On the 16th of June, Iceland’s heroes from the 2016 European Championships were welcomed into their first ever World Cup by the daunting prospect of Lionel Messi and his Argentinian teammates. The unlikely islanders were once again powered by the spine-tingling Viking Clap as they picked up from where they left off in their last international tournament by earning an unlikely draw against a frustrated Argentina side.
2016 was no fluke
To say that Iceland are overachieving would be a massive understatement – their population of just 337.7 thousand is faced by one of the most challenging environments on the planet and it was to nobody’s surprise when they were placed 131 in the FIFA world rankings six years ago.
Swedish manager (and dentist) Heimir Hallgrímsson should rightfully take all the plaudits. He has pioneered the organised, but aggressive approach that took Iceland to the quarter finals of Euro 2016 and has seen them climb to number 22 in the world rankings.
Iceland started the game against Argentina with seven of the starting eleven that beat England at the Euros two years ago. Back then the headlines surrounded the part-time occupations of some of the players and this has once again been a major talking point for the media. Nevertheless, many of the players have excelled in recent years and it may be time to start taking this team a bit more seriously.
Whilst three of the back five play in Iceland, they have proven themselves a formidable unit in defence. Six of the starting eleven are over thirty with the others not far behind and very few have achieved anything truly significant in their club careers. It is the team ethic and national passion that drives this unit rather than the individuals as clapping is encouraged and egos are “left at the door.”
The kind of togetherness and unity that is shown by this team serves as a great example for those nations who struggle to progress despite an abundance of talent (England’s present squad being a pertinent example).
Iceland team in detail
GK – Hannes Þór Halldórsson
Club: Randers FC
Halldórsson has continued to make the headlines for his occupation as a director. His name is not mentioned in an article (this one included) without reference to his directing of the Icelandic Eurovision entry in 2012 alongside a string of award winning advertisements and television shows.
After watching him excel in 2016 against Portugal and England, it became clear that Halldórsson was not just a novelty. After his performance against Argentina on Saturday – especially his penalty save against Lio Messi – it has become clear that he is in fact a top goalkeeper.
After working his way out of the shadows and to the top of the Icelandic Premier Division, it remains to be seen if anyone will take a gamble on this budding international superstar. However, at the age of 34 it seems more likely that Halldórsson will end his football career as an undiscovered talent with the stage set for his film-focused alter-ego to prevail.
RB – Birkir Már Sævarsson
Club: Valur Reykjavik
Saevarsson began his career in Iceland before moving to Norway and then the top tier of Sweden where he achieved two mid-table finishes with Hammarby.
He has since returned to his first club Valur to play with his younger brother and his performances for Iceland have remained consistent since thwarting both Ronaldo and Sterling in the 2016 Euros.
CB – Kári Árnason
Árnason has also just returned to Iceland to play for his first professional club but has had stints at Plymouth Argyle, Aberdeen, Rotherham United and Malmo FF where he won the title of captain.
The Plymouth Live website labelled Árnason’s performance as “heroic” in the aftermath of the Argentina game.
CB – Ragnar Sigurðsson
The domestic trend is finally broken as Sigurðsson plays for Rostov who placed eleventh in the Russian Premier League last time out. The centre back made his name with an equaliser against England two years ago and was subsequently linked with big money moves to the Premier League.
He was given a chance in the Championship by Fulham but by his own admission he did not take the opportunity and was soon loaned out to Rubin Kazan. Despite his struggles at club level, in a similar vain to the rest of the Icelandic team he has performed admirably at international level.
LB – Hörður Björgvin Magnússon
Club: Bristol City
Adding some much-needed youth to an aging back five, Magnússon may still have an extremely bright career ahead of him. With experience in both the Juventus youth and first team setups, the left back has found himself at resurgent Bristol City where he scored in his debut.
Having gained the experience of 2016 without actually playing any minutes, it is promising that he is now performing on the big stage as Iceland attempt to bring through a new generation of Vikings.
RW – Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson
A more familiar face, Guðmundsson joined Burnley after the success of 2016 and has shown off his thunderous left foot more than once. His combative consistency was a crucial element in the club’s drive for European competition last season.
A hat-trick against Switzerland in 2013 proved his capabilities on the international stage and he hasn’t looked back since. Guðmundsson limped off after 63 minutes on Saturday but Iceland supporters must hope that he will recover for the remaining group fixtures.
CM – Aron Einar Malmquist Gunnarsson
Club: Cardiff City FC
Gunnarsson is another who has improved considerably since 2016 and he has been rewarded by promotion to the Premier League and the prospect of a new contract at the Welsh club. Having only had Gylfi Sigurðsson as a household name two years ago and Eiður Guðjohnsen before him, Iceland will now have three first-team players battling it out in the Premier League.
CM – Emil Hallfreðsson
In the 2005-06 season Hallfreðsson had a successful season with the Tottenham Hotspur reserve team before being loaned out to Malmo FF. He returned to Tottenham but failed to make a breakthrough and was sold to Lyn in Norway.
He then moved to Reggina in Serie A where he scored a spectacular goal against Juventus in a 2-2 draw. He has since played for Barnsley in the Championship and Verona in Serie B but now plies his trade back in Serie A with Udinese.
LM – Birkir Bjarnason
Club: Aston Villa
Signing for Villa in 2017 after a successful spell in Basel, Birkir had a tough start and it looked as if he may be leaving in January earlier this year. However, he has turned life around thanks to an injury to Glenn Whelan which gave him an opportunity to shine in central midfield.
This new position is beneficial to the national team as Birkir will offer a degree of flexibility that will be sure to come in handy, especially if Iceland make it out of the group stage.
CAM – Gylfi Sigurðsson
No doubt Iceland’s most well-known player, Sigurðsson made his name at Swansea City during a loan spell from Hoffenheim before moving to Tottenham in 2012. He struggled for form in London and eventually moved back to Swansea on a permanent deal in 2014.
Sigurðsson remained in Wales for a successful three years and earned another big money move to Everton last year for a reported £40 million, a club-record transfer. Once again, he has struggled for form after departing Swansea where he has gone down in the history books as one of the clubs best ever players.
Everton fans will be watching eagerly to see if he can rediscover the electric form that everyone knows he is capable of against Croatia and Nigeria.
ST – Alfreð Finnbogason
Club: FC Augsburg
The scorer of Iceland’s equaliser on the weekend, Finnbogason became the first ever Iceland player to score in a world cup. After spending most of the 2016 Euros on the bench, the Augsburg striker has been given his chance and so far he has grasped it with both hands.
Finnbogason has earned a reputation as a prolific goal scorer in the Bundesliga, netting 12 and assisting 3 during Augsburg’s latest mid-table campaign.