They have ice in their veins

Iceland midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson (centre) and team-mates training at the Olimp Stadium in Kabardinka, ahead of their opening game today against Argentina.
Iceland midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson (centre) and team-mates training at the Olimp Stadium in Kabardinka, ahead of their opening game today against Argentina.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Sigurdsson says team don't fear Messi & Co; Crespo bemoans Argentina dropping Icardi

GROUP D

Argentina v Iceland

Singtel TV Ch141, StarHub Ch222 & Mediacorp okto, 8.45pm


Silence in a sea of blue. Fans with hands raised in the air. Two strikes on the bass drum. Then, a collective, primal and guttural "HOO!". After a suspenseful pause, "Boom, boom, HOO!".

The sequence repeats, the pauses shorten, the chant gets faster, louder and more intimidating before the cheer reaches a crescendo of applause.

By now, the Viking Thunderclap has become an iconic Icelandic football celebration, but it is also a symbol of the small country's gradual and defiant rise.

Half a century ago, Iceland suffered their worst international defeat when they lost 14-2 to Denmark in 1967 (which inspired the Norrebro/Borg 14-2 beer). As recently as 2010, they were languishing at 112th in the Fifa rankings, closer to No. 140 Singapore than world champions Spain that year.

NO FEAR OF ARGENTINA

We won't be overawed. We will come up with ideas to break them down because we are going to have to score some goals if we are to get something out of the game.

GYLFI SIGURDSSON, Iceland midfielder.

The country with a population of just 350,000 is now ranked 22nd, and the team will play their first World Cup match against two-time winners Argentina at the Spartak Stadium in their Group D opener tonight. The other teams are Croatia and Nigeria.

Attacking midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson, arguably Iceland's biggest star, told The Straits Times in an exclusive interview: "Yeah, of course we have to defend against Lionel Messi and the other world-class players in every position.

"Many of them play in England and the best leagues around the world. But we won't be overawed."

Iceland will be boosted by the 28-year-old's presence after the set-piece expert made a scoring return from a knee injury in the 3-2 friendly defeat by Norway on June 2, as well as the absence of Argentina's injured No. 1 goalkeeper Sergio Romero.

With La Albiceleste beaten 4-2 by Nigeria and 6-1 by Spain in their last two friendlies against teams at this World Cup, former Argentina striker Hernan Crespo questioned Jorge Sampaoli's omission of forward Mauro Icardi, who scored 29 goals for Inter Milan in Serie A last season and, in his opinion, "has no equal in the penalty box".

The 42-year-old told ST: "I don't understand what our identity is. I'm worried because I don't like to lose in this way. I don't like to see my national team play like this."

But, with five-time Ballon d'Or winner Messi and a host of attacking talents such as Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel di Maria in their ranks, Argentina are expected to win this encounter.

Iceland have not recorded a victory against South American opponents except for a 1-0 win over Bolivia in 1994.

But Sigurdsson exuded belief and confidence when he added: "At Euro 2016, we stopped Cristiano Ronaldo and held eventual champions Portugal 1-1 in our first group game. We went through to the last 16 and we gained a lot of experience from beating England."

With just four of their 23-man squad plying their trade in the big four European leagues, Iceland are a refreshingly unfashionable side greater than the sum of its parts.

Iceland manager Heimir Hallgrimsson has retained the traditional 4-4-2 which his predecessor and former co-manager Lars Lagerback used to great effect.

The two banks of four create a disciplined defensive blockade, while the Scandinavian side also have technically sound players in midfield and attack to conduct opportunistic smash-and-grabs.

Hallgrimsson, who is also a part-time dentist, said: "Our biggest star is also the guy who works the hardest.

"We have to be more hardworking than our opponents, we have to be disciplined, we have to be really organised, we have to be focused, we have to be good at set pieces... so these are things that have to be instilled in all our players."

Despite conceding 11 goals in four winless friendlies, Sigurdsson warned opponents to write them off at their own peril.

He said: "When I was a kid, people would tell me, 'Too bad you are from Iceland, you are never going to play at the World Cup'.

"But here we are. We are still pretty much the underdogs against most of the teams we play these days and we are quite happy for opponents to have that mentality against us.

"Maybe after what we have done over the past few years, they are not going to underestimate us any more.

"They know more about us, what they are going to face when they play us, but we will just carry on doing the same thing because it has been working."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 16, 2018, with the headline 'They have ice in their veins'. Print Edition | Subscribe