Earlier this year, after their famous run in Euro 2016 and a thrilling qualifying campaign for the World Cup 2018, Iceland’s stock as a footballing force had never been higher. The team hit a record high of 21st in the World FIFA rankings and was an admired and much-discussed new force on the stage of world football, with a strong underdog appeal for international supporters.
The horde’s World Cup campaign turned out to be ill-fated. With key players rushed back from injury for the tournament and a tough group that included eventual finalists Croatia, Iceland crashed out in the group stage. Iceland sailed home, heads held high, and lived to smite another day.
Davið and the Goliaths
That day came last week, with the inaugural matches of the brand new UEFA Nations League, in which—despite dropping ten places in the FIFA rankings to 32nd—Iceland were drawn in the top tier of European football. Helmed by new Swedish coach Erik Hamrén, and with two senior defenders having been coaxed back from post-World Cup retirement, the group was tough: we’d face Eden Hazard’s Belgium (FIFA-ranked 2nd, behind only World Cup winners France) and Xherdan Shaqiri’s Switzerland (FIFA ranked 8th).
There was more worrying news. With the first round looming, and a shallow bench, Iceland would be missing totemic team captain Aron Gunnarsson—who is celebrating the arrival of a new child—and also right winger Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson, robust midfielder Emil Hallfreðsson, and first-choice striker Alfreð Finnbogason. The spine of the tough and much-admired team had been dislocated.
So it was that Iceland boarded the longship and sailed to Switzerland for the opening game. The horde was in high spirits; a new crop of berserk mushrooms and some exciting young warriors would see them through.
Or, so we thought. Switzerland rampaged around the pitch, pinging in crosses and slicing through the usually indomitable shield wall, netting twice in the first half. The marking was awful and goalkeeping hero Hannes Halldórsson seemed rooted to ground, watching the ball float past him as if in a stunned torpor.
The 2-0 half-time deficit turned to 6-0 in a disastrous second half, which featured a visibly miserable Birkir Bjarnason heading into his own net. It seemed clear that the team shaman had misjudged the potency of this year’s crop of mushrooms—the team spent the 90 minutes tripping balls, exploring a glittering, cosmic internal dreamworld instead of playing the match.
A home game against Belgium loomed just a few days later, and the comedown-grumpy squad trudged back aboard the longship, with several days at sea to discuss the correct dosage on the queasy voyage home.
It’s noted in the annals of history that the Vikings didn’t take it easy on Belgium. In fact, the longboats twice sailed up the Scheldt and trashed Ghent, razing the city in 851, and, when it was finally rebuilt in 879, returning to raze it again.
History, however, would not repeat itself. Iceland started well at the Laugardalsvöllur battlefield, but the injury-weakened team was no match for Belgium’s golden generation. Monstrous Manchester United forward Romelu Lukaku dominated the box, and despite some great deliveries from Gylfi Sigurðsson, Iceland’s second string strikers continually fluffed their lines. Iceland lost 3-0.
Sink or swim
Although there’s a new manager at the helm and some churn in the experienced eleven that has performed so well in recent years, these results aren’t quite as damning as they might seem. Any new manager needs time to get to know his squad, and this is an unfortunate baptism by fire for Hamrén against two of the best sides in the world. Winning would have been a big ask with every first-choice player at his disposal; with essential team mainstays missing and no experienced warriors ready to charge into the fray in their absence, this was a grim but predictable outcome.
It isn’t going to get any easier: Iceland will face Belgium and Switzerland again come October in the second leg of the tournament. With a month to prepare, and perhaps a wider selection of first-choice players available, hopefully we won’t see any more 6-0 brainings—but for Hamrén, who is already coming under criticism from victory-hungry fans, the sink or swim introduction to Icelandic football is set to continue.