NICE — One thing is as clear as the crystal waters of the Cote D’Azur which line the way to the majestic Stade de Nice stadium: Iceland is ready to go to battle with England.
Ahead of their EURO 2016 Round of 16 clash in Nice on Monday, the Icelandic group called this match a “win-win” situation.
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Nobody expects them to beat England but the tiny nation which has won the hearts of fans across the globe during this tournament isn’t going down without a fight.
Sat in front of the media on Sunday, Iceland’s joint-manager Heimir Hallgrimsson delivered a rousing and poignant response when asked about the infamous “cod wars” between Iceland and England, a dispute from 1958-61 regarding fishing rights in the North Atlantic.
Not usually a combative nation, at all, on the eve of its biggest ever game, Iceland is ready for war.
“I think it was the only time Iceland has gone to war,” Hallgrimsson said of the dispute, with a smile. “We are too few to have an army, we would probably be easily defeated if we go to war, lacking manpower. So these guys [pointing to the players sat next to him] are the Icelandic army, these guys are the Icelandic army. That’s why everyone is supporting them. If we go to war, we probably lose rather quickly.”
Even if they lose the battle against England on the pitch on Monday, Iceland is already the big winners from this tournament.
Walking around the streets of Nice, the Icelandic fans still had a spring in their step following their dramatic late win against Austria to set up their first knockout clash in a major tournament as a soccer nation.
This is Iceland’s first-ever major tournament and there’s no doubt the smallest ever nation to qualify for the Euros — with a population just over 320,000 — are the story of EURO 2016 so far.
They upset Cristiano Ronaldo in the opener as he lambasted their “small mentality” after they celebrated a draw with Portugal like they’d won EURO 2016. They got out of Group F as runners up, drawing with Hungary and then beating Austria in Paris as the Icelandic TV announcer lost the plot. It is estimated up to 9 percent of the population of Iceland is in France following their team around.
Fans are congregating all over Nice, with “Big Pete” (as he wanted to be known) leading a group of Iceland fans as they sit back, drink and take in the other games in a bar in central Nice.
A humongous bodyguard and security worker from Keflavik, Pete, like most Iceland fans, is living the dream. He’s confident Iceland can get the job done and told me they would win EURO 2016.
“We are going in with a mindset that we are going to win the game,” Pete said. “I think it is the perfect time for Iceland not to upset because we have a good team with self confidence, it is the best time ever to beat England at a big tournament. We are going in it tomorrow to win it.”
From the raucous, rhythmic chants of Pete and his fellow fans to the jubilation from players and the coaches, Iceland has truly added an extra dimension to this tournament. They aren’t just a plucky upstart. They deserve to be here after winning their qualifying group and getting past the likes of Holland, the Czech Republic and Turkey along the way.
Iceland isn’t ready for this fairytale to end.
When I asked the group of fans I was chatting to what it would mean if Iceland beat England, they corrected me. “When we beat England” they screamed.
“I will tell you a little secret. Since those two guys [Hallgrimsson and Lars Lagerback] took over as joint managers, they’ve been going in with a philosophy that ‘this game is the biggest game of your life.’ They’ve been doing this all the way,” Pete said. “Tomorrow is just the biggest game of their lives and the players really buy into it. Everyone is working together. They are all brothers you know, like one big family. One of our center backs said: ‘It is amazing to do this with my best friends.'”
With blue, red and white paint over their faces, Iceland’s fans stuck out as they wandered along the Promenade des Anglais, it looked as they had already conquered England’s fans. Sure, they were outnumbered by England’s supporters, but when has being the underdog ever stopped Iceland in the past?
Iceland aim to conquer England on the pitch and the players, and fans, believe the upset is on and have nothing to lose.
“We’ve said previously that this game is a win-win game,” Hallgrimsson continued. “They’ve already won the hearts of all Icelandic people for their performances. I think with a good performance against England tomorrow, they’ll always be winners in my book. On the other hand, if we beat England their lives will change, and all of our lives will change, significantly. Icelandic football will go up in reputation and the way we approach football will be different. It’ll look different for us.
“If you want the best out of life, you have to be ready when the chance is there for you and I don’t think there are bigger chances than this for Icelandic football. It’s just for the players to play tomorrow and hopefully we will beat England. Whichever way this goes, these players are winners already and I am hoping for a good performance.”
They are a solid team who play as a unit and are hard to break down, plus clinical on the counter. Sound familiar? In a year where we saw another team in blue shock the soccer world, Iceland is ready to be the next Leicester City story.
Just how big has this story been back in Iceland?
On Sunday Gudni Johannesson won Iceland’s presidential election but that is nothing compared to the exploits of their soccer team.
“It is bigger than the election back home and I mean, everybody is thinking about the election but there were only a certain percent who voted,” Pete said. “Everybody in Iceland is watching the games. They had a TV rating in Iceland and when they played against Austria, 99 percent of the TV sets tuned in that evening and were watching the Iceland game. So everybody is thinking about it and it is bigger than politics and anything else in Iceland.”
So close are the connections between Iceland and the United Kingdom — the latter is the closest European nation to Iceland as the crow flies — that when their players speak English, most do so with a thick English accent.
Their captain, Aron Gunnarsson has a Welsh twang as he’s played for Cardiff City in the Premier League and the second-tier. GylfiSigurdsson sounds like he’s from the London suburbs after spending most of his career with Reading, Tottenham and Swansea City in England’s top-flight.
“First of all it’s a very important game for the team and for the country as well. I’m pretty sure most of the boys know the English players anyway, so I’m not giving them tips how to play it,” Sigurdsson said. “The coaches summarize their games and go through everything with us. Most of the boys know the English players. We’re looking forward to a very exciting game, one that I hope we will enjoy.”
Like most Icelandic players, veteran striker Eidur Gudjohnsen, 37, began and spent the glory years of his career in England. He knows how special this occasion will be as Iceland’s players and fans still look towards England for teams to support and play for.
“To be facing England, for us, it’s fair to say is a little special,” Gudjohnsen said. “English football has had a huge influence, from when we grew up, everyone has supported a team in English football, we feel a big connection to England in footballing terms.”
In terms of this game, England should win. Scratch that. They have to win.
The Three Lions haven’t won a knockout game in a major tournament since they beat Ecuador 1-0 in the Round of 16 at the 2006 World Cup. David Beckham scored the winner. Yep. That seems like an age ago. In fact, it was 10 years ago yesterday. England has underachieved ever since.
Following the debacle of the 2014 World Cup as they exited at the group stages in Brazil, the pressure is all on Roy Hodgson. He knows that. His players know it and so do the fans. Iceland know the pressure is on England, too, as they’ve
Speaking earlier this week Sigurdsson, Iceland’s star player, is well aware he and his teammates have nothing to lose.
“We have no pressure on us, that’s the main thing,” Sigurdsson said. “If you look at England, if they were to lose to us there will he headlines back in England. We are just here to enjoy the tournament and the last 16. It’s an amazing feeling and we just want to keep going. We are aware that we are probably the second team everyone supports in the tournament.
“We are a small nation that nobody expects anything of so we want to keep those people happy and go a little bit further in the tournament. We are the same size as Coventry. Is it Leicester? We are still underdogs.”
The underdog tag is one Iceland is relishing and judging by the party atmosphere in Nice 24 hours before the biggest game in their history, Iceland’s fans aren’t ready for this magical adventure to end.
“It’s fantastic. We’d love to have more tickets for the Icelandic people,” Sigurdsson said. “UEFA have to find another solution how they distribute the tickets for the knockout games. It would have been nice to have 10,000-15,000 people here. But the people at the game will be loud. Hopefully we can make them proud.”
Gunnarrson revealed Iceland “feel the fans back home, supporting us, we see it on the internet” and is mindful of using the euphoria in the correct manner.
“We’re using it in a positive way. It’s about us on the pitch. We have to go out there and fight for it,” Gunnarrson said.
From the somewhat mythical land of volcanoes and hot springs, they are now know for their soccer and the message is clear: Iceland is ready for war and plan on kicking their idols England out of Europe for the second time in a week.
“We set up with a perfect plan 15 years ago and they’ve been building slowly, layer by layer, they’ve come to this point and they can go anywhere,” Pete explained about Iceland’s journey. “They are organized, tactical and they’ve never lost a game in a major tournament. We are the only team in this 24-team tournament which hasn’t lost a game in a major tournament.
“I can predict that can still go on, you know. That is the thing about us Icelanders. We are a small nation and through the centuries we’ve had to go through so much tough surroundings. That made us what we are. Even though we are small, we think we are really big. That really helps.”