Getty Images

“Icelandic army” ready to upset their English idols

2 Comments

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.

[ MORE: Latest news from EURO 2016 ]

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.”

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 22: Iceland players celebrate with their fans after victory in the UEFA EURO 2016 Group F match between Iceland and Austria at Stade de France on June 22, 2016 in Paris, France. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
(Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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.”

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 22: Iceland players celebrate victory in the UEFA EURO 2016 Group F match between Iceland and Austria at Stade de France on June 22, 2016 in Paris, France. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
(Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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.

MARSEILLE, FRANCE - JUNE 18: Gylfi Sigurdsson of Iceland celebrates with Birkir Bjarnason of Iceland after scoring his team's first goal during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group F match between Iceland and Hungary at Stade Velodrome on June 18, 2016 in Marseille, France. (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
(Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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.”

Women’s Super League, Championship seasons canceled

Women's Super League
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Leave a comment

This England’s Women’s Super League season will not return from the coronavirus pause, opening a great debate over who will be champions.

The English Football Association made the announcement Monday, also announcing that the second-tier Championship has been canceled.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

The WSL was in a heated title fight, with Man City leading the table on points with 40 but Chelsea’s 39 coming in one fewer match. Arsenal was four points back of City with a match-in-hand.

The top two sides also qualify for the UEFA Women’s Champions League.

From The FA:

Following full and thorough consultation with the clubs, the FA Women’s Super League & Women’s Championship Board has discussed various recommendations which will be sent to the FA Board to determine the most appropriate sporting outcome for the 2019-20 season.

This will include identifying the entries for the 2020-21 UEFA Women’s Champions League, which would be based on sporting merit from the 2019-20 Barclays FA Women’s Super League season.

There’s also relegation to consider, with Liverpool’s women dead last but within a win of two clubs.

Promotion from the Championship would be a little more clearcut, as Aston Villa has a six-point edge on the field.

Could there be a playoff to decide a title winner? Might the FA opt not to name a winner?

Chelsea was unbeaten but there’s certainly no guarantee they’d win out nor would giving City the title make any sense. The Blues took four of six points from City.

Man City, Chelsea, and Arsenal are the three previous title winners.

Report: Ighalo to leave Manchester United for China return this week

Odion Ighalo
Photo by UEFA - Handout/UEFA via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Manchester United have been dealt a blow to their strike force ahead of the Premier League’s hopeful return, according to The Manchester Evening News.

Loan striker Odion Ighalo is being called back to Chinese Super League club Shanghai Shenhua this week, his loan only good until May 31.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

There was hope that the club would’ve had him for an extended spell or at least through June 30 when many contracts end, or that United could negotiate an extension for the Nigerian.

There was also talk of a permanent deal, but the transfer window will not open until at least July 1.

The player himself is a boyhood United supporter and had said he wanted to finish the season with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Red Devils, but he’s a massive investment for Shanghai and they don’t owe United anything.

Ighalo, who turns 31 in June, has fit the bill as a fill-in striker for the Red Devils, who had lost Marcus Rashford to injury. He has four goals in eight appearances for United after 46 goals in three seasons abroad.

The good news for United is that Rashford is back in full training, but it would’ve been a nice luxury to have Ighalo for what’s sure to be a congested fixture list. That said, United has plenty of attacking talent including young Mason Greenwood. The Red Devils should be fine.

Premier League social media wrap: Rashford honored, Mendy banters

Leave a comment

The Premier League world continues to move toward the return of soccer, while its social media eyes are trained in several directions.

In Monday’s edition of the PL social media wrap, we visit players from several clubs including both of Manchester’s top-flight sides in addition to a defender in the Northeast and a mournful note from Chelsea’s Antonio Rudiger.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

It’s Independence Day in Argentina, and several players were Tweeting love back home from their homes in the Premier League.

Norwich City’s Emiliano Buendia, Man City’s Nicolas Otamendi, and West Ham’s Pablo Zabaleta shared their love for home.

Newcastle’s Federico Fernandez celebrated with Napoli’s clever photo of a makeshift Argentine XI, as the Serie A club has had a lot of strong players from the South American nation.

Didn’t see himself lining up with Diego Maradona any time soon, we imagine.

[ MORE: Latest Bundesliga news | Current table ]

Manchester City’s Benjamin Mendy came out of his shell to share some thoughts on social distancing.

The outgoing French left back is no stranger to quips, and used his Twitter to post a reminder to stay vigilant in keeping distance from others.

Mendy posed with Kevin De Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez, Nicolas Otamendi, and Eric Garcia at City’s training ground Monday.

You may note that he also tagged Bernardo Silva. That’s banter, and see the second Tweet for detail.

On the other side of Manchester, forward Marcus Rashford shared an honor bestowed upon him for his vigilant work raising money this coronavirus pandemic.

Rashford has been working with a group called Fair Share UK to provide free meals for underprivileged people during the pandemic.

Last month, he doubled his personal donation and shared a story that he was once one of the children who’d need such contributions to get by.

Rashford was given a special recognition award by the High Sheriff of Greater Manchester and said, “To be recognized by my city is a special feeling.”

Chelsea’s Antonio Rudiger is mourning the loss of a friend, as former Roma academy player Joseph Bouasse died of a heart attack at the age of 21.

Rudiger was with Roma from 2015-17 apart from a loan to Stuttgart in Germany, and Bouasse was a center mid in their academy.

The Chelsea centerback shared a photo of Bouasse on Monday. It’s always so stunning when a someone so young, let alone an elite athlete, succumbs to heart problems. Our hearts are Bouasse and the Roma family tonight.

Bundesliga preview, schedule, predictions: Week 28

Bundesliga preview and predictions
Photo by Boris Streubel/Getty Images
Leave a comment

There’s a massive derby on Tuesday, with fans of drama likely rooting for a draw or Bayern Munich loss.

That’s because Bayern’s chase for an eighth-straight title was looking like a several horse race for a long time, as Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig, and Borussia Monchengladbach all keeping first from the reigning champs at points this season.

[ MORE: Latest Bundesliga news | Current table ]

Bayern has found its groove under Hansi Flick and now boasts a four-point lead on Tuesday hosts Dortmund, who have 57 points, and a seven-point advantage on the field.

The next three teams would all consider the title chance real with a Dortmund win or draw, as Leipzig, Gladbach, and Bayer Leverkusen are on 54, 53, and 52 points.

[ MORE: USMNT stars in Bundesliga midweek ]

Bayern still faces Gladbach and Bayer, so a loss really shakes things up.

Below is a look at the Bundesliga schedule for this week, as you can check out the full schedulestandings and find out how to watch the action.

Let’s get onto the predictions.

Tuesday

Borussia Dortmund v. Bayern Munich — 12:30 p.m. ET

Der Klassiker has been kind to the home sides in recent seasons and there’s no example more fitting than Bayern’s absolute demolition of Dortmund at the Allianz Arena in November.

That was Hansi Flick’s first time head-to-head with BVB and manager Lucien Favre, the 55-year-old’s only prior head coaching experience coming with Hoffenheim when the now-Bundesliga side was in the Oberliga and Regionalliga.

It went well.

The bad news for Dortmund in addition to the 4-0 hanging its rearview mirror is that this home match is behind closed doors and won’t have the magnificent Yellow Wall looming over the visitors.

BVB and Bayern have swapped wins over their last four outings, including the German Super Cup earlier this year. And no teams in the league can boast the successes of

Dortmund is 9W-1L since returning from Winterpause and Bayern’s fine form extends well beyond the calendar’s change. Flick’s men have 12 wins and a draw since back-to-back losses to Bayer and Gladbach.

Whether Dortmund can win this will depend a lot on who’s available for the Starting XI. Mats Hummels limped off at halftime at the weekend and is in contention to play. Even though his last derby was poor, Dortmund is better with him than without him. Jadon Sancho was a sub on Saturday and is possibly the most complete playmaker between the two rosters including Robert Lewandowski. Axel Witsel may also be ready.

If Sancho and either Hummels or Witsel can go, we’ll expect Dortmund to collect a thrilling 3-2 win. Bayern’s defending was unsatisfactory in a weekend win over Eintracht, especially on set piece, and Erling Haaland is better than anything Bayern saw on Sunday. Still with questions about Sancho’s fitness, we’ll pick an entertaining 2-2 draw.

As Bayern’s Thomas Muller and Dortmund’s Michael Zorc will tell you, there’s no one ignorant of the meaning of this rivalry and this match. We can hardly wait.

Werder Bremen v. Borussia Monchengladbach — 2:30 p.m. ET

Bremen’s terrible fixture run to end the season continues, but perhaps they’ve found some momentum in a VAR-aided win over scrappy Freiburg? USMNT forward Josh Sargent started that game and will hope for another run as his goal-shy side has only one player, Milot Rashica, with 10 or more goals. It’ll take more than one to get all the points against Gladbach, a potent offense even when it isn’t facing a defense like Bremen’s 59-goal conceders. 3-1 Gladbach.

Eintracht Frankfurt v. Freiburg — 2:30 p.m. ET

Eintracht found chances against Bayern; It just couldn’t stop the Bavarians. Tuesday’s hosts have now shipped 18 goals during a five-match losing streak and sit four points clear of the relegation danger, albeit with a match-in-hand. Freiburg is in the thick of the Europa League picture despite a letdown of a loss to Bremen. They may find the woes extend into Frankfurt, though, in a 1-0 Eintracht win.

Bayer Leverkusen v. Wolfsburg — 2:30 p.m. ET

The best of the late kickoffs has red-hot Kai Havertz and Bayer, who has scored seven goals in two matches since returning from the coronavirus pause. Havertz has four of those, and he’s been all over the final third in building up his resume. Wolfsburg slipped against Dortmund but a lot of teams do that. Bayer boss Peter Bosz will make a lot of believers if he delivers back-to-back wins over Gladbach and Wolfsburg, who sits sixth. He does, just. Bayer 2-1.

Bundesliga preview and predictions
Maximilian Arnold of Wolfsburg (front) and Havertz (Photo by Boris Streubel/Getty Images)

Wednesday

RB Leipzig v. Hertha Berlin — 12:30 p.m. ET

Hertha built on its win over Hoffenheim by clobbering Union in the Berlin derby, as Bruno Labbadia has coaxed physical, advantageous performances out of his team against very different opponents. Leipzig is different gravy, though, having rebounded from a draw with Freiburg to bury Mainz 5-0. Dayot Upamecano has looked strong in returning from the coronavirus pause and Leipzig allows very little, anyway. On paper there aren’t any results you’d expect more than three points from the league’s third-place side. Leipzig 2-0.

Augsburg v. Paderborn — 2:30 p.m. ET

The hosts are riding high after moving six points clear of the bottom three and can essentially seal safety by beating 18th-place Paderborn. The basement dwellers have drawn both of their matches since returning and won’t be a pushover. Paderborn’s picked up away points six times compared to just four results at home. This one’s a toss-up. 1-1 draw.

Union Berlin v. Mainz — 2:30 p.m. ET

Expect ornery play from both sides as Union’s dreadful derby was met by Mainz allowing a quintet of goals to Leipzig. Union has dropped to within six points of the bottom three and Mainz can join their hosts on 30 points with a win. Mainz allows a ton of goals and Union’s amongst the Bundesliga’s worst at producing them. Both sides have fared well against fellow bottom sides of late. What’s going to give? Union gets by at home 2-1.

Hoffenheim v. Koln — 2:30 p.m. ET

The hosts have dropped back-to-back matches and now sit three points back of sixth while Koln have taken points from successive 2-2 draws and will feel momentum having scored twice late to grab a point from Fortuna Dusseldorf. Hoffenheim has just three points from its last 21 available to it and has lost eight times at home. Given their talent and reputation you’d say that indicates an end should be in sight. We’re not so sure. Koln 1-0.

Fortuna Dusseldorf v. Schalke — 2:30 p.m. ET

Schalke can’t win and doesn’t score. David Wagner’s men haven’t won since the first match after Winterpause, collecting just four points from nine outings and scoring twice. Wagner cannot find anyone to put the ball in the back of the goal yet somehow Schalke have only dropped two points back of sixth and are level on points with seventh-place Freiburg. Tuesday’s hosts thought they had a potentially season-saving win on Sunday but threw it away to draw 2-2. On the bright side, American midfielder Weston McKennie has been active and one of the club’s lone bright spots in twin blowout losses after the pause. He showed delightful vision and touch in particular on a long pass that could’ve set Rabbi Matondo up for glory against Augsburg. Maybe he’s a difference maker Tuesday and maybe we don’t want to predict any nil-nils. Schalke 1-0.

Americans Abroad
(Photo by Martin Meissner/Pool via Getty Images)