Inspirational Iceland more than ready to take on the world
Fairy-tale success for country of just 334,000 as they top group to seal place in World Cup
Iceland’s national team football players and coaching staff celebrate with fans at Ingolfstorg square in the centre of Reykjavik. Photograph: Halldor Kolbein/AFP /Getty Images
Amid the flurry of bodies there was, fleetingly, a moment when Gylfi Sigurdsson just wanted to take it all in.
Three hours had passed since full-time and the music had never really stopped; now Iceland’s players and staff were dancing on stage with the local rapper Emmsje Gauti and if a football match is exertion enough then this, feeding from the energy of the thousands who had greeted them on Ingolfstorg, was an exercise fuelled purely by adrenaline.
Sigurdsson paused, puffed out his cheeks slightly and had a word in the ear of his team-mate and captain, Aron Gunnarsson. Both men glanced at the blue-clad throng in front of them, and back at each other. The grins that spread across their faces rendered further conversation unnecessary.
“I thought that, after the Euros, the toughest thing to do would be to restart,” the Iceland manager, Heimir Hallgrimsson, had said earlier back at Laugardalsvollur, which emptied swiftly after the 2-0 win over Kosovo in order that the celebrations might continue in Reykjavik’s city centre.
“The first beer the day after a party is not good-tasting; I think tomorrow it won’t taste as good as now.”
There will be a few in the Iceland capital who are willing to put that to the test but Hallgrimsson’s metaphor was designed to illustrate the scale of what his team had achieved.
It is one thing being the underdog who provides a summer of diversion before normality intervenes; it is quite another raising yourself to do it all again but Iceland’s World Cup debut will owe everything to unflinching self-belief in their approach and an ability to take strength in the face of change.
When Iceland faced down a qualifying group whose obstacles included Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey, the most obvious difference was that the Swedish coach Lars Lagerback – with whom Hallgrimsson had co-managed for three years – was no longer on the scene.
“There were many who told me not to take the team after all this success and the huge party in France,” Hallgrimsson said. “There were people close to me who urged me to quit but I had a bullying belief that we could take this further.”
Winning Group I outright, after a rapid acceleration in fortune spurred by Friday’s 3-0 win in Turkey, proved him resoundingly correct. Hallgrimsson is a remarkable figure who has compromised on nothing.
Two hours before the Kosovo fixture, an occasion of unsurpassed gravity in Iceland’s sporting history, he could be found half a mile away from Laudardalsvollur in Olver, a sports bar where the more vocal supporters gather on a matchday.
“If I see any phones out they’ll be flushed down the toilet,” the MC warned a crowd of several hundred before Hallgrimsson took to the stage. There was no need; the omerta has gone, quite literally, without saying since Hallgrimsson began this tradition and a pin could be heard to drop when, after fiddling with his laptop, he began a 25-minute presentation about the match and Iceland’s approach to it.
The contents need go no further; what matters the most is that, in a world that gets ever-smaller the more successful you become, Iceland have remained themselves.
That had to be the case on what, even in the absence of significant goal threat from Kosovo, developed into a nervy evening. Iceland, who would be guaranteed first place only with a win, do not quite wear the mantle of favourites comfortably yet and laboured in the first half until Sigurdsson’s close-range opener.
The same was true during the second period before – moments after the crowd had sought to get things going with the now-familiar, yet still spine-tingling, “thunderclap” routine – Sigurdsson superbly set up Johann Berg Gudmundsson for the goal that eliminated any doubts.
It is not always about how you make the final step; half an hour later the stadium was bathed in fireworks, team and supporters swaying as one to the impossibly heart-tugging local anthem Eg er kominn heim (“I’m back home”).
Next summer there will be plenty from this country of 334,000 going in the other direction. How Iceland are handled by their opponents in Russia will be a point of considerable interest; surely England and any other more established forces will be averse to making the same mistakes twice. It will no longer be mistakenly perceived indulgent, fanciful or patronising to treat Iceland as equals.
“We have earned the right to be there, just like anyone else,” Hallgrimsson said. “We are not only representing Iceland in Russia, we are representing Europe. We’ve beaten big nations to be there so why can’t we achieve something like anyone else? We just have to be there like everyone, and why shouldn’t we have a chance to win?”
Hallgrimsson’s work has not gone unnoticed elsewhere and, even if you think a bolt-on such as the pre-match address would not be transferable in a higher-profile job, at some stage the offers will come in for a razor-sharp 50-year-old who – although less often these days – is a practicing dentist and still lives on the tiny southern island of Heimaey.
But why go anywhere else when the ceiling keeps on moving higher?
“I have ambition,” he said. “But I’m the coach of Iceland, going to the World Cup finals, and I don’t think there is a better job in football than that.”
As Hallgrimsson and his players soaked up that raucous, joyously communal reception, it was impossible to disagree. Reykjavik danced to a night of a thousand melodies and thrilled at the thought that is it unlikely to have been the last time.