Increasing the European Championship to 24 teams seemed like a typically ham-fisted attempt by a governing body to meddle with football for meddling’s sake. The extended competition inspired typical disdain from football purists, with its cumbersome mathematical formula and its abundance of small fry who could hardly be expected to aspire to much.
It is at this point that Cristiano Ronaldo entered the conversation. After Portugal drew their opening fixture against Iceland, opprobrium poured out of the modern game’s iconic superhero in the form of a piqued hissy fit. “I thought they’d won the Euros the way they celebrated at the end,” he tutted. “It was unbelievable. When they don’t try to play and just defend, defend, defend, this in my opinion shows a small mentality and they are not going to do anything in this competition.” Ronaldo may be a man of many gifts, but for various reasons this turned out not to be his finest piece of rhetoric.
Iceland actually supplied the most memorable storyline of the tournament, and a sporting miracle for any age. The magazine Reykjavik Grapevine put it best, in its own inimitable style. “And now we smite them into tiny pieces of dust and destroy their goal with a ball set on fire by our volcanic thunder,” it wrote at the start of the adventure. Only a mild exaggeration.
Iceland might have been the smallest nation to ever appear at a major finals, and perhaps the most improbable given a landscape inhospitable for football, but mentality-wise they demonstrated something vast. That sentiment was not just for the magical month they spent in France last summer, either. It was in the bigger picture, too, a dedicated programme years in the making to provide youngsters with ample inviting spaces to play football, protected by the elements by high, bubble-structures, and with coaches educated to a high standard. The rewards in France captivated their nation, and around one tenth of the population travelled to the Euro to see it with their own eyes.
The back story, the years of progressing the game in a country that did not even play a single game on grass until the 1950s, gave real depth to Iceland’s Euro odyssey. It explains why the commentator Gudmundur Benediktsson went berserk and lost his voice and momentarily his mind as he gave a memorably high-pitched soundtrack to Iceland’s stoppage time winner over Austria, which ensured they qualified to the knockout stage unbeaten. Then came England.
Iceland v England in the last 16 could not have had a more thrilling ring to it for the underdogs. They described it as a little brother-big brother kind of tussle, such has been the traditional affection for English football in Iceland.
England had everything to lose on a warm evening in Nice, and both teams knew it. Iceland conceded an early penalty, calmly converted, and for a while things developed more or less as expected.
But Iceland’s indomitable spirit had been one of their hallmarks, and Ragnar Sigurdsson cracked in an equaliser from a well rehearsed long-throw routine to change the mood. England’s growing anxiety flipped into meltdown as Kolbeinn Sigthorsson finished off a sweet passing move. Not one for the best of Joe Hart compilation, but Iceland cared little for that. On the touchline their co-managers, the wise old man of Scandinavian football, Lars Lagerback, and the smart, ambitious, part-time dentist Heimir Hallgrimsson embraced and laughed at the craziness of it all.
Come the final whistle, it was the sound cascading around the stadium that sticks in the mind. Mixed in with the disgusted growl of England fans booing and jeering and effing and jeffing was this magical white noise of euphoria. The sound of it was extraordinary – a commotion of joyous disbelief mixed with raucous pride. It was the sound of a small nation spreading its wings.
Apart from that sound there are a couple of images that stand out. As Iceland’s players bounded off to the corner of the stadium where the bulk of their fans were situated, they did not actually run. They were leaping. They looked like jumping beans. The other thing is one of the players grabs the corner flag and as if to summon some epic Thor-like powers, and hurls it into the crowd. Then came the momentary hush before the “huh” celebration, the communal handclap that would send shivers down the spine.
Later, when they tried to take it all in and take on board they were off to Paris to meet France in the quarter-finals, there was a sense that although the adventure continued everybody felt that they had already been a part of something historic, deserving of wonderment. Lagerback, not usually a man for excessive talk, described the win over England as a huge happiness. “There are not many occasions you have these feelings,” he said.
Hallgrimsson enthused about the character of the players. “If you have been around this team you see it’s fantastic how everybody has a part to play, everybody is friends, everybody is willing to work with each other. That’s a mentality you need for a small country to achieve things. You can’t do it with individuals. We are a family. There have been a lot of jokes about how small we are, how you can pick the team from shepherds. It has been strange to read it and that is why it is kind of satisfying. It’s just maybe funny because we are so few. But when it comes to football it is 11 against 11.”
As luck would have it, the 24-team Euro 2016 playing field turned out to be impressively level. All of the five debutants joining the party left with something to cherish far beyond merely being able to marvel at the sight of their flag on this stage as they listened to that David Guetta soundtrack five billion times. As well as Iceland’s writing of a new modern football legend, Wales produced some stellar performances to reach the semi-finals, with that momentous triumph over Belgium rivalling Iceland’s win over England as a tournament highlight.
Northern Ireland and Slovakia qualified for the knockouts, and Albania relished a first finals win and ended the group phase with the same number of points as the eventual winner Portugal.
Iceland’s Euro eventually came to an end against France but the memories are eternal. Over to Benediktsson, and his stream of consciousness ode to the final whistle of Iceland 2-1 England: “We’re never going home! Just look at this! Such things have never been seen! I can’t believe my own eyes! This is … Never wake me up! Never wake me up from this insane dream!”
And if you can’t love something like that, maybe sport at its most unpredictable, emotionally charged essence is not for you.