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Bristol City’s Hordur Magnusson: ‘The Iceland mentality is quite different’

Hordur Magnusson (R) of Iceland celebrates scoring the opening goal with Aron Sigurdarson of Iceland during the International Friendly match between Republic of Ireland and Iceland at...

Hordur Magnusson is speaking about an unforgettable 18 months playing for Iceland when he is reminded that Roy Hodgson will be on the touchline when Crystal Palace travel to Bristol City in the last 16 of the Carabao Cup on Tuesday evening.

The mere mention of Hodgson gets the juices flowing as Magnusson relives the tale of Euro 2016, when he was part of the thunderclapping Iceland squad that eliminated England from the tournament in Nice. “I think I will get a flashback when I see him tomorrow,” Magnusson says.

He is compelling company and makes a point of insisting there is no rush to get this interview, inside an immaculate Ashton Gate, over and done with. As a result the conversation moves from leaving his hometown Reykjavik as a teenager to tackling Alessandro Del Piero, from free-kick practice with Andrea Pirlo while at Juventus to a spot of sightseeing across the West Country, and even takes in his cavapoo dog, Tango, who loves his ball so much he sleeps with it in his mouth.

There is, though, only one place to start with Magnusson. The 24-year-old talks eloquently about Iceland’s remarkable rise – with the best chapter perhaps still to come in Russia after they became the smallest nation to qualify for a World Cup. He remembers the 9,000-strong Viking Clap after beating Kosovo on home turf this month. A centre-back for club and a left-back for country, Magnusson has been at the heart of an extraordinary qualifying campaign after being on the periphery in France last year.

“I saw from the bench when they got the penalty that Rooney scored,” he recalls. “I thought: ‘OK, this is going to be difficult for us to turn around.’ But the Iceland mentality is quite different from the others. We knew the English team would be under loads of pressure from the journalists and from the country if they did not beat Iceland. We could see that in the players. They were scared. To see [the reaction] coming out of England was crazy, and with Brexit just a few days before, it was really bad for the country.

“I am so sorry about that,” he says with a smile. As for next year, Magnusson’s face lights up. “I am thinking every day about next summer, that Iceland are going to the World Cup,” he says. “It is just more than a dream.” In terms of whom he wants to face in the group stages Magnusson is eagerly awaiting December’s draw in Moscow. He has hopes of being matched with the heavyweights. “I got a message from [Paulo] Dybala when Argentina went through and Isent the same to him, saying: ‘Looking forward to seeing you in Russia’ – hopefully we will be in the same group,” he says of his former Juventus team-mate.

Magnusson lived alone for three years in Turin and learned Italian from scratch. He describes the initial shock of leaving behind a country with a population of 335,000 for a city with around three times as many people. In Iceland he recalls going to the training ground an hour before training to take the snow off the pitch. “Everything has changed now,” he says. “We have an indoor hall to play in; 2017 is a new generation for everyone in Iceland.” Five years on the books at Juventus provided a learning curve – including loans to Spezia and Cesena – and it was there he was moulded into a defender.

“It was quite a shock moving from Reykjavik to Turin,” he says. “I arrived there as a midfielder that played behind the striker but Juventus saw my qualities at the back. I got Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli to help me improve my style of football.

“To learn about being a defender from top-class strikers like Alessandro Del Piero was really, really good – he was just out of this world. He was not a guy who ran everywhere, he was the guy who wanted the ball and you couldn’t take it off him. Then came Carlos Tevez, Fernando Llorente, Vincenzo Iaquinta, Luca Toni – all of the big legends. It helped me to learn quicker, how to defend against good guys. Then Antonio Conte came and he changed the formation when he put three at the back. He was that one who changed and now everyone is doing it. It was nice to be a part of that and to grow up in his first year there. They are good memories.”

It was at Juventus where Magnusson would practise perfecting his free-kicks with Pirlo and Paul Pogba. He scored with a superb curling effort against the Republic of Ireland in March. But for Magnusson the most surreal story was coming full circle with Gianluigi Buffon, an idol turned team-mate. “When I was younger I was a ballboy in a game when Italy came to Iceland,” he says. “I remember we won that game 2-1. I threw the ball to Buffon and I had a photo with him as well. It was then quite strange to meet him, train with him and be with him a few years later.”

A popular personality and player at Bristol City, Magnusson’s immediate focus is on his club football. He admits he knew little about the Championship side before signing last year. “I was like, ‘OK’, and went straight on to Google to check how they did the season before,” he says, grinning. Since then he has established himself as a reliable member of Lee Johnson’s squad and accustomed himself to the city. “I did the SS Great Britain three days ago and it was quite interesting,” he says. “When I live in that country, I do not like to be a tourist, I will do that when my family comes over. I still need to know some things.”

The next step for Magnusson will be attempting to get the better of Palace, led by Hodgson, whose first managerial post in England was at Ashton Gate in 1982. City, who have lost only twice this season, have beaten two Premier League sides en route to the last 16 and Magnusson fancies their chances. “If we can beat Stoke, Watford … obviously we can beat Crystal Palace,” he says. “It depends how they come into the game. If they come like England came against Iceland, then we can just roll over them … no, it’s going to be a really good and tough game.”

Away from football, Tango the dog keeps him occupied. “He loves his ball and he sleeps with the ball in his mouth,” he says. “I need to go to the garden and throw the ball like 100 times to get him tired.”

Magnusson likes video games, too, but is not too fond of his appearance on Pro Evolution Soccer, describing himself as looking like a “Nordic Liam Neeson”. “Hopefully next year they can put my real face in. If we win the World Cup I could be the cover star – you never know,” he says, breaking into laughter.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Ben Fisher, for The Guardian on Tuesday 24th October 2017 08.00 Europe/London

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