Friday 23 March 2018

Paul Hayward: Viking Warriors are on their way home with pride dented but dignity very much intact

Iceland’s Aron Gunnarsson reacts after the game. Photo: REUTERS/Carl Recine
Iceland’s Aron Gunnarsson reacts after the game. Photo: REUTERS/Carl Recine
Tearful Iceland players applaud their supporters after the game. Photo: AP Photo/Thibault Camus

Paul Hayward

Football could never make a movie like this one. In 2007, Ragnar Sigurdsson played for Iceland in a 3-0 defeat to Liechtenstein.

Here in Paris he shared a pitch with a Frenchman (Paul Pogba) touted as a £100m transfer target for Real Madrid as a nation with 100 professional footballers confronted a superpower.

Confronted, but ultimately lost heavily. The agony, though, was all England's.

Across the shires - and assorted holiday destinations - Roy Hodgson and his not-so-merry men were writhing on the hook all over again as France sped to a 4-0 half-time lead, with goals by Olivier Giroud, Paul Pogba, Dimitri Payet and Antoine Griezmann.

Iceland deserved every inch of their win in Nice, but equally France showed the disparity that ought to exist when two financially and geographically mismatched nations come together.

Suffice it to say that France blasted their way to a semi-final against Germany in Marseille on Thursday and sent Iceland spinning back to their Nordic homeland, with pride hurt but dignity absolutely still intact.

Kolbeinn Sigthorsson - or "the big lad" as Steve McClaren infamously referred to him on Sky, interrupted the flow of French goals with one for Iceland in the 56thminute, but it only prompted a vengeful response from France, who added a fifth through Giroud before Birkir Bjarnason scored Iceland's second.

"Little Old Iceland," as Kari Arnason called them, with tongue firmly in cheek, had reaped havoc on English football and planned on doing the same to the hosts in their own national stadium.

With the lowest population density in Europe - three inhabitants per square kilometre - Iceland marched into the teeming City of Light and assailed French ears with their booming Viking chant.

Arnason, who was taken off at half-time, said this week: "Everyone thinks it's just little old Iceland and we're winning games through the group mentality and togetherness.

"But people need to realise as well that most of the players on this team are very underrated and could play in much better leagues than they are at the moment.

"We're here to show everyone how good we are, not just as a team but as individuals."

The substitute Alfred Finnbogason told us in a video about his country: "If you don't know somebody, you know somebody who knows him, or you know somebody who knows somebody who knows him. That's the story in Iceland."

That story warms us still, even if it ended brutally, France stepping up their level at just the right time, and perhaps sending a jolt through Germany.

Les Bleus scored from a ball over the top, a corner, a solo effort on the edge of the box and then a carpet ball between two Icelandic defenders, with a subtle finish from Griezmann. Giroud's second was another header.

If 99 per cent of Icelandic TV sets were tuned to this game, as they were for the 2-1 win over England, a lot of screens might have been pelted when France's fourth went in before the break.

Except that Iceland must have known they would catch a top team on a good night at some point.

An image in their training camp was of a small dog chasing a rhino. The rhino turned in Paris and trampled the dog.

Iceland's lovely second anthem (their first one is even better) is apposite.

It is called I've Come Home (Journey's End), and contains the line: "When fields turn green and winter leaves, and sunshine warms the land, I come home to be with you, please take my loving hand."

Their homecoming will surely be loving, because the Icelandic system of coaching and facilities has put the country on course to be tournament regulars.

They have crossed the bridge from qualifying also-rans to the last eight of a European Championship, passing wretched England along the way, and can exploit that wonderful achievement for decades to come.

France's sensible policy was to keep up the pressure after their opening goal, to be decisive and direct and not let Iceland hustle the ball back.

Didier Deschamps's team moved the ball crisply and varied their angle of attack. At no point did they appear nervous of fearful or any of the things England appeared to be in Nice.

They performed at a level too high for Iceland and now take an extra surge of confidence to Marseille.

There was the sense of watching a proper team reaching for peak form. And while France were pulling Iceland apart Germany were recovering from a much more gruelling game against Italy in Bordeaux.

Iceland's departure, meanwhile, must have made Wales even prouder to be mixing with Portugal, France and Germany in the last four.

The Vikings, Finnbogason claimed, gave Iceland that name because they loved it so much and wanted to disguise its beauty to possible invaders. A likely tale. Either way we all feel we know it a bit better now.

"We are disappointed but incredibly proud. It's been an amazing experience. We will learn from this. We are just starting," said Iceland captain Aron Gunnarsson after their defeat to the hosts.

Iceland's second anthem also says: "When my journey ends, I'll come to you, seek shelter in your arms. I am coming home, Yes, I am finally home."

They are. And we miss them already.

(© Daily Telegraph, London)

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