NICE, France (AP) — Iceland has become the darling of the European Championship thanks to its underdog status and an uncompromising 4-4-2 formation that has made the team unbeatable so far in France.
Don’t expect any changes when the smallest country in the tournament takes on the host nation at the Stade de France on Sunday.
“We didn’t have so much problems defending (against) the English, and also in ball possession we created a lot of good chances,” the team’s co-coach Heimir Hallgrimsson said after his team came back from an early deficit to stun England 2-1 in Nice. “If the players play with the same attitude, we can beat anyone.”
In qualification and now in France, the collection of unheralded Icelandic players has forged into a tight-knit formation that gives away almost no chances and has proved clinical when it has broken out to swiftly turn defense into attack. Two 1-1 draws against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and then Hungary followed by a 2-1 defeat of Austria ensured Iceland qualified for the knockout stage in its first appearance at a major tournament.
Then came Monday night’s round-of-16 clash with England and another victory that sent the remote island nation of 330,000 people into ecstasy.
“Whoever’s not out celebrating is probably trying to get a ticket to France for the next game,” Thorir Gudmundsson, a charity worker from Reykjavik, said after the win.
The fever pitch in Iceland is matched by the team’s traveling fans in France.
After the game at the Stade de Nice, the Iceland players led thousands of their supporters in a traditional Viking chant called the “Huh!” — repeating the guttural-sounding title over and over in an effort to terrify opponents.
The chant also echoed through the streets of Nice, where fans wandered through the city deep into the night looking for one more beer to celebrate, while many England fans trudged back to their hotels.
“They were amazing, the boys on the pitch were fantastic but the fans were amazing,” said Hallgrimsson, a dentist when he is not coaching his country. “Hopefully in Stade de France we will have more tickets and we can import a lot of Icelanders.”
Kari Arnason’s pairing with Ragnar Sigurdsson at the heart of Iceland’s four-man defense is a key platform for the team and will have to be at its best against the likes of Dimitri Payet and Antoine Griezmann at the Stade de France.
“Me and Ragnar have got such a good cooperation now,” Arnason said. “We felt we had it under control the whole game.”
And if their opponents do get past the back four, there is always goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson to stop them.
Halldorsson, a film director when he is not keeping for Iceland or Norwegian club Bodo/Glimt, has saved a tournament-leading 23 shots.
He may well be among Icelanders able to pick up a lucrative new club contract after the team’s showing in France.
“Some of these players … deserve to get contracts at higher levels than they are playing now,” co-coach Lars Lagerbaeck said.
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