Iceland’s beautiful journey finally comes to an end at Euro 2016

Iceland players after the game

Bless, Island! Goodbye and thanks. You’ll always have Nice, Marseille and Saint-Etienne. You’ll always have Roy Hodgson’s boat trip and angry Ronaldo. Even in vertiginous quarter-final defeat it has been a brilliant ride from start almost to finish.

Iceland found themselves this time on the wrong end of a high-class mugging from Didier Deschamps’ powerful, slick-passing team at the Stade de France. In the first half they were simply swept away, stumbling finally over the basic parallax error of their presence at this late stage as France scored four merciless goals without reply.

There was still time for one lovely moment, a memento for an improbable day and an improbable run. Ten minutes into a soft-pedalled second half the Icelandic fans began singing Eg Er Kominn Heim, a gentle, haunting Hungarian song lifted from a 1970s film and adopted as a travelling anthem.

As they crooned away the rest of the stadium fell silent, just listening. It might have ended with a round of applause but, brilliantly, Iceland scored just as the song finished, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson poking in from close range and adding the perfect final note to a flush of warmth in a chilly tournament wake.

It did not last. Within five minutes Olivier Giroud had made it 5-1. Not that anyone enchanted by Iceland’s story, their coolness and grace in France, will dwell overly on this thumping defeat. At some point the gulf in playing pedigree was going to make itself felt. It happened early on here as Iceland were suddenly gasping in the thin quarter-final air, before finding themselves expertly cut apart.

There had been a mist of slight delirium in the air before kick-off on a sodden night in Saint-Denis. The Icelanders hugged and swayed during their choral anthem, the kind of tune one can imagine emanating in the wee hours from some desolate Nordic drinking den. Most best guesses suggest 10 per cent of the population is in Paris. It looked more. Still, though, the players seemed a little lonely even with that vast support, strung out in their square Lagerback-lines, all in white for the occasion.

What a game it was for them, against the hosts in front of a fevered crowd, the biggest of most of their careers. Would they halt, stutter, freeze? They started well enough as the French midfield pressed hard, all craft and fizz and striding elegance. Iceland hung on. For all of 14 minutes there was near parity, right up until the moment Giroud scored the first, haring away to beat the offside trap as Patrice Evra floated a pass over the top under little pressure.

Suddenly it looked a long game ahead as Iceland lost their basic disciplines at exactly the wrong moment. This tournament may lack really outstanding teams but it has a very good evolving one in this collection of emerging Bleus and old hands.

Before long it was 2-0, Paul Pogba soaring to head in thrillingly from a corner.

The stadium bounced and roared as a potentially tricky game was suddenly done, the only question left how painful it might become. Dimitri Payet, who is just a wonderful footballer against any opponent, planted the third in the far corner. Antoine Griezmann made it four on half-time. It was a lovely dinked finish but a horrible goal for Iceland, who simply fell apart down the middle, one long forward pass dummied by Giroud slicing them open like a cod spilling its guts on the Old Harbour wall.

After which the rest of this match was a duty to be despatched, a Viking funeral for Iceland’s debut tournament, right from the opening 3-0 defeat of Turkey in front of 8,811 in Reykjavik months ago to the big-stage grandeur of the Stade de France. They fought well and scored another through Birkir Bjarnason. But for much of the night this team looked, finally, like the product of a nation of 330,000 who had a big idea and decided to shoot for the moon.

There will be a temptation now for some to make this defeat all about England, this despite the fact England went home last week, sent floating off down the tournament stream, already a bloated and yellowing cadaver.

And yet people will try to make it about England. How could we? How did we? We should have. We could have. Making things all about yourself. The egomaniacal solipsism of the England delusion. This is a part of the problem.

So let’s not do that. Or, if we really must, the only real question worth asking is by what score, on this form, France would have beaten them. Worse than 5-2? The same? A bit better? And beyond that how England can improve.

Learning from Iceland might not be a bad idea. Just imagine what English football could do, from vibrantly decaying grass roots to vibrantly wasteful top tier, with a little of what this brilliant project has managed here.

There was another nice moment at the end as Iceland’s players and coaches wandered over to applaud and commune with their fans. For all the collective pride the players looked professionally crushed by such a heavy defeat. It will pass. Iceland will take with them beautiful memories, hopes of more to follow and, above all, plenty of friends. The final reward here was a front-row seat to watch France’s own gathering, champion-flavoured tournament momentum. Germany are a more controlled, intricate presence. But that powerful French midfield will take some stopping from here.

Powered by article was written by Barney Ronay at the Stade de France, for The Guardian on Sunday 3rd July 2016 23.53 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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