Iceland’s World Cup squad defied the odds

Haldorsson. Arnason. Magnusson. Sigurdsson. Bjarnason. Gislason.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/06/2018 (1562 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Haldorsson. Arnason. Magnusson. Sigurdsson. Bjarnason. Gislason.

To the rest of the world, they were the unusual-sounding names behind the best story at the World Cup this month.

But to us here in Manitoba, they are our friends and neighbours, shopkeepers and politicians.

(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda) Iceland's Johann Gudmundsson reacts after missing a chance to score during the match between Iceland and Croatia, Tuesday.

With 30,025 residents of Icelandic extraction as of the 2011 census, Manitoba has more Icelanders than anywhere but Iceland. If we were a city, we’d be the third largest in Iceland, behind only Reykjavik and Kopavogur.

So you had to feel a little hometown pride these last few weeks as Iceland’s unlikely national soccer team did the unthinkable and not only qualified for the World Cup but almost advanced to the knockout stage, too.

That dream, sadly, came to an end Tuesday with a 2-1 loss to Croatia that eliminated Iceland from soccer’s biggest party.

But they didn’t go without a fight, registering a 1-1 tie early in the tournament against Argentina — who, with the world’s best player in Lionel Messi, were a pre-event favourite — and then putting a big scare on Tuesday into a Croatia juggernaut who outscored their opposition 7-1 in the group stage and just might be the new favourite to take down a World Cup that truly looks to be up for grabs right now.

For what it’s worth, Iceland has given Croatia its toughest test — by a mile — of this World Cup, outplaying them for most of the game and pressing into the 90th minute for the go-ahead goal that — in combination with a 2-1 Argentina win over Nigeria, also on Tuesday afternoon — would have advanced Iceland into the 16-team knockout stage.

A late Croatian goal as the game headed into stoppage time ultimately sealed Iceland’s fate, but it’s worth remembering that but for a second-half crossbar and some great saves by Croatian goalkeeper Lovre Kalinic, this Iceland fairy tale would still be playing out and getting more far-fetched by the minute.

(AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko) Iceland's Gylfi Sigurdsson, right, fights for the ball during the group D match between Iceland and Croatia, Tuesday.

But while the fairy tale is now over, the story of this Iceland team will now take its place alongside those interminable Viking Sagas as part of the legend that defines that frozen island in the middle of the North Atlantic as surely as it defines this frozen island in the middle of the Canadian prairie.

Manitoba’s Icelandic connections have always run deep. Manitoba MLA Len Isleifson, for instance, made headlines when he checked with an Icelandic genealogical research company and was told he was related to 22 of the 23 players on Iceland’s World Cup roster and the team’s coach.

It’d be a similar story for most Icelanders in Manitoba, many of whom can draw a straight line all the way back to Leif Eriksson and who retain deep family connections to an island of just 340,000 residents.

No country with a population under a million had ever before qualified for the World Cup and the fact the ones to finally do it came from a country that is covered in snow and ice most of the year — and jagged volcanic rock the rest of it — just made the Iceland story all the more charming.

How unlikely was the last couple weeks? Iceland qualified for a World Cup in which Italy did not.

We live in very strange times.

CP An Iceland looks from the stands at the end of the group D match between Iceland and Croatia, at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Rostov Arena in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, Tuesday, June 26, 2018. Croatia won 2-1. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

But while the Iceland story came across as quaint and quirky, the team itself was totally legit.

These guys were no fluke. In 2016, they qualified for UEFA European Championship and quickly proved they belonged, drawing with Portugal and its petulant star, Ronaldo, and then famously eliminating England in the knockout stage before finally bowing to France in the quarter-finals.

Ronaldo was not impressed. “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,” the Portuguese striker said, wrongly.

Lacking a star such as Messi or Ronaldo, Iceland were forced to play a rigidly disciplined team game that resembles a rope-a-dope strategy. Not unlike the Winnipeg Jets’ penalty kill this past season, Iceland will allow you all the perimeter shots you want — until you inevitably exhaust yourself from all that shooting and a lightning-quick Icelandic transition game pounces.

It’s not pretty, but it worked against Portugal and England in 2016. It worked again earlier this month in that draw against Argentina.

But watching this month as a Canadian, what struck me most about this Icelandic soccer team was how, well, Canadian they played.

(AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko) Iceland's Hordur Magnusson slides under a team Croatia.

Maybe it’s the Vikings in them but there were none of those ridiculous dives soccer players do at the slightest hint of contact — I’m looking at you every player who ever played for Italy forever.

It’s always been the most objectionable part of soccer — the way a player will go down like he’s been shot, rolling and writhing in agony, only to spring back up moments later, Lazarus-like, and play on.

Not so Iceland. On Tuesday, Iceland midfielder Birkir Bjarnason took a wicked elbow to the face, soaked a trainer’s towel in his own blood and then had to subsequently be dragged off the field — twice — by an official because Bjarnason wouldn’t stop bleeding all over the place.

In the end, Bjarnason played the better part of two-thirds of the game with a piece of blood-soaked cotton dangling from his left nostril. Almost scored the winner, too.

My kind of guy. Hockey would love him.

The ladies already do. I am advised by an expert in the matter that in addition to being fine soccer players, the 2018 Icelandic World Cup team just might be the single sexiest collection of male athletes ever assembled.

(AP Photo/Mark Baker) Iceland's Birkir Bjarnason, right, receives medical treatment during the group D match between Iceland and Croatia.

Case in point: two weeks ago, Icelandic winger Rurik Gislason had about 30,000 followers on Instagram. Today, this impossibly good-looking man has 1.1 million followers.

Gilason’s Instagram feed is a humbling collection of photos of the man every man wishes he could be — and every woman wishes he could be with. The website, Deadspin, did a story on Gislason headlined: ‘Little Known Icelandic Soccer Player Becomes Social Media Sensation Due To His Sexiness.’

You would not even own a shirt if you were this man.

I hate him so much.

But Gislason is gone now — and so, too, is the rest of his unlikely team.

In the end, the odds simply caught up with a team that had been defying impossibly long ones just by existing.

(AP Photo/Themba Hadebe) Iceland's Rurik Gislason.

Just like Iceland. And, for that matter, just like Manitoba.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter (retired)

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

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