Payet
Birkir Saevarsson plies his trade with the team third from bottom in Sweden
Birkir Saevarsson celebrates after Iceland beat England in the last 16 of the European Championships. Photo: EPA
In the small fishing village of Bolungarvik in the western fjords of Iceland, a story is told of a man who ran so far and so fast that he broke a treadmill.
That man is Iceland defender Birkir Saevarsson and he has been running ever since for clubs in the capital Reykjavik, Norway and Sweden as well as his country, who have stunned the soccer world by reaching the Euro 2016 quarter-finals on their tournament debut.
Carrying the hopes and expectations of his countrymen and neutral sports fans around the world, Saevarsson faces his biggest challenge yet on Sunday – keeping France dangerman Dimity Payet under wraps.
So how does the 31-year-old, plying his trade for a club at the bottom of Sweden’s top flight and dubbed “the weakest right back in the European Championship” by British newspaper The Independent, hope to tame the home fans’ favourite?
“It is just about being aggressive,” Saevarsson told reporters. “Most of all don’t let him (Payet) go inside and shoot with his right foot. Preferably get him on the left foot.
“It is difficult to find any weakness, so it is just about... not letting him curl the ball in the far corner.”
That may he easier said than done. In the group stages, Payet netted a 30 yard winner and set up another goal against Romania. He rounded two defenders to score against Albania and he struck Switzerland’s crossbar with an outrageous volley that was nearly one of the goals of the tournament.
In Saevarsson’s favour, he is part of a dogged and close-knit rearguard and can take heart from the fact that, despite being clearly singled out by England as a weak link, he kept a stuttering Raheem Sterling at bay in their 2-1 round of 16 win.
“I was pleased with how I handled Sterling,” said Saevarsson. “I kept pace with him...and my confidence grew throughout the match.”
But there is no doubt he will have plenty of work to do again on Sunday – Iceland have the have the lowest possession statistics of the tournament so far (35 percent) – while he will also be wary that he is one of nine players in his team a booking away from missing a possible semi-final.
Aside from a cruel own goal in their group-stage draw with Hungary, which would almost certainly have resulted in a goal anyway, Saevarsson has been one of Iceland’s most consistent performers at the Euros, playing every minute of every match.
But for a man who has become the stuff of legend back home, his soccer career has hardly been glamorous.
His Swedish club Hammarby, who he joined from Bergen’s SK Brann after their relegation from Norway’s top division in 2014, are third from bottom and in danger of going down. His career highlight before the Euros was winning the Icelandic league with Reykjavik’s Valur almost a decade ago.
According to Transfermarkt, he is worth an estimated £375,000 while the man he will be marking on Sunday, Payet, carries a £17 million price tag.
“The biggest difference is that the players (at the Euros) are a little bit better, quicker and have more technique. You can’t relax for one second or you get punished,” said Saevarsson.
“In Sweden you don’t get punished as much when you are sleeping. One second here and somebody has gone away from you.”
He will need all his concentration on Sunday or Payet will be poised to pounce.