‘Simple’ Iceland allowing themselves to dream
“To do the simple things well is genius,” said Lars Lagerback ahead of clash with France
Iceland players during training ahead of their Euro 2016 quarter-final clash with France. Photo: Robert Pratta/Reuters
Host nations are invariably happier places while their team is still involved in whatever tournament is on so rooting for them can become a default setting for the visiting media. Who, though, could possibly bring themselves to hope that Iceland, those most amicable of football upstarts, will be going home on Monday?
The players have won over neutrals everywhere with the way they have defied the sceptics on the pitch and, as with Kari Arnason and Ronaldo, answered their critics off it.
Ahead of their quarter-final, the team’s captain Aron Gunnarsson as well as its two coaches, Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson, continued the all-round charm offensive on Saturday afternoon at the Stade de France where they cheerfully shrugged off allegations from England that their approach is “simple” before pondering the possibility of beating France and joining Wales in the semi-finals where they would face the winners of the game between Germany and Italy.
The Cardiff City star was the personification of humility but said that he and his team mates might learn from the Welsh performance against Belgium on Friday and go into the game here on Sunday evening with a collective sense of self belief.
“What the Welsh have done had been fantastic,” he says. “We knew before the tournament that they were not favourites coming here and neither were we. But It’s been a joy to watch them progress. They have some great players but they have a great togetherness too and we can learn from them, particularly in relation to that.
“For us now, it is a great motivation to think of also being in the semi-finals. The games get bigger and bigger but somehow the pressure is never on us. We can approach the games more relaxed than our opponents. It is difficult, of course. Playing against bigger teams and playing against players who are with the best teams in the world is always going to be tough but you’re here to test yourself; tomorrow is going to be a big test but we’re ready for it.”
On paper, France should beat them well but after two draws then defeats of Austria and England, the Gunnarsson and co. know far better than at this stage than to be overawed by the quality of the opposition.
“If you didn’t believe,” he says with a curious accent that has at least as much to do with his time in England and Wales as his upbringing back at home in Iceland, “we wouldn’t be here, I think. It’s as simple as that. This is a group that has fought hard to get where we are.
“It’s an old cliché but now we just have to take one game at a time. France are a really good team but we if we approach the game right...”
The English, the feeling was, did not approach their game on Monday right at all but even after seeing their team beaten there appears to have been a sense in the Iceland camp that their beaten opponents’ media was a little dismissive of the approach that yielded victory.
“On my very first visit to England, back in the seventies, I went to West Ham and spoke with Ron Greenwood who would later become coach of their national team, and he said to me something that would stay with me something that would stick with me through my own career,” says Lagerback, the former Sweden manager who has overseen much of the progress that has been made in recent years. “’To do the simple things well is genius so I don’t think there is anything wrong with simple.”
His co-coach, Halgrimsson, is equally polite about the idea, insisting that: “We play simple if you say that we play to our strengths. We know what we are good at and we play the way that suits us; that’s what I mean when I say that we play simple. If somebody thinks that that’s boring then for them to decide but we agree that this is the way that we should play football and we have shown that doing it we can play big nations.
“What is special about Iceland is the team unity, the spirit and the character of the players. I guess the French would say the same but we would claim that we are better in those areas. It is important to is that our players know their identity.
“Of course the French players play at the best clubs in the world,” continues the 50 year-old who will take sole possession of the side after these championships, “so maybe individually their players are better than ours but we believe that our team can still be better than their team.
“And right now is special because we are always playing the biggest game in the history of Icelandic football. We are getting more used to it each time. After the obstacles that we have overcome to get this far we feel more prepared for the next obstacle. Even you’re the underdog it’s important that you play with all your abilities but we are more relaxed in each game and more relaxed.
“I keep saying that we haven’t seen the best of Iceland yet but whatever happens, the world will talk about Icelandic football players in a different way after this tournament.”