As the first round of Russia World Cup group stage came to an end, it’s been well and truly a tournament of the unexpected. Almost all of the pre-tournament favourites failed to put up a convincing show with defending champions Germany sinking at the face of relentless Mexican waves being the most eye catching failure of the lot.
But to me the standout memory was the passion of the Icelandic Vikings and their incredible defensive shutout against Argentina, with such an offensive surplus that they had to leave out Mauro Icardi home.
In their first ever World Cup match, Iceland’s lesser known stars displayed passion and determination of men fighting to save their lives. Watching them thwart away barrages of Argentinian attacks was spine tingling, further proving Iceland’s status as one of the worst team to play against. The sight of Lionel Messi being marked out with such perfection and efficiency reaffirmed our belief that football is a team game and ultimately that Messi is just as human as us.
To a generation of football fans spoon fed by compressed highlight reels of goals and attacks in YouTube videos defending might seem like a menial job. But for a nation, for whom even getting close to the sights and smells of world cup is an achievement itself, defending seemed to be the only way against a team with stars who earn more than their entire team put together.
To put things in perspective, Iceland’s goalkeeper who saved the penalty of Messi, Hannes Halldórsson is a part-time director, who in fact was the creator of their goosebumps inducing World Cup promo sponsored by Coca-Cola. Their manager, Heimir Hallgrímsson is a part time dentist, who fills in as their coach too. The difference is as defined as it gets.
The discipline and positional sense they displayed throughout the game was impeccable and deserves all the appreciation in the world.
Iceland may not win the world cup or even qualify from their group. But with their valiant display against all odds they are footballing proof that anything is possible if you are driven by the determination to succeed, no matter what the obstacle lies in front you might end up getting there. To the millions of underdogs out there, Iceland is laying out the blueprint for you to achieve the impossible.
Other than the sheer joy of rooting for an underdog, Iceland’s performance is also a reminder that how much planning, farsightedness and infrastructure are important for developing football at any level. For a nation with only six months of ideal weather conditions to play football, their decision to build all weather indoor stadiums to ensure yearlong football, back in early 2000’s is ultimately the root of all the success they are enjoying.
Iceland’s big break came in Euro 2016 when they qualified out of a tightest group of that tournament and shocked the world by upsetting England in the round of 16 in a display of true grit. When everyone presumed that was the pinnacle of their footballing achievement, here they come two years later, forcing a stalemate out of a nation 125 times their size and with a footballing history and achievements vaster than their frozen nation.
P.S – Diego Simeone is in no way directly associated with the world cup. But I really doubt if there was a more conflicted man watching the match between Iceland and Argentina. Here was a team producing their best impression of the type of gritty football he perfected and professed for almost a decade at Atletico Madrid, but unfortunately they employed it to effect against his own homeland. Speak of irony.