Football: World Cup debutants Iceland will show no fear in Russia

Iceland midfielder Albert Gudmundsson gets past Indonesian goalkeeper Andritany Ardhiyasa in a friendly in Jakarta yesterday. Iceland won the match 4-1.
Iceland midfielder Albert Gudmundsson gets past Indonesian goalkeeper Andritany Ardhiyasa in a friendly in Jakarta yesterday. Iceland won the match 4-1.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

World Cup debutants don't fear Argentina in 'Group of Death' in Finals in Russia

Cristiano Ronaldo once labelled Iceland a footballing country with a "small mentality" when the minnows held his Portugal to a shock 1-1 Group F draw in their 2016 European Championship opener.

"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 the competition," said the Real Madrid star then.

The Nordic nation made Ronaldo eat his words when they finished behind Hungary but ahead of Portugal in their group to qualify for the knockout stage and stunned the footballing world by beating England 2-1 in the round of 16.

Helgi Kolvidsson, Iceland's assistant manager to Heimir Hallgrimsson, still remembers vividly the shock and disbelief that followed his team's improbable victory and also some disrespect from certain quarters.

Even though they lost 2-5 to hosts France in the quarter-finals, Iceland showed that their performance at Euro 2016 was no flash in the pan when they qualified for their first World Cup Finals in Russia.

The Icelanders have learnt to dream bigger and the footballing world can expect more surprises from this country of about 330,000 people when they make their World Cup debut in June.

"People didn't take us seriously before, but I don't think they are going to do that any more," Kolvidsson told The Straits Times (ST) in an interview at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta before Iceland played Indonesia in an international friendly, which they won 4-1. They had routed an Indonesian select XI 6-0 on Thursday.

ICELAND DREAMING BIG

Russia will not be a holiday for us. It was hard work getting there, and it is hard work preparing for it. Of course we are going to have fun there, but we have our goals, we want to achieve something.

HELGI KOLVIDSSON, Iceland assistant coach, on his country's determination not to go to the World Cup Finals in Russia to make up the numbers.

"People have started to take notice of us and they are thinking, 'These guys are not doing a bad job'.

"Russia will not be a holiday for us. It was hard work getting there, and it is hard work preparing for it. Of course we are going to have fun there, but we have our goals, we want to achieve something."

Iceland may have been drawn in the "Group of Death" alongside Lionel Messi's Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria in Group D, but the world No. 22 side are targeting another fairy-tale run in Russia, says Kolvidsson.

"When you talk about Argentina, of course you think about Lionel Messi. He's the best player in the world, along with Ronaldo," he said.

"But it's not just him, Argentina are a fantastic team. We haven't planned how to stop him, but we've played against a lot of other good players too, and we work as a team together - that is our strength."

Midfielder Olafur Skulason, who plays for Karabukspor in Turkey, is relishing the clash against Argentina.

"It's obviously a very tough group. This is our first time going to the World Cup and most of the nation were hoping for either Brazil or Argentina - so we got that wish. Argentina are one of the strongest sides in the world and, if you're going to the World Cup, you want to play against the best," Skulason, 34, one of three of European-based players who had been released by their clubs to travel to Jakarta for the two friendlies, told ST.

"We want to go through to the next round for sure - then go as far as possible as we showed at the Euros."

The fanatical Indonesian fans might have made themselves heard during last night's friendly but, when they took a break from their chants, a sole voice screamed from the stands: "Iceland!"

The man who donned a cap with viking horns was joined by a group of 10 others to cheer on their countrymen in the cauldron of the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium.

Eidur Gudjohnsen, Iceland's top scorer of all time with 26 goals in 88 caps between 1996 and 2016, said the Icelandic players display the same kind of fire as their fans.

"They turn into Vikings whenever they pull on the national team jersey now," the former Chelsea and Barcelona striker, who retired from international football after Euro 2016, told ST.

"There's a character in Icelandic people, and I think we got it from the generations before us - we may not be as good as anyone else, but it's not going to be easy against us on the field - we will fight hard."

The 39-year-old, who travelled with the national team to Jakarta in an ambassadorial role, talked up his country's new-found belief and propensity for improvement, a point which Kolvidsson concurred .

"This is why we get up every day wanting to get better. You have to get better every day, every game, every practice. Every tournament is a step forward," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2018, with the headline 'Iceland won't get cold feet'. Print Edition | Subscribe