The confidence that proved to be Iceland’s undoing was acquired in their previous game against England. After establishing their lead in the first half, Iceland played higher up the pitch, almost baiting England. We all enjoyed watching the tiny islanders humiliate England’s mighty EPL superstars, all the while maintaining a high defensive line and practicing actual ball control. But Iceland had been lulled by a dreadful England performance.
In the quarter-final, Iceland was up against a very different team. France sparkled and dominated and punished Iceland for trying what they actually don’t know very well. When you play high up the pitch and hold your defensive line around the half-line mark, you have to keep possession and hold the ball in your opponents half. Iceland’s players do not have the technical skills to do that. Especially not against a France team that demonstrated why so much has been expected of them.
For the fifth time in five games, Iceland’s joint-managers Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson fielded the same eleven. But they did not stick to the tactics that saw them go to the deep end of this tournament, making us wonder how far this fairytale would go. Now, we are left asking ourselves: What if Iceland had stuck to the kind of game they know? What if they had decided to stick with gritty defending deep inside their own half and looking to score via counter-attacks and long throw-ins? Especially given that it had rained a lot, and a wet pitch would have helped them in close, tight encounters?
France tore through the defence all too easily and all too early. Olivier Giroud and man-of-the-match Antoine Griezmann ran through the channels all too readily; they ran off the shoulders of Iceland’s defenders and found much joy doing that. Moussa Sissoko was impressive on the right wing, Dimitri Payet was equally comfortable cutting into the middle from the left, right between the two banks of Iceland’s 4-4-2. In the middle of the pitch, Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi pressured Iceland’s central midfielders Aron Gunnarsson and Gylfi Sigurdsson.
It looked like a game between two tactical eras. Iceland playing a confused version of a 4-4-2 system straight out of the 1970s, and France played in dynamic modern triangles all across the pitch in the 4-2-3-1 that is the standard now.
Iceland got two goals and had a few missed chances. In the 24th minute, a Gunnarsson long throw-in created one of Iceland’s trademark chances, with the French defence looking foxed by what they must’ve talked and practiced over and over in the past few days. Johann Bodvarsson reached out but failed to make a good connection, the ball lobbing above the crossbar. The French ’keeper Hugo Lloris was forced to make at least one spectacular save.
The French defence was not very assured, neither were the French transitions from defence to attack; the most productive pair to string together passes was that of the two centre-backs. If Iceland had defended the initial French onslaught by defending deep, sticking what they know well, there is no escaping the thought that the match would have been very different. As also the fact that the Germany team would have made their notes about France’s defence before the semi-final.
Now that Iceland have finally – quarter-finally – lost a game in a major tournament, there is the time to take the long view. Make up our mind about the meaning of their remarkable run in Euro 2016. What does this mean for the future? Are we to now take Iceland seriously when we look at the international football calendar to mark important dates?
The most obvious comparison is with Greece, who won the European Championship in 2004. Yet that became a one-off, for we did not see Greece contend after that most remarkable of all titles. In 2008, Greece crashed out of the Euros after losing all three of their group stage games. In 2012, Greece won their game against Russia 1-0, drew their game against an underwhelming Poland, and lost 1-2 to the Czech Republic. In the quarter-finals, they were overhauled 2-4 by Germany.
It is unlikely that Iceland will retreat into the Greece-like margins, however. Their success is of a different sort. While Greece enjoyed a tournament in which their tactics proved successful, the success did not result from changes in domestic football. This Icelandic team, though, has come through more than a decade of a concerted programme to nurture young players. From all-weather pitches and stadiums, to the training and appointment of a large number of coaches, Iceland has shown how it is possible to nurture and develop a sport – as also an example of how to nurture its young players. Iceland’s football administrators are invested in their people.
It will not be long before Iceland’s football story becomes a topic of research papers in sociology and sports administration. Management courses will use it as an example of human development. Iceland’s football story will become a contrast to how the game is managed purely along the lines of economics in England, not the least because of Iceland’s victory over England.
Iceland has given football a fresh, new idiom. Norse mythology has found a new niche in football. The valkyries of Euro 2016 chose vikings to fall in the battle of the quarter-final. They may get carried to the halls of Valhalla, but this is no Gotterdamerung, this is no Twilight of the Gods as interpreted by Richard Wagner in his famous opera (and famously reinterpreted in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalyse Now). The vikings don’t go berserk. They are actually setting a modern and civilised example of how to develop young players, how to develop a sport.
This is not an end. It is a beginning, with the Ode To Joy audible in the backdrop to the rumbling of volcanoes and earthquakes.