‘The universe’ will take care of Iceland if they reach last-16
‘Before the Euros started the guys were just normal footballers. Now they’re heroes’
Iceland’s head coach Heimir Hallgrimsson smiles as he speaks to the media after a training session at Olimp Stadium in Kabardinka. Photograph: Getty Images
Iceland fans watch their team training in Kabardinka. Photograph: Getty Images
Less than a week after Iceland had finally packed up and left Annecy, Heimir Hallgrímsson went back. The Alpine town had been a blissful setting from which to mastermind their run to the quarter-finals of Euro 2016 but there were a few things left to tick off. One was to sip a glass of red wine by the lake, a simple pleasure but one forbidden in the team camp; another would bring something closer to the adrenaline rush he had felt on those heady nights against England in Nice and Portugal in Saint-Étienne.
Along with his wife, Iris, Hallgrímsson headed towards the top of Col de la Forclaz, a mountain pass on the other side of the water, ran over the side and paraglided back down towards the earth. “High up, a few thousand feet, fantastic,” he remembers. “It was something I didn’t want to do during the Euros. We came back and enjoyed it in a different way.”
Hallgrímsson landed on his feet and so, after a summer that sent them soaring above the clouds, did Iceland, for we are meeting at Laugardalsvöllur, the national stadium, six weeks before a World Cup. “I think I’ve got a lot older than just two years,” he jokes of the period since he took sole charge of the team, when his co-manager Lars Lagerbäck departed straight after the European Championship.
Some were mindful that an underdog’s day only tends to last so long, and thought Hallgrímsson should quit while ahead. Instead he achieved something even bigger, qualifying them from a fiendish Group I as winners and improving them to the extent that Argentina, Nigeria and Croatia look perfectly beatable opponents in Russia.
“They were just thinking of me,” he says, referring to the friends and family who feared he was setting up for a fall. “It’s understandable, because we had everything to lose. Before the Euros started the guys were just normal footballers. Now they’re everybody’s heroes, you’re taking charge for this tournament and you absolutely cannot do any better. But, still, we did.”
Those final four words are delivered modestly but exude the mixture of earthiness and boundless self-belief that have brought Hallgrímsson and his team this far. There remains fascination in how a country of 330,000 – the smallest to reach a World Cup – can achieve this level of success and, perhaps, even more in how long it can be sustained. But they have done enough during his tenure to move on from many of the portrayals, ranging from the twee to the genuinely beguiling, that accompanied their rise.
“If people still think it’s a kind of Cinderella story, and that in some way we don’t deserve it, then they underestimate us,” he says. “So I kind of like it when people come here and ask: ‘Are you still a dentist?’ In my opinion it benefits us but I know some people among our staff who would like more respect, professionally, than they are getting.”
Hallgrímsson has, incidentally, already volunteered an answer to that question: yes, he still carries out the odd bit of dental work and the day before this interview he was in his surgery on Heimaey, the island off Iceland’s south coast that he still calls home.
Foremost among his aims when he took sole charge of the team for a tough qualifying group was to make Iceland more flexible; less reliant on the 11 men who soldiered on, unchanged, through Euro 2016. There was an element of necessity – the centre-forward Kolbeinn Sigthórsson, who scored the winner against England, suffered a medial ligament injury in September 2016 and is not match-fit enough to play in the World Cup – but he wanted his players to operate less like plucky outsiders and express themselves more when appropriate.
While Lagerbäck had been wedded to a 4-4-2, Hallgrímsson switched to 4-2-3-1 in some qualifiers and encouraged a higher pressing game. His tweaks got more out of the team: the 3-0 win in Turkey last October, which brought them to the verge of a place in Russia, was “one of our best games, we started so high up and didn’t give them any chance to get their game going”.
The players – one or two of whom had suspected playing under Hallgrímsson might release some shackles – responded. “We didn’t change a lot,” he stresses. “We still have the same philosophy. We have to be realistic about why we win football matches.”
There have been the alterations off the pitch: the appointment of a fitness coach, Sebastian Boxleitner, was one development driven by Hallgrímsson and, while Iceland’s FA remains lightly staffed and stretched to the limit at times, most of the requests he made to modernise and professionalise operations around the team were heeded.
As for Hallgrímsson himself, there is no obvious difference in manner from a man who, before Iceland became red-hot property, would welcome foreign journalists to Heimaey for lunch and a grand tour. “I don’t think it has changed me a bit,” he says of his relative fame. “Perhaps I’ve done more talking than I’d have liked to; we don’t have the numbers here and someone has to do it. That’s probably been the only factor I didn’t plan as well as I should have; I didn’t know there would be this kind of craziness.”
There must be moments when Hallgrímsson, who spent the first 12 years of his coaching career in various roles around the men’s and women’s branches of his local team, IBV, steps back and looks agog at how things have panned out.
“I never thought about any of this,” he says. “Coaching my hometown team I was really proud and thought: ‘This is the biggest thing for me.’ I’ve never been here and hoping that, in one or two years, I’d be there. If good things happen and it leads you to something else, maybe something bigger, that’s something the universe takes care of.”
The universe will probably have a few ideas for Hallgrímsson after the World Cup. He turned 51 on Sunday and knows that, if the chance arises to develop his career from a position of strength, now will be the time. “I have one of the best jobs in the world,” he says, but there is an agreement in place with the Icelandic FA’s president, Gudni Bergsson, that he will take a fortnight after Iceland have returned home from Russia to decide whether to extend his contract.
“I told them I just want to see if there are possibilities. It’s kind of selfish but I’m not a name like Eidur Gudjohnsen or someone, I’ve been more or less the coach of an amateur club, so if you don’t use any opportunity now then maybe it doesn’t come again. I don’t know what I will do, but I definitely want to see if there are options to do something different.”
For now, Hallgrímsson’s gaze is fixed on what can reasonably be called this summer’s group of death. “The group is equal and I think that’s in our favour,” he says. “If or when – I don’t know which word to use – we get through there’s not going to be any opponent much tougher than Argentina, Nigeria or Croatia. It gives you the feeling that, if we qualify for the last 16, we shouldn’t fear anyone.”
Hallgrímsson and Iceland are not about to set themselves limits now. Their campaign will be masterminded from Gelendzhik, a resort on the Black Sea, and the comparisons with the base that served them so well in France are clear. “It’s quiet, it’s got sun, it’s got energy we can take from the sea and mountains nearby,” he says. “All the elements we were looking for.”
If local paragliding schools receive inquiries from a prospective Icelandic pupil in mid-July, it will be fair to assume everything has fallen into place once again.