“The world will speak differently about Icelandic football players and the Icelandic clubs after this.” That was the message of Heimir Hallgrimsson, Iceland’s joint-coach and part-time dentist on Saturday ahead of his side’s Euro 2016 quarter-final clash with France at the Stade de France.
The fact that Iceland subsequently went down to a 5-2 hammering changes nothing. They will return home as heroes, having changed the perception of not just their footballing ability but also of their entire nation in the space of three short weeks.
Sunday night was one step too far for a group of players who had previously proven themselves to be the equals of stronger, higher-profile, more experienced opponents. With tactical discipline, endless energy and no small amount of technical poise, Iceland reached the last eight entirely on merit.
With Hallgrimsson and Lars Lagerback uniting to form a unit as expressive as it is structured, the Nordic nation earned draws with Portugal and Hungary before snatching a late win against Austria. Then, as if to remind the world that they already claimed the scalps of the Netherlands twice and the Czech Republic and Turkey once each during qualifying they recorded the greatest victory in their history by knocking England out of the finals at the last 16 stage.
This was no flash in the pan, and their fans knew it. Anybody who has followed their story over the last four years knows it. Their near-success in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil – they were cut down by Croatia in the final play-off round – was merely the appetiser. And now that they have tasted finals football for the first time ever they will want more of the same.
Qualifying for the next World Cup in Russia over the next 16 months will be a tougher ask, with 13 European teams to be invited after the preliminary groups rather than the 23 which made it here to France, but it would take a brave person to back against them after seeing their performances this month.
Losing Lagerback to retirement will be a blow. Having previously coached his native Sweden and Nigeria in major competitions, his achievement with Iceland is arguably the thing he will treasure most when he puts his feet up on his 68th birthday a couple of weeks from now.
But since Hallgrimsson joined the Swede three years ago, this group has grown a foot taller. Lagerback has undoubtedly instilled the tactical nous, but the guts for the fight, the togetherness of the group and the freedom of expression can also be attributed to his Icelandic partner. They can only get better for the experience of the last five games, and no more so than from the pasting they received at the hands of a ruthless France.
But Sunday’s shellacking will not be what is remembered most about this tournament by the 330,000 proud inhabitants of Iceland. They will recall the victory over England and the moments shared between their fans and players immediately after the final whistle. They will also recollect the 70,000 French supporters paying homage to their Viking Klapp, the spirited second-half showing at the Stade de France, and the touching exchanges in the streets of many a city across l’Hexagone with rivals fans and regular citizens alike.
Iceland have been arguably the story of the tournament, and the cruel twist in the final chapter of the fairytale changes nothing about its overriding plot line. This is a country which has left a monumental impact on the hearts and minds of an entire continent.
“The world will speak differently about Icelandic football players and the Icelandic clubs after this.” The Icelandic nation, too, Heimir.