Man mountains at the foot of the French Alps, otherwise known as security staff at Iceland’s training camp in beautiful Annecy, joined the applause for England’s last-16 opponents as they disembarked from their team bus on Thursday.
Adrenalin pumping from an unforgettable night before in Paris, players exchanged high-fives with staff and hugs with the members of the media – around 15 – who have covered Iceland’s path from European Championship outsiders to debut sensations.
“It’s an absolutely perfect place,” the co-coach, Lars Lagerback, said. “The best camp I’ve had in all the finals I’ve been to.” Iceland envisage another round of applause next Tuesday.
There was goodwill, humour and no shortage of hard work around Iceland’s training base following the last-gasp win against Austria. Players were told to apply suncream before warming down in glorious, unsuitable weather, while those who did not start at the Stade de France played a competitive six-a-side match. The session finished with a few penalties. Well, it is England on Monday.
“I wouldn’t want to be Roy Hodgson if he lost to Iceland,” said Heimir Hallgrimsson, the coach responsible for his country’s remarkable progress alongside the Swedish veteran Lagerback. “I don’t think we would fall behind with the people of Iceland if we lost the game but we are not thinking of that, we are only thinking of going for the win.”
England may be delighted to have landed Iceland in the last 16 rather than their tournament nemesis Portugal but the feeling is mutual. Hungary’s prize for winning Group F was Belgium, Portugal’s price for finishing third Croatia, but Hallgrimsson is either too polite or too savvy to admit that England represent the best available option. “I don’t think there is a best option for Iceland,” he insists. “We knew we would end up playing a good football nation if we qualified from the group so we were prepared for everything.”
Iceland’s pleasure at the draw, he explains, stems from confronting the country that shaped their own football development at a major finals for the first time. Hallgrimsson’s obsession with English football can be traced back to an unlikely source: Sammy Lee.
He elaborates: “There is going to be a huge interest in the game and the reason is we have watched English football since the birth of TV in Iceland. We would watch the games from England one week later when I was growing up. I don’t think we need to analyse the English players. I think we know probably everything about them.
“I am a Liverpool supporter so those days were quite good. My favourite player was Sammy Lee. I liked Sammy Lee best probably because of the qualities we like in Iceland – he was hard-working, honest and a good player with a good spirit. Maybe being blond had something to do with it as well. As a kid I could identify with that guy.”
When Hallgrimsson watched Liverpool conquer Europe as a child of the 1970s Lagerback started a coaching career that would include taking Sweden to five consecutive tournaments and a friendship with an Englishman who was to have a profound influence, Roy Hodgson. “He meant a lot to me when I started as a coach,” says the 67-year-old, who never lost against England in six games with Sweden.
“I met Bob Houghton in 1974 and then Roy came in ’76 [to Halmstad]. Bob and Roy came in with the training methods that were different. They worked much more on organising a team than we did in Sweden in the 70s. Also, the pre-season in Sweden was a lot of physical work and they stayed on the pitch almost all of the time. They came with new thoughts for Swedish football. I look upon Roy as a good friend. I hope he does the same. But we haven’t met that often in the last five years. We bump into each other now and then and have talked now and then.”
Lagerback intends to retire once Iceland’s involvement at Euro 2016 is over. Hallgrimsson, who combines coaching the national team with running a dental practice on the island of Heimaey, will take sole control. Hodgson can therefore send into retirement a coach he inspired 40 years ago but, should Iceland conjure another shock on Monday, the roles could be reversed when the two friends meet in Nice. Lagerback is not exactly sentimental about the possibility.
“That’s reality in football today,” he states, matter-of-factly. “If you lose and you’re not playing well enough there’s always a risk you’ll get the sack, especially if there are high expectations. There’s less risk for us to get the sack if we lose against England than vice versa. Everything is connected to expectations,” says Lagerback. “In England you always have big expectations for the national team. Maybe sometimes too high. You have one of the better teams so fans should expect you to do well. And I think England are doing well.
“If you look at Roy’s CV he’s one of the better coaches you can see in world football for the last 30 or 40 years. So I don’t know if he’s not appreciated in England. He’s a really good coach and he’s handled well the teams I’ve seen him working with. You won’t win every year. No coaches do, not even Sir Alex [Ferguson]. It’s difficult to do that.”
Iceland, with a population of 330,000, were backed by a total of almost 30,000 fans at their three group matches. The Hungary game attracted a television audience share of 98.9%. What the other 1.1% were watching is anyone’s guess. The buildup to the country’s presidential election on Saturday has been overshadowed by the exploits of their international footballers, whose votes were collected at the team hotel on Thursday by officials from the Embassy of Iceland. And Guomundur Benediktsson, the man behind that television commentary of Arnor Ingvi Traustason’s winner against Austria, is now the subject of interview requests from across the globe.
“This is what we expected,” Hallgrimsson claims. “We said from the very beginning that our aim was to qualify from the group. The good thing is that we haven’t shown the best of what we can do yet. Hopefully the best is still to come. I don’t think the other teams in the group underestimated us. We played to our strengths and if you don’t concede a goal, or concede only one, then you always have a chance. We are still the only nation in the world who hasn’t lost a game at a European Championship finals.”
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