MOSCOW — Outside, there’s a massive statue of Spartacus, the Thracian slave who bedeviled the mighty Romans at the head of a small, humbly-equipped, yet passionate and well-organized force.
Inside the Otkritie Arena, whose primary tenant, Spartak Moscow, is named for the rebellious gladiator, sat Iceland coach Heimir Hallgrímsson. On Friday, he met the media alongside captain Aron Gunnarsson. On Saturday, this charismatic and confident part-time dentist will manage a squad of World Cup debutants representing a country of around 350,000 people against a two-time champion led by a player who may be the greatest of all time.
“We don’t think it’s a miracle,” Hallgrímsson said Friday of his team’s stunning run to the Euro 2016 quarterfinals and subsequent first-place finish in its loaded World Cup qualifying group. “It’s down to knowing your strengths, knowing your weaknesses and playing according to them. I know we’re probably different from many other teams here in the World Cup finals. We play a different style of football. But I think we show if you work together as one unit, as we have done, anything is achievable.
“And if someone is surprised,” he concluded, “then they just don’t know much about the Icelandic football team.”
Saturday’s showdown between Iceland and Argentina here in northwest Moscow very well may be the most compelling and narrative-rich game of this World Cup’s group stage. It features a player, Lionel Messi, and a team, Iceland, that have reset the notion of what’s possible in their sport. We’ve never seen anything like either of them before and soon, they’ll face each other in a collision of style, culture, approach and expectations that’ll be the talk of the planet.
Friday’s news conference was packed.
“We’re more conscious now of the size of this,” Gunnarsson said. “I realized when I walked into this room how huge it is.”
Like his team, Hallgrímsson seems to strike the perfect balance between confidence and modesty. Harness your qualities and believe, and perhaps any opponent—even Argentina—can be vulnerable. His well-chronicled pre-game tactical breakdowns at a pub with Iceland’s supporters are a testament to his accessibility, humility and commitment to harnessing his nation’s strength. The loyalty engendered at those get-togethers powers and amplifies the Viking Clap heard around the world.
“I understand that for other nations this is strange and probably couldn’t happen,” Hallgrímsson said, “This is one thing we use to maximize our potential in being few. There’s also positives in being few. “
Among them are chemistry and consistency. Iceland started the same 11 players in all five games of their Euro 2016 run, and 15 from that squad are in Russia. They know pretty much how they’re going to play, likely anchored by two sturdy banks of four. And they know how to make the most of their attacking chances, whether they come through the likes of Gylfi Sigurdsson (who's recently returned to the field after suffering a knee injury) or via set pieces.
Like Hallgrímsson said, this is no fluke and it’s no miracle. This was by design, as the Football Association of Iceland spent years improving coaching, access and facilities throughout the country. But that doesn’t mean their run is destined to continue this month. Group D is the World Cup’s most balanced—Croatia and Nigeria also are more than capable of advancing—and Argentina represents a challenging first hurdle. A good result isn’t vital, but it is important. Since the tournament expansion to 32 teams and eight groups in 1998, teams that won their first game moved on 85% of the time, while those that lost had just a 12% success rate.
“We know that Iceland can have the best game of their lives tomorrow but still lose against a fantastic team like Argentina. That’s just the reality,” Hallgrímsson said.
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Argentina doesn’t enter this tournament without issues. La Albiceleste barely qualified, of course. And coach Jorge Sampaoli is still working on how to best balance a team that likes to play high and energetically, but lacks width and may have some redundancy among its corps of brilliant attackers. Argentina’s World Cup run-up also was marred by the controversial cancellation of its friendly against Israel, which means last month’s 4-0 win over Haiti represents its only official action in more than two months.
The spotlight may be shared Saturday, but all the pressure is on Argentina. Messi will turn 31 during the tournament, and this almost surely is the last World Cup of his prime. He’s already flirted with international retirement once. So his pursuit of a senior international trophy, coming on the heels of three lost finals in the past three summers, is a dominant story line. And few will be rooting against a player who’s been so brilliant to watch.
So while there may be no antagonist in Saturday’s game, there are different perspectives. For Argentina, this World Cup represents an end point, the conclusion to a story. It’s trophy or bust. For Iceland, this is but a chapter in a longer saga.
“We’re more experienced as group, as a federation, and [we] obviously learned a lot from the Euros,” said Gunnarsson, who's still recovering from a knee injury that forced him to miss the end of Cardiff City's season. “We’re two years older. It comes with experience, and I think that’s the biggest part of it—is what we’ve learned on the way here. It’s still a work in progress.”
Hallgrímsson acknowledged that a “good” World Cup will mean getting out of the group. But a bad World Cup won’t alter the trajectory or outlook. This is still a group with a plan to beat the odds.
“This World Cup is of course huge—the biggest that Iceland could play and the biggest teams that we will play,” he said. “But still, this is only June in 2018, and Icelandic football doesn’t stand or fall with the results in the three group games. It’s the worst thing you can do when you have an underdog team, is stop and restart all the engines. So we have to think further ahead. This is a fantastic moment in the process of a team that we’re building for the future, and hopefully we can sustain what we’re doing."