There are no two ways about it: the globe-straddling, battle-hardened, foaming-at-the-mouth, never-say-die berserker glory of the Iceland men’s national football team, under the tutelage of Swedish coach Erik Hamrén, has dimmed.
Of course, any manager taking on a new team needs time to bed in; to get to know his players—in this case, an insane tribe of vicious Ásatrú Vikings, all Hades-bent on fulfilling an existential quest for world domination. A manager needs time to experiment with different troop formations and battlefield systems, and to find that elusive Goldilocks zone and solve the puzzle of tactics, personnel, and the correct motivation (the promise of a half-time leg of lamb and a victory Einstök has been known to do the trick).
However, in the eight months and nine matches since Hamrén took his place on the fur-draped throne of Iceland’s great hall, the horde have won one just one game, and exhibited troubling form. After their brave but ultimately doomed debut World Cup run, Iceland lost a spate of unfriendlies before crashing out of the inaugural Nations League contest ignominiously.
Along the way, the proud, vicious, barely-hinged warriors were emphatically torpedoed by a trilogy of European footballing titans in Belgium, Switzerland and France. It was an ill-fated and unfortunate sequence of games with barely any bright points—and, to many loyal supporters, it felt like a return of the bad old days.
The hard way
The prize of the Nations League was a sought-after Euro 2020 qualification place. Without it, Iceland are now engaging in the familiar grind of doing things the hard way. Drawn in a competitive qualification group, finishing in the top two qualifying spots to enter the tournament proper doesn’t seem like a given. The team has failed to recapture the swashbuckling, blood-splattered, gung-ho glory of their Euro 2016 campaign, when they captivated the world on an unlikely journey to the quarter finals, smiting England out of contention with the force of a 100-foot wall of starving brown bears before eventually being bested by the wine-swigging ballerinas of the host nation and eventual runners-up, France.
The first step towards repeating that semi-legendary feat at Euro 2020 went well enough, when Iceland swatted aside the lightweight eleven fielded by Andorra—one of the few minnow nations in world football small enough to make Iceland feel like a superpower. The next match—a Stade de France blockbuster against the old enemy France, who’d become world champions in the meantime—went depressingly according to form, with the unruly Gauls netting four in a one-sided fixture.
All of this leaves the horde in the position they have, according to recent history, preferred—with their backs to the wall, in a do-or-die moment when potential glory rests on a good old-fashioned comeback. On June 8th, they’ll face off against the eminently beatable Albania. On the 11th, it will be a skirmish against Turkey that could either seal Iceland’s fate, or propel them into a commanding second place—assuming that France do their duty and dispatch the Turks with their trademark half-cut theatrics.
For Hamrén, these games will prove crucial. The Swede met with a lukewarm response upon his appointment, with warning bells sounded by those familiar with his work, and he’s yet to really make his mark on the team. Few fresh-faced young champions have been seen storming onto the battlefield during Hamrén’s reign, and with a first eleven consisting largely of the grizzled veterans of Iceland’s greying golden generation, invigorating the side with some new talents could be his best move to correct the course of the listing longship.
In the meantime, Iceland supporters are preparing for the matches by sharpening their sacrificial blades and bringing a goat in from the garden. International fans should bring in two—they’ll need that first one just to find a working stream. Onwards!
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