It truly is the year of the ascendant underdog. In a season that saw lowly Leicester City win the English Premier League, Iceland outlined their incredible story of resilience with a 1-1 draw against Cristiano Ronaldo's mighty Portugal side. The win has also outlined the fact that football remains a team sport.
Just over 24 hours ago, Zlatan Ibrahimovic's larger-than-life presence was not enough to could earn Sweden a win over Ireland, as they managed a 1-1 draw — that too thanks to an own goal by the Irish. The EPL celebrities of Belgium were downed 2-0 by a severely dilapidated Italy. And, in Tuesday's early kick-off, Hungary beat Austria, a team generating much excitement and hype before the tournament.
Tuesday's celebrity-to-bust story was Cristiano Ronaldo's. In the 56th minute, the three-time world player of the year made his frustration evident. Even at Real Madrid, one of the world’s most expensive club teams, he has complained that other players are not as good as him.
After the game, the Portuguese captain said the Iceland performance was a result of a "small mentality", alleging that they were interested in only defending. He also belittled the celebrations by the Iceland team and supporters, saying "he thought they had won the Euros the way they celebrated at the end".
The 30,000-odd fans who had turned up for the game from Iceland comprised only about 10 per cent of the total population of Iceland. Another player might have congratulated them for a spectacular draw. But another player might have sealed the game with some goals, linking up better with his teammates. As the Iceland players did.
The stats bear out Ronaldo though. At half-time, Portugal had completed 278 passes out of 305 attempted; Iceland managed only 67 out of 105. Portugal had 67 per cent possession, and even recovered more balls: 21 to Iceland's 19. At full time, Portugal had finished 556 passes out of 605; Iceland had 135 out of 185. Ronaldo's team had 27 attempts on goal, 10 of those on target. Iceland just had four shots for the night. Truth be told, Portugal overran Iceland for most of the game. Their 4-3-3 formation attacked the Iceland goal with Mediterranean verve. The bourgeois solidity of Iceland's own 4-4-2 formation seemed desperately inadequate for large parts of the game. But for man-of-the-match, goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson, the scoreline might have been different.
Portugal's opener was typical. Midfielder Andre Gomes played a one-two with right-back Veirinha, and sent a low cross to Nani into the six-yard. Nani beat Halldorsson on the near post with a low, first touch shot. It was horrible defending, schoolyard stuff — four defenders were dragged out of position by Gomes.
Portugal ran through the channels all too easily, exposing the Iceland joint-managers' tactical rigidity; the two banks of four will not take Iceland very far into the competition, and other teams will likely punish them harder. Several chances went abegging, with Nani and Ronaldo and Veirinha all heading simple chances into Halldorsson's gloves. It looked like Iceland’s dream story would end brutally. Only it didn't. The only statistic that mattered at the end of the game was the score. And that said 1-1.
The Portuguese defence was no model either, and the minnows could have had more goals themselves. Iceland could have opened their account early with the first chance of the game, when Gylfi Sydurdson shot at Portugal goalkeeper Rui Patricio.
Their second chance arrived five minutes into the second half. And it involved Iceland's two inverted wide midfielders. The Portugal defence gave Johann Gudmundsson got enough time on the ball on the right touchline to turn to his left foot. He sent a looping cross into the penalty area, where it was met by Birkir Bjarnason, the right-footed midfielder deployed on the left. Bjarnason, whose nickname is Thor, was unmarked. He met the ball on his right shin, but his twisting shot was good enough to beat Patricio. Portugal's right-back Veirinha should have been at hand to tackle Bjarnason. Instead, he was caught woefully out of position, as he desperately lunged to intercept.
In the 70th minute, Portugal threw in the young prodigy Renato Sanchez. His industry and skill were impressive, but they could not break down the Iceland defence. It was only fitting that the last two chances, deep into injury time, fell to Ronaldo. Both were dead ball situations, in which he has such a reputation. Both the free kicks hit the wall.
It was as if Ronaldo's reputation had hit a wall. A wall of ice.