Iceland: overachievers not underdogs, and they want England scalp

A first tournament reached, a first win achieved – but the unlikely qualifiers are not ready to rest on their laurels or go home from Euro 2016 just yet

Whenever Iceland can tear themselves away from the spectacular view over Lake Annecy from their hotel, Les Trésoms, there is a convenient photograph to train their minds on the job in hand. On the wall in their team meeting room is an image – easily locatable with a simple internet search – of a chihuahua giving chase to a rhino; the little dog’s ultimate fate is unknown but Iceland have become used to downing weightier prey and confidence that they can keep pace with England on Monday is palpable.

Iceland’s players do not want for motivational cues. Next to that picture is a quote from Einstein – “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” – and the fact that they are based here, in a bewitchingly pretty Alpine resort, owes much to carrots being dangled too. Midway through their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign and with their progress still uncertain, their co-managers Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson offered them a selection of French training bases to choose from. “Just look at what you could win if we get over the line, lads” was the implication, and Annecy was the squad’s overwhelming choice.

There can be no more idyllic mission control among the qualifiers and it is heartening, on this particular occasion, to see a democratic process yield a palatable result. The pitch on which Iceland train, favoured in the past by Monaco and Nantes for summer getaways, sits beneath Mont Veyrier and is cocooned a few hundred metres from pristine lakeside beaches and disrobed holidaymakers. Most have been more preoccupied by a dip in the waters than the presence of this summer’s football feelgood tale; it feels a million miles away from a major tournament and Iceland, with characteristic lucidity, can hammer home their message unhindered.

“We had a team meeting and Eidur Gudjohnsen stepped in to say a few words about not being satisfied,” said Lagerback. “He challenged them to take the next steps now. We are not satisfied with the way we have performed, especially in the attacking part. What we do on the training pitch is most important now because we are not satisfied with what we have done.”

That may cause heads to shake but Iceland believe they are following a carefully laid-out project to its logical conclusion. “I always want really clear guidelines on how things should work both on and off the pitch,” said Lagerback, who will leave Hallgrimsson in sole control after – and if – Iceland have been eliminated. “It’s a negative word, but it’s been a bit of a positive brainwash down the years, so [the players] are probably happy that I’m disappearing after the Euros.”

There is, of course, no truth in that. The players’ immersion in Lagerback’s methods has been total and there has been no finer example of their application than the moment when, after they had withstood waves of desperate late Austrian attacks on Wednesday, substitutes Theodor Elmar Bjarnason and Arnor Ingvi Traustason broke upfield to contrive perhaps the most famous goal in Icelandic history.

Both players were brought out to face the media with Lagerback on Friday and there was a typical instance of self-deprecation when the affable Bjarnason offered to swap shirts with Wayne Rooney “if he asks me”. Iceland would describe themselves as overachievers rather than underdogs, though, and there is a genuine belief that the plan being concocted 20 miles from the Swiss border will be enough to bring the most famous of their rhino killings yet.

“[England] have got great players but we’ve beaten big nations before and if we focus on ourselves and do what we are good at then we stand a good chance,” said Bjarnason.

If Thursday had largely been a day of winding down after the giddy scenes at the Stade de France, Friday was one of serious preparation and of heeding Gudjohnsen’s words. The reaction to their success back home filters through to the squad via the scattering of players’ families who have visited Annecy, and nobody with an access to an iPhone can avoid a cross-section of the clamour, but there is no distraction otherwise and the town is hardly teeming with supporters – or neutrals – straining at the gates of the training centre.

Icelandic commentator goes wild when Iceland score last-minute goal.

“We follow on social media, you can’t avoid it,” Bjarnason said. “We try to focus on ourselves and try not to get carried away with the people at home. We started yesterday to prepare ourselves for England, not lose ourselves in the celebrations. We’re still hungry, still want a good result against England and we’re going to go 100% for the victory.”

Lagerback was asked, predictably, whether his team would bring about another form of Brexit on Monday. “It’s a good way to put it,” he said. “Of course we have a chance; how big, we can discuss for a long time. These guys have shown they can work for a good result and I hope we can put some questions to the English team.”

If they make the improvements they expect, that aim should be realised comfortably. Then, perhaps, Iceland will finally be able to answer a burning question for the rest of us: does the chihuahua ever catch the rhino?


Nick Ames in Annecy

The GuardianTramp

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