KEIR RADNEDGE in MOSCOW: Anyone who thought Iceland pretty cool two years ago in France should have heard coach Heimir Hallgrimsson ahead of their World Cup debut here tomorrow against Argentina. He wasn’t even as heated as that.
The new Spartak stadium in the north-west of Moscow sees the Icelanders not only undertake their debut at the World Cup finals but do so against twice-champions Argentina led by the great Lionel Messi.
This combination might induce all sorts of eye-twitching verbal pyrotechnics from other coaches but not Hallgrimsson, leaning back in his chair, relaxed as could be. Even commanding the moment enough to disarm the world’s media by telling them: “To answer the question before you ask, I’m still a dentist and I will never stop being a dentist.”
His clients must be the most relaxed dental patients in the world.
The first challenging question, labelling Iceland’s quarter-finals progress at the 2016 European Championship in France as a miracle, was quickly frozen off the agenda.
Hallgrimsson said: “I do not agree. The team has been stable for the last four years, we are 22nd in the FIFA ranking and we won our qualifying group. We deserve to be here.
“It’s down to knowing your strengths and weaknesses. We play a different style of football to many teams here in the finals but if you work together as a unit then anything is achievable and I hope we can continue showing that.
“If someone is surprised then they don’t know much about the Iceland national team.
“People can’t help but love us. We don’t fight anyone. We only had the ‘cod war’ and nobody got hurt there. It’s a little nation and you can’t help but love us.”
The Argentinian media was waiting to pounce, not interested in love and fish. What was his recipe for dealing with Messi – his ‘Messipe’, as it were.
Hallgrimsson dissembled again: “I don’t have a magic formula. Everyone has tried everything against him and he always manages to score a goal. We’ll help each other and try to do it as a team. It would unfair to give some player the role of guarding Messi. That would not be fair.”
Any sort of a positive result – win or draw or even narrow defeat – and some lucky Russian pub or bar will witness another characteristic celebratory concentration of fans, players and coaches.
As Hallgrimsson, in massive understatement, explained it: “I understand that, for other nations, this is strange and probably couldn’t happen but it shows the unity between the fans and the team and the respect we get from them and we use this to maximise our potential in the pitch.
“It’s more than a football game – this is part of them. We give the fans ownership in the team and vice versa. You can see it in their eyes. It means more to them than it does to a general guy who comes to watch a game and support a team.”
All this should not be read as disrespect to the World Cup, merely an insistence on logic which is generally the first casualty of other footballing nations’ over-expectations.
Hallgrimsson said: “This World Cup is huge, the biggest games that we will play, but this is only June in 2018 and Icelandic football doesn’t stand or fall by the results in three group games.
“We know we can have the best game of their lives tomorrow and still lose to Argentina. That’s just reality.
“For an underdog team the worst thing you can do is stop and restart the engine. So we think further ahead. Our goal is to progress from the group and, if we do that, then we will have left behind two really good teams and we shouldn’t fear anyone we have to face after that.”