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  • Iceland has been in a similar place before: Playing a world-class icon and star-laden team only to walk away with a stunning draw. The Iceland way, as it turns out, translates just fine to the World Cup stage.
By Brian Straus
June 16, 2018

MOSCOW — When you save a penalty kick taken by one of history’s most revered players, and when you help earn your tiny country’s first World Cup point in a nailbiting opener against a two-time champion, you’ve earned the right to show a little emotion, not to mention some defiance.

After victimizing Argentine icon Lionel Messi from 12 yards in the climactic moment of Saturday’s riveting 1-1 draw, Iceland goalkeeper Hannes Halldórsson victimized an Argentine reporter. Asked about celebrating the point on the post-game pitch here at the Otkritie Arena in northwest Moscow, man-of-the-match Halldórsson shot back, “Who are you, Cristiano Ronaldo’s uncle?”

Two years ago, Iceland made its major tournament debut with a 1-1 stalemate against Portugal at Euro 2016. Seeing how it was the biggest game in the country’s modest soccer history (at the time), and considering the fact that Iceland’s population is about 13% of Lisbon’s, the underdogs weren’t shy about expressing some satisfaction.

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Lionel Messi, Argentina Left Frustrated After Being Denied in Iceland Draw

That didn’t sit well with Ronaldo, who said, “I thought they’d won the Euros the way they celebrated at the end. It was unbelievable. 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.”

Ronaldo wound up lifting the trophy, but he was wrong that day on several levels. Iceland would do something. It made it all the way to the quarterfinals, beating England along the way. Iceland subsequently won its World Cup qualifying group to earn a historic ticket to Russia.

And “defending, defending, defending,” to paraphrase the Portuguese captain, definitely doesn’t reveal a “small mentality.” It’s the opposite. It demands immense discipline, effort, preparation, humility and commitment. It’s the furthest thing from easy. Iceland can’t match Portugal’s talent, and it couldn’t come close to the arsenal deployed by Argentina in Moscow. But thanks to its chemistry and cohesion, not to mention sheer force of will and Halldórsson’s clutch save, Iceland once again escaped with a point. And it’s a point that may make the difference in a balanced group that also features Croatia and Nigeria.

Small mentality? Iceland is all mentality.

“Our game plan worked really well. We could feel it right away in the first half, that the game was playing out as we wanted,” Halldórsson said. “We had them in front of us. We didn’t give them much space, and I think our confidence grew minute by minute … And I think the Argentines, maybe they grew a bit frustrated that they weren’t getting through.”

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Said the architect, coach Heimir Hallgrímsson, “It was a game that we already knew how it would be played. They would have possession, 60%-70% of the time [actually it was 72%]. We knew that beforehand. I think we played our defense brilliantly. The boys should get all the credit both for organization and hard work in the game against world-class players like Argentina has. It’s difficult to defend them for 90 minutes.”

La Albiceleste were dominant, but not always dangerous. The favorites’ choice to start Sergio Agüero up front was a good one, as his movement and potential interchange with Messi was a bit more dynamic, and might ask tougher questions of the Icelandic defense, than the more static Gonzalo Higuaín. It paid off in the 19th minute, as Agüero skillfully took hold of a long-range shot by teammate Marcos Rojo and beat Halldórsson with an unstoppable blast.

But Iceland is nothing if not resilient. Argentina relaxed, and four minutes later, following a flurry and a deflected cross, Iceland’s Alfred Finnbogason leveled the score.

“It’s very strong that we equalized so early, because it was important for the development of the game,” Halldórsson said.

Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images

Then came the siege—an exhausting hour’s worth. Messi would attack and retreat, searching for the ball, and Argentina launched 26 shots toward Halldórsson’s net. But Iceland never wavered. Playing deep in two banks of four, and extremely narrow due to Argentina’s lack of threat in the air, Iceland put the center of its defensive third of the field on lockdown. There was no way through.

“It was an uncomfortable match, because Iceland was playing very defensively, blocking all the possible spaces,” Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli said.

That’s not comfortable for either team. It’s thankless and tiring work, and there’s no margin for error. Blink at the wrong time, and Messi or Agüero will carve you to pieces. The level of focus and fitness required, especially when breathers, possession or counterattacks happen so rarely, represents a massive test. And on the one occasion Iceland cracked in the second half, Halldórsson came up huge.

He expected this to happen. The 34-year-old is a filmmaker in his spare time, so he was more than comfortable studying video over the past several months of Messi’s penalty tendencies, as well as his own.

“It’s a situation I knew would come up,” he said. “I did my homework. … I had a good feeling he’d go this way today.”

Messi went to his left on the 64th-minute spot kick. Halldórsson lunged to his right, and stymied a legend.

“It’s a dream come true,” he said. “We were playing against one of the best teams in the world, against the best player in the world. We were playing our first game in the World Cup … We celebrate the point.”

And so they did, and considering Ronaldo’s transcendent clutch performance against rival Spain on Friday, it made Halldórsson’s retort to the reporter seem even more cutting.

Add that moment to the growing amount of Icelandic football lore, from the Viking Clap and the federation’s smart investment on the game’s grassroots, to Hallgrímsson’s dental practice and his pregame tactics sessions with supporters.

Thanks to Saturday’s point, it’s a story that now has a better chance of continuing here in Russia. There’s a quote attributed to Mark Twain that defines a “classic” piece of literature as “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” That might be close to a fitting description of Iceland’s soccer—it’s really hard to do and it demands a special kind of effort, but it’s worth celebrating once it’s done.

“They have superior individual players with superior skills, playing for better teams in better leagues than the Iceland players,” Hallgrímsson said of Argentina. “If we go one-on-one everywhere around the pitch, you don’t need to ask who’s going to win that game. If we would like to get points or [beat] teams like Argentina, we have to play in a special way, and I think we have to have a clear identity, and everyone is on board how we should play.”

And that, he said, in its own way, can be a kind of sweaty, satisfying fun: “I think for everyone, it’s more enjoyable to play this way and achieve something than to play in a different way and don’t achieve anything.”

Sign up for a FREE trial of SI TV to watch our exclusive mini-documentary "Exploring Planet Fútbol - Iceland," in which Grant Wahl travels the country in search of the stories behind its incredible growth as a soccer nation.

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