Wednesday 21 February 2018

Arnason insists belief is built into Iceland side

Arnason: ‘We’re here to show how good we are.’ Photo: Nick Potts/PA
Arnason: ‘We’re here to show how good we are.’ Photo: Nick Potts/PA

Nick James

Once all this is finally over, Iceland's central defenders will pair off and make sense of what has happened in their own way. Last summer, Kari Arnason and Ragnar Sigurdsson went travelling in Thailand together; this year, they will settle for something closer to home and the plan is already in place.

"Ragi and I have already talked about it," Arnason says. "We'll go to a golf course in Iceland - just go straight there and try to play as much golf as we can."

It is a simple enough ambition, especially when set against the kaleidoscopic vision Iceland are realising this summer. The mini-golf green in the immaculate gardens of their team hotel, Les Tresoms, offers ample opportunity to develop their short game, but Arnason, sitting on the adjacent patio under a scorching sun, knows significant diversions can wait.

"It didn't surprise the team, but I think it's shocked the world," he says of Monday's win over England and, if that night seemed a logical crescendo to Iceland's summer, it is worth listening to what Arnason has to say about the prospect of the altogether more formidable hurdle presented by France. "We know we're the underdogs against these sides, but in our own minds we think we're the likeliest team to come out on top," he says. "Our mentality is to go into every match to win it and we've got a certain game plan to try and ensure that."

Self-doubt is conspicuous by its absence and, while the single-mindedness of Iceland's attitude has been subjected to intensive analysis, Arnason is at pains to point out that admiration from the angle of a victory for the collective can have a reductive effect.

"Everyone thinks it's just little old Iceland and we're winning games through the group mentality and togetherness," he says. "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 emergence of his golfing partner who, Arnason says, "has not put in a bad performance in the four or five years we've played together", in recent days is one example and there are a few points to prove. Arnason makes no bones about his own satisfaction in making one against England. Two years with Plymouth - he speaks the language with an unmistakable west country lilt - and three at Rotherham United were spent happily, but last summer he departed the latter for Malmo and he suggests that stigma around his age had made it impossible to continue his career in the Football League.

Did he feel a degree of vindication when the final whistle blew in Nice? "Yeah, definitely. I moved away from England because it felt that every club was saying, 'Well, he's 32 now, we need a younger centre-back'. It was so frustrating hearing those words and knowing you've got plenty left in the tank; they're so obsessed with youth and always trying to bring in young players without working with them, just hoping they improve on their own. I don't get that mentality. If you're not willing to put the work in, then you need the finished product."

Congratulations have been forthcoming from all of his former employers, who also include Aberdeen, and Arnason reels off a list of former teammates to have contacted him before, with a smile, mentioning that he received a message from Rotherham fan Howard Webb. England were, everyone knew, well beaten. Arnason puffs out his cheeks in admiration of Marcus Rashford's late cameo, but Iceland were, by his own admission, rarely extended before that and "it felt quite comfortable, without actually being comfortable, if you know what I mean".

Iceland's players could tell that England were running out of ideas; the runs of Danny Rose and Kyle Walker had been identified as the main threats, but once their space was minimised, there were few difficulties. If defeating England felt sweet, there is also room for reflection on Arnason's own place in the Iceland ecosystem. He won his first cap in 2005 after an unconventional start to his career that included a year playing for Adelphi University in New York State while studying for a masters in business studies, but was exiled before Lars Lagerback took over in 2011.

"I was out of the national team for four years," he says. "I didn't really get along with the previous coach, Olafur Johannesson; I wasn't happy about not being picked for a game, as I'd been a regular and then suddenly wasn't in the squad, and I probably said some things I shouldn't have. It was my fault as well. But Lars and Heimir (Hallgrimsson, the co-manager) gave me another chance and I've secured my place ever since."

The upwards trajectory has been constant and Arnason puts that down partly to an Icelandic aversion to being "full" or overly satisfied. He tells the story of how, after defeat by Croatia in a World Cup 2014 play-off that seemed an achievement in itself, one of his team-mates walked into the dressing room and announced: "Fuck it, we'll now just have to get to the Euros."

Job done - all subsequent ones done, too - and the intensity of Arnason's language when surveying Iceland's task at the Stade de France gives an insight into their motivation that borders on the genuinely startling.

"We're not piling the pressure on ourselves in the media by saying we're going to win," he says. "But we know there's a chance and, when we've made it this far, it would be absolutely dreadful if everyone doesn't play their heart out and put in a performance. Every one of us has played his part in this campaign and, if we let ourselves down now, we're going to regret it for the rest of our lives."

It needs a double-take, later on, to check Arnason's words came across correctly. Should Iceland's month of unqualified success come to a close today, one senses those golf balls will be in for some punishment.


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