Hungary on brink of last 16

Iceland defender Birkir Saevarsson (left, in blue) looking on in horror after bundling the ball into his own goal to hand Hungary a late equaliser. The two sides shared the spoils 1-1.
Iceland defender Birkir Saevarsson (left, in blue) looking on in horror after bundling the ball into his own goal to hand Hungary a late equaliser. The two sides shared the spoils 1-1.PHOTO: REUTERS

Icelandic progress measured by dejection at draw after conceding own goal at the death

MARSEILLE • Hungary may still have to prove they are big enough to merit sharing a pitch with a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, according to his idiosyncratic standards.

Frankly it was hard enough for them sharing a pitch with Iceland on Saturday.

In this meeting of two of Euro 2016's surprise packages, Iceland were three minutes away from etching their names into the history books as they pumped every muscle to protect a 1-0 lead.

But, as has become typical of this tournament, a late twist wrestled away the storyline.

Hungary's elation in snatching a 1-1 draw, a result which when added to their win over Austria, takes them so close to qualification for the last 16 they can almost touch it, was epitomised by the emotional scenes at the final whistle.

The vibrant communion between players and the massed support was not just about this goal, this game, this day.

It was also a reflection of 30 years spent on the fringes of international football struggling to live up to their rich past.

Their coach, Bernd Stork, recognised that.

"It was a great shadow when I started as a manager," he said. "People still remain in the past. We have to support this new generation and give them a little time."

He was immensely proud of how his team, who dominated possession but were largely well contained by Iceland's defensive efforts, were rewarded for their perseverance.

The substitute Nemanja Nikolic drove the ball across and as Birkir Saevarsson stretched to try to intervene, he prodded the ball past his own goalkeeper.

"We forced this goal," he said. "Iceland defended very cleverly. We did not have clear chances. It's a compliment to my side, they never gave up."

A first-half penalty by Gylfi Sigurdsson put Iceland on course for a fairy-tale win. But they succumbed to waves of late Hungarian pressure.

While the Hungarians cavorted on the pitch at the end of it all, Iceland were crestfallen.

That tells its own story of their own development, that after two draws, they could feel so disheartened that they could not quite get over the line to claim a first victory on this stage.

"It feels like a loss," said the striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson. "We got this goal in our face."

It was a cruel blow for Iceland. Having said that, when their emotions settle, they can reflect on a statement contribution to Group F and the chance to try their luck against Austria.

"The dressing room was silent after the game," conceded Iceland's co-head coach Heimir Hallgrimsson. "But we have to be upbeat. I think we are the only team in Europe that hasn't lost at a Finals.

"It is good to never have lost. We are still in it. But we were so close to almost securing a win and that's what is disappointing."

THE GUARDIAN, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2016, with the headline 'Hungary on brink of last 16'. Print Edition | Subscribe