Iceland cast their Euro 2016 spell with grand deeds and small egos

The remarkable success enjoyed by the smallest nation at Euro 2016 is a result of the collaboration of minds, ideals and experiences

Not that the evening could have been more perfect, but there was a moment as Iceland’s chief football plotters Heimir Hallgrimsson and Lars Lagerback tried to explain the spell that is being cast by their football that summed up the fantastic collaboration of minds, ideals and experiences at the heart of it all.

“Now the players have gone through this hurdle, every obstacle in their way is going to look smaller,” mused Hallgrimsson of their hearty England knockout. “That changes their mentality and does a big thing to players.” As the audience nodded, taking in these sage words, Lagerback turned to his co-coach and flashed the smile of a man who has seen it all before: “As long as they keep their feet on the ground.”

The lovely thing about that was the fact that a few minutes earlier, at the final whistle, grounded feet were impossible. The instinctive reaction of Iceland’s players was to leap. They bounded. They flew off the turf in every direction, like popping champagne corks, or bouncy balls.

The morning after, of course Lagerback’s instructions would be followed. A glass ceiling has been smite. But you get the feeling Iceland now want to acclimatise quickly before their next push.

The rewards being reaped by programming an entirely new approach to football in their country, based on an infrastructure designed around high‑calibre coaching and a willingness to encourage children to learn well, is a massive part of the story. But so, too, is the atmosphere in the camp which manages to fuse a lot of considered work on the team’s mentality with genuine friendship.

According to Gylfi Sigurdsson, who has played with style and substance during this tournament, the camaraderie feels fundamental to everything they are experiencing in France. “Most of the guys have been playing together for 10 years now, since we were 16 or 17. The spirit in the group is incredible, we are all great friends, and that’s why when someone makes a mistake there is always someone ready to support him and help him out. That’s the main quality of the team.”

Hallgrimsson emphasised how critical the psychological approach has been and continues to be. “It is a huge part of everything you do at this level,” he says. “If you are mentally prepared like these guys, what good characters they are, and 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.” Has that felt patronising? “I don’t know. It’s just maybe funny because we are so few. But when it comes to football it is 11 against 11.”

That sentiment – and a conviction that their collective is stronger than the sum of their parts – was a big part of their preparation against England and will be again as they plot how to upset France in Paris in the quarter-final on Sunday. Hallgrimsson said: “I don’t know if England underestimated us. I don’t think anyone will underestimate you when you get to final 16 or final eight. There is too much at stake.

“Of course it should be easier for players with higher individual qualities to win games, it is statistically so. The individuals within the France team are guys who can win football games on their own. Even France can play a lousy game but they have two, three, four players who can win the game. That’s fantastic to have.

“From what I have seen they are also playing as a unit so that combined is difficult to beat. But there is always some chance for a country like Iceland. Let’s stick to that.”

Sigurdsson summed up the wonderment of the players in that in some ways he is still trying to get his head around what is happening to them. “I always dreamed of making the European finals or World Cup finals but going through the group stages, beating England, and going on to play France in Paris at the Stade de France is something you would never dream of. It’s great to be part of it,” he says.

Beyond the immediacy of this adventure, however, Hallgrimsson hopes that there will be a domino effect to lift the future sporting dreamers from Iceland. “It should benefit not only kids in football but kids in sport in general that you can achieve anything if you believe in it and you work hard. That’s vital.”

Back in the vast indoor football halls they have built, the next generation could hardly be more inspired.

Lagerback faced the question that surely he would want to carry on overseeing this extraordinary evolution but the 67-year-old Swede is ready to hand over to Hallgrimsson full-time whenever and wherever the summer madness ends. “I am looking forward to sitting in the stand in Reykjavik and swearing if they don’t do well,” he quipped, before the coaching duo went off to ponder preparations for the quarter-final.


Amy Lawrence

The GuardianTramp

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