Ragnar Lothbrok in the series Vikings believed that in order to attain Valhalla (heaven) one had to be fearless when faced with the impossible.
This XI Vikings from Iceland looked to be carrying in them the germs of the same intoxicating philosophy in the fields of Kazan in Russia. For these World Cup debutants played against three time champions Argentina like they have rivalled them all their lives and left the field with heads held high.
Led by the audacious Arron Gunnarson, who by the way looks very much like Ragnar, his band of fighters stood up for every pass, rallied to thawrt every volley and matched the Latin American flair with a dour resistance not known to the world outside this little country where the best laid plans are set awry everyday by either flash blizzards or sudden volcanic erruptions.
Set on the fault line between two tectonic plates near the Antartica, this country of around 3.4 lakhs people, looks like a far shot from something as romatic and velvety as football. In a country where the sun forgets to rise for a little more than three months and open landis either Tundra or lava, it’s not fit to cultivate almost anything. Leave aside the bounty of football.
But they have done the impossible. After the disaster of 2012, the country’s football team rose from the ashes under the leadership of Swedish manager Lars Lagerbäck. They beat Holland twice while qualifying for their first major championships, Euro 2016 in France.
In the group stages, the team registered an unlikely draw against Portugal and an even unlikelier victory against Austria. And then, in the knockout round of 16, they did the unlikeliest thing of all: they beat England 2-1. England, their neighbours across the salted pond. England, a country populated by 155 times more people. England, the self-proclaimed inventor of football. Iceland had arrived on the world stage.
So today aided by the loyal band of supporters who call themselves‘Tolfans’, which means 12th man, they got on to the ground with anair of arrogance that should have been gauged by Messi and his men. They knew that they had arrived late at the world stage and hence had the fire in their belly to prove themselves. This was matched with a chilly resolve that could not be impressed upon by a few deft passes and dainty dribbles.
Under manager Heimir Hallgrímsson, a dentist with his own practice, the team’s trajectory has continued to spike. Iceland is currently ranked 22 in the world; they’ve been as high as 18. And it showed on the field crescendoed by the Viking battlecry from the galleries.
They are a nation perpetually prepared for the worst and hence anything better makes them go bonkers. Even a sliver of hope. Once the team fed with talents like Alfred Finnbogason, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Ragnar Sigurdsson saw they caught the Argentinians on the wrong foot there was no looking back. For they were a generation of players who have been perfected at Breidablik. The football factory of Iceland where over 100 coaches, all with UEFA Badges, train around 500 kids all through the day.
As I was saying, in a country where being prepared sounds like a day-dream, preparedness to meet the dangers is the way forward. So came up Brediablik, a warehouse like huge domed, concrete-grey hangar. It’s classic Icelandic architecture: pragmatic to a fault line. In it throbs the land’s biggest sports complex. The hangar houses a full-size artificial football pitch, segmented for most of the day into smaller temporary pitches, on which a cacophony of children play football – 100 at a time, 500 in total on any afternoon. Off to the side, there are basketball courts, table-tennis tables boards and space for other indoor games. Here they blossomed and their game with it.
So when Hannes Thór Halldórsson dived to his right to stop Leonel Messi, with him Iceland took a giant leap into future away from the chaos of ‘Kreppa’ and into the Valhalla where football Gods wait for them.