Takk fyrir Island. Thank you Iceland.
Thank you for Gudmundur Benediktsson’s epic falsetto commentary, for bringing one-tenth of the population to France to take part in this odyssey, for making Cristiano Ronaldo uppity and reminding the rest of us of the essential valour of the little guy’s right to his aspirations, for competing so fearlessly to defeat England, for blowing our minds. Thank you for your co-manager’s other job in dentistry, your class and determination in searching for a first win at a major finals, your exemplary coaching system, your comradeship within the team, your inspired hothousing of young talent in a weather-beaten place. Thank you for showing us imaginative ways of doing things can bring extraordinary achievements.
The summoning of trolls, smiting and human/monster hybrids have been fun but extraneous as these weeks in France have turned out to be a saga worthy of any tales of old. Iceland’s players, coaches and supporters have etched a modern sporting myth. Iceland did not even play a game on grass until the 1950s. Before that football took place on gravel formed of crushed lava. Until the 1990s it was an amateur game. Like all the best surprises, all this will not be forgotten.
“It is a huge happiness,” said Lars Lagerback. “There are not many occasions you have these feelings.” They do not want it to end and are itching to prepare for France, up next. “It is an even bigger game,” said Lagerback. “We will see if we will improve a bit when we come to Paris.”
The idea of this team, this adventure, growing coursed through their performance. Although they did not get off to an auspicious start conceding an early penalty, one of Iceland’s notable qualities during this tournament has been an unshakable spirit. An exemplary sense of team pushed them onwards and into football’s history books.
The riposte to England’s early goal was speedy and sharp as Ragnar Sigurdsson belted in from a well-rehearsed throw-in routine. It was telling that after Iceland were pegged back in the one group game that left them disappointed – when they conceded a late equaliser to Hungary – their coaches stressed how they felt there was more possession, more quality, more control in their ranks. It was just a case of coaxing it out to add to their muscular efforts.
So it proved as they took the lead. A slick one-touch passing move was finished by Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, who cared little for Joe Hart’s semi-contribution as his poke crept over the line. The co-coaches, the wily Lagerback and the charming Heimir Hallgrimsson, clasped hands and laughed at the beautiful madness of it.
Iceland’s capacity to tussle toe-to-toe with England was captivating. Their blend of confidence and concentration, to track and block one moment, to drive forward gamely the next, seemed to drain their opponents of any sense of purpose. England looked confused by it all. Iceland were cohesive; they all understood the plan. An opportunity was there to be seized and they chased it voraciously.
Some English commentators had been backhandedly dismissive of Iceland. Alan Shearer suggested defeat would be the biggest embarrassment of England’s football’s history, Danny Mills that a defeat would prove England did not deserve to be here. For the establishment it was as if a blow struck by tiny Iceland would be extra unacceptable. It is a sentiment that pays no heed to the clever management of a relatively small group of people with a significant and enterprising sporting plan. Size isn’t everything.
The argument that this expanded European Championship with 24 teams would be inherently weird has been diluted by the moments of success earned by so many of the less fashionable nations. Iceland, the smallest of those, have made it the furthest.
The Iceland supporters encouraged relentlessly, raucously and with a sense of sharing in the collective with their players. What summed it up was that a couple who happened to be in Nice for a conference at the same time as their team were able to get hold of tickets for the grandest footballing event they could dream of. How come? They knew one of the players. “Iceland is a small place,” they said, smiling. Small place. Gigantic ideas. Enormous commitment.
Hallgrimsson says they always believe. “That’s a good way to put it,” he said in the afterglow. “If you want the best out of life you have to be ready when the opportunity comes. That is a fact. These boys were ready. This opportunity put in our hands was huge. It can change their lives. This is a day we can talk about for the rest of our lives. We are optimistic – some say Icelanders are too optimistic, we don’t think we can fail. But we have a game plan we think we can use.”
The scenes of wild jubilation at the end were something to behold. So thank you, Iceland, for reminding people never to take anything for granted.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010