Thursday 22 March 2018

A country of endless light leaves England facing up to their darkest hour

Iceland joint manager Lars Lagerback Photo: REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
Iceland joint manager Lars Lagerback Photo: REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Jack Pitt-Brooke

It barely ever grows dark in Reykjavik at this time of year but for Iceland this was their longest, greatest day. On the final whistle the players and staff of this remarkable team streamed towards the thousands of Icelandic fans who had come to the Riviera in expectation of at best an honourable defeat.

What they got was beyond their wildest fantasies. Just ten minutes after the final whistle the stadium was empty save for their fans and the soft lilt of their national anthem was drifting into the night air.

What mattered was that this team believed they could do it and that is the precious quality their manager, Lars Lagerback, had instilled. They had, after all, beaten the Netherlands home and away in qualification.

Lagerback had famously never lost to England and you could sense in his voice during the pre-match press conference that he expected that sequence to end.

The supporters whose clapping mimics the sound of a departing train will be using the TGV system to travel to Paris for a quarter-final with the hosts.

England's, by contrast, will be scurrying for the Channel Ports, after their greatest humiliation in any European Championship, a competition in which they have never managed to win a single knockout match (except on penalties).

Before kick-off, Lagerback's co-manager, Heimir Hallgrimsson, had said it was a "win, win" game for Iceland. Nobody expected the smallest nation in these European Championships to take a point, let alone reach the knockout stages and the biggest game in their history.

If by some chance they won, Hallgrimsson remarked, "their lives will change forever."

Their lives will alter irrevocably. This was the greatest match in the history of Icelandic football, probably Icelandic sport.

Before a tenth of the country's population travelled to France - there were special charters flying throughout the day from Reykjavik to Nice - Iceland's biggest sport was handball. Their best ever handball performance was a quarter-final at the London Olympics. They have now reached the last eight of a European Championship.

Nobody connected with England - not their fans, their players, the backroom staff or the travelling media - remotely expected what would unfold on the Cote d'Azur.

The night before, English and Icelandic supporters drank together along the Promenade des Anglais. The Icelandic National Anthem, the Lofsongur, was applauded by the tens of thousands of English fans who would have howled down the Marseillaise.

Iceland was one of the few nations to have welcomed Brexit with their president, Olafur Grimsson, commenting that Britain should look north to a trading bloc that would include Iceland, Norway, the Faroe Islands and Greenland.

It might not have been Paris, Barcelona and Rome but these days the British people, like their footballers, are living in reduced circumstances.

On a night that would have distilled every nightmare he had ever woken from as a football manager, Roy Hodgson woefully underestimated these footballers. Against Austria, Iceland had scored a very similar goal to Ragnar Sigurdsson's opener that was triggered by a long throw. When Aron Gunnarsson delivered a long ball into Joe Hart's area, his defenders reacted as if they were astonished Iceland's captain should have attempted something so straightforward.

England's attitude could be summed up by comments by Hodgson's contemporary Harry Redknapp that Iceland would hope to "get a chance on a rare breakaway" which would be their only opportunity against a team on "a different level".

Iceland were not on a different level. They did not, like Slovakia had done in St Etienne, attempt to pack their defence and eke out a goalless draw. If they had planned to do so, Wayne Rooney's early penalty forced them into attack, although Iceland could never have known how soft an underbelly they would be attacking.

However, it was the way Iceland defended that was astonishing. Gylfi Sigurdsson, perhaps the one player available to Halgrimsson and Lagerback who might have merited consideration for Hodgson's side, blocked attack after attack.

Sigurdsson, having scored the goal of the game, made the tackle of the game to dispossess Jamie Vardy when he looked as if he might score. He departed an exhausted hero, the stuff of sagas.

At the end, they were applauded off by the England fans and now France and the quarter-finals await. If 10pc of the Icelandic population had left to be with their team, the island will be empty when their team walk out in the Stade de France. They will always have Paris.

Independent News Service

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