REYKJAVÍK, Iceland — “I’m not saying this to puff out my chest,” Sveinn Asgeirsson says on a Friday evening in late April, pausing to speak between sips of Guinness and a glance toward the huddle of regulars. “But this place, this place has become world-renowned now.”
Sportbarinn Olver is a pub in Iceland’s capital, 10 minutes’ walk from the national stadium. Half a decade ago, a handful of die-hards would convene before matches that did not matter very much, the question of pride aside. Now it is the first place anyone wants to visit in the search for a look beneath the skin of the country’s football team.
In March, Olver’s Manchester United-supporting owner was stunned when Eric Cantona strode through the door for a media engagement. Last October, curious foreigners craned their necks at the doorway while, two hours before guiding Iceland to World Cup qualification against Kosovo, coach Heimir Hallgrimsson told a packed house exactly how he was going to do it.
They had every reason to trust him. Back in 2016, with Hallgrimsson as joint manager with Lars Lagerback, Iceland — population 334,000 — captured the world’s imagination when they stormed to the quarterfinals of their first European Championship, leaving England in their wake.
Playing without pretension or fear, their open, down-to-earth approach off the pitch and relentlessly competitive attitude on it won many admirers: It felt like the antithesis of the idea that money and celebrity must be the defining factors behind achieving glory in the modern game.
The idiosyncrasies of Iceland’s success — from tactical breakdowns in the pub and the “thunderclap” beloved of their supporters to Hallgrimsson’s parallel career as a dentist and the conveyor belt of coaches the island nation produces — require less introduction these days. They stand as hallmarks of a country that found a path to the top by doing things its own way, creating a mountain of memories and goodwill along the way.
But as soon as their Euro adventure ended with defeat to hosts France, the temptation was to ask: What now? Iceland had been drawn in a World Cup qualifying group with Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey, and besides, don’t most underdog stories end?
“The initial reaction was to say, ‘Oh, crap,’ but you always have to be optimistic,” says Asgeirsson, a board member of the Tolfan supporters’ club that has been behind many of the sights and sounds associated with Iceland’s rise and one that has made Olver its home. “You have to believe anything is possible. We’re Iceland. We live in a small fricking island in the middle of the ocean. We can’t be any other way.”
Somehow, they did it again. After it appeared that a playoff spot was their best hope for much of qualifying, a series of events on the penultimate match day left everything in Iceland’s hands. First, they thrashed Turkey 3-0 — by common consent, their best performance of this era — and then, as the seconds ticked down 2,000 miles away in Rijeka, an improbable equaliser against Croatia by Finland’s Pyry Soiri turned the group on its head.
Only winless Kosovo stood between Iceland and a place in Russia as the smallest nation to qualify for a World Cup. Hallgrimsson’s men got the job done with a 2-0 win on a wild, windy night at Laugardalsvollur. Upon the final whistle, some Tolfan members piled into a coach mustered by one of their number, who owned a travel company. “Get us downtown now” was the message, and another party began.
“It kind of didn’t surprise me,” Asgeirsson says of Iceland’s qualification. “Most of the guys had hope, although we didn’t really say it out loud. But winning the group outright? Nobody saw that coming. When I was a kid, we were told we could never dream of making it to the Euros, the World Cup, nothing. Well, that wasn’t accurate. We’re going to both. It’s crazy.”
THE FIRST DAY of Iceland’s domestic season, some six weeks before the World Cup begins, brings high drama: Having conceded an equaliser in added time against fierce rivals KR, reigning champions Valur strike even later to win 2-1. Hallgrimsson watches from the stands, enjoying the moment before slipping quietly away. Bounding in celebration on the pitch is Valur right-back Birkir Mar Saevarsson, for whom no homecoming could have been better.
Saevarsson was the rangy right-back who, in the round of 16 at the Euros, helped repel England attacks before marauding upfield, coming close to scoring at one point with one vicious drive. Now 33, he has returned to the semi-professional local league of his homeland after a decade in Norway and Sweden. When he last pulled on a Valur shirt, in 2008, Iceland finished second-bottom of their European Championship qualifying group, one point ahead of Liechtenstein.
“It’s so nice to be back on my home pitch,” Saevarsson says with a smile. “Everything has changed since last time. I was about to go out and play professionally, which was hard, and the national team wasn’t all that good. But now we’re going to Russia — and not just to participate. Hopefully [Hallgrimsson] will keep me in the team. It’s been the same group for six or seven years now, and it’s all gone well so far.”
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That is an understatement, though Hallgrimsson, who took sole control over the side after the European Championship when Lagerback left to manage Norway, has had to perform juggling acts with a team that once effectively picked itself. Even as the World Cup approaches, there are concerns over key men.
Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, the centre-forward who scored the winner versus England, has barely played since tearing his meniscus and made only the standby list for Russia. Of those in the final 23, Gylfi Sigurdsson, the team’s talisman, might not be match-fit after a knee injury curtailed his season at Everton. Aron Gunnarsson, the captain, faces his own race against time after picking up a similar problem that has required treatment in Qatar. Fortunately, for a country with Iceland’s resources, one of Hallgrimsson’s priorities upon taking charge was to mix things up.
“We are quite a bit more flexible now than we were before,” he told ESPN FC in April. “There are a lot more players that can fill the starting XI now and more experience across all our options. I’m quite happy with the way things have gone. I think that, for the future, it was necessary to involve more players, so in the qualifiers we gave younger guys a lot of responsibility. So it’s not only about the fact that we got to the World Cup. It’s also a good thing for the future of Iceland.”
That is the balance Hallgrimsson has had to strike: maintaining phenomenal results while creating a basis for the future that goes beyond the vigorous, hardworking mould set in defying the odds. His maxim is “success is not a destination,” but it is not hard to see why, before he took the chalice, some people close to him suggested he might quit while he was ahead.
“Before the Euros, we had nothing to lose,” he says. “We’d never achieved anything. Then we went to France, and after that we had everything to lose. Expectations were really high, and if we’d started losing games, people would have changed really quickly and become negative. So that was probably the reason people asked, ‘Why don’t you jump ship now?'”
HALLGRIMSSON SET OUT to make Iceland less predictable. Keeping things fresh would serve as motivation, too, in case anyone had even thought about easing up. Playing with a 4-4-2, favoured by Lagerback, brought resounding success, but it was a system from which there was rarely deviation. The next step was to become more proactive, more fluid. Underdog status can get you only so far. Iceland wanted to start taking teams on.
“We changed the tactics in the sense that in some games, we moved really high up the pitch,” Hallgrimsson says.
Iceland scored 16 goals in qualifying, and Hallgrimsson’s changes went down well among the squad. When, in April, ESPN FC met Alfred Finnbogason in Germany, where he plays for Bundesliga club Augsburg, the striker was candid about the need to evolve.
“Heimir has developed the team and made us more tactically varied,” he said. “We played a different system — sometimes one striker and five midfielders — and before that, it was always 4-4-2, no matter who we played against. These are the small things we needed to add to our game, and it’s worked out perfectly.”
Finnbogason, a hardworking and technically adept forward, was a supportive but slightly frustrated substitute during Euro 2016. Partly aided by the absence of Sigthorsson, though, he has become a key figure under Hallgrimsson, and scored three goals in the first three qualifiers.
“Finnbogason is one of the players that obviously benefited from Kolbeinn not playing with us,” Hallgrimsson says. “We needed a different style, and he is a different kind of striker from Kolbeinn, so we had to adjust to his qualities. He really benefited from the way we changed the play and also from being our No. 1 striker in the qualifying tournament.”
“The Euros were amazing to be a part of, but there’s always a bit of empty space when you don’t play as much as you hope,” Finnbogason says. “I was going there with big ambitions to be a key player, and in the end, I was a sub. That was very motivating for me at the start of this qualification because I knew I had a better position with Heimir than with Lars.
“For some reason, [Lars] preferred other players, and that was the end of the discussion, so I can’t say I was unhappy when he left. When Heimir came in, he gave me confidence directly. I scored straightaway and played a big part in the qualifiers, so it was a completely different situation for me.”
Finnbogason’s words are not intended to disparage Lagerback, whose experience and wisdom inspired awe throughout the dressing room. It is more an illustration of how the smallest of tweaks can open up new possibilities, even when the talent pool is relatively slim. Indeed, there were already signs that Iceland were capable of defying the one-dimensional stereotype.
“The second goal against England,” Finnbogason says. “If Spain had or Brazil had scored it … a long switch, three players involved in the passing movement, then a finish from the edge of the box. Sometimes we don’t get credit for the good football we can do.”
The feeling in Iceland is that necessary steps have been taken in the national team’s evolution over the last two years. In addition to developing the style of play, extra fitness and physiotherapy personnel have been added to the backroom staff, and there has been increased focus on aspects of the team’s preparation.
For example, Hallgrimsson successfully petitioned the Iceland football association to fund a chartered flight from Turkey to that showdown against Kosovo, mindful that Iceland’s opponents would spend a good chunk of the next three days travelling via bus and two planes.
“We had to plan ahead, asking for things that would normally have been said no to,” Hallgrimsson says.
ASGEIRSSON REMEMBERS AN an amused policeman in France telling members of Tolfan that they were “rule-igans, not hooligans.” It is a branding they have willingly embraced: supporters who will have a good time and drink a beer or four but self-regulate to ensure nobody crosses the line.
When Iceland played Austria at Euro 2016, fans colonised the area around O’Sullivans bar in Paris, next to the Moulin Rouge, to the extent that “three or four thousand” crammed into the locality. Before the quarterfinal against the host nation, the owner of the pub phoned to make sure they were coming back; boisterous but never boorish, they had won hearts as easily as their team.
The streets echoed to the Icelandic folk anthem “Eg Er Kominn Heim” and, of course, the thunderclap.
“I’ve met journalists recently who only wanted to know about the claps,” Asgeirsson says. “They’d ask me, ‘What’s the timing between them?’ and stuff like that. How am I meant to know that? It’s all in your gut. It’s the simplest thing you can have.”
There will be similar sounds in Russia, though things will not be quite the same. Around 8,000 Icelanders made it into the stadia two years ago and many more travelled, but only around half that figure are expected to attend the World Cup opener versus Argentina on June 16. The logistics are more difficult, but Tolfan’s operation is nevertheless in full swing.
They have drums and flags to transport to each venue: first to Moscow, then Volgograd for the match against Nigeria, before a potentially decisive meeting with Croatia in Rostov. While Hallgrimsson, his team and his staff prepare at their base in Gelendzhik, a resort town by the Black Sea that bears a resemblance to Iceland’s idyllic Euro 2016 camp in Annecy, a rotation of Tolfan members will lead the support in each city.
The FA has paid for 10 to attend each game, and Tolfan will send three groups in order to give as many as possible a chance to savour the experience and bang those drums. The idea is that they lead the support, start the thunderclaps and unite a fan base that has little in common at club level. But should we expect any new cult chants? “We’re just going to stick to the basics,” Asgeirsson says with a laugh.
While journeys to Russia are plotted and packing arrangements formed, excitement grows. Reykjavik’s streets have not pulsated with World Cup fever over the dark winter months, but that is changing and, in Olver, which will spill over again whenever Iceland are playing, new dreams are being outlined.
“We’ve been talking about Argentina,” Asgeirsson says. “They don’t play as a team. They’re just 11 individuals, and we’ve got that over them — an Icelandic team who will do anything for each other on the pitch. If we can keep [Lionel] Messi down, anything is possible.”
As Iceland have shown already, it really is.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.