Iceland's underdogs keen for Euro 2016 adventure to continue

AP News
Posted: Jun 21, 2016 6:39 PM
Iceland's underdogs keen for Euro 2016 adventure to continue

PARIS (AP) — With a dentist as a coach, a movie director in goal and a squad of mostly unheralded players, the underdogs of Iceland were always going to be the feel-good story of the European Championship.

The smallest nation ever to compete in the Euros is showing, though, that there's a talented team behind the romantic story line.

And there's a real belief that the side could extend its stay in France beyond the group stage.

After draws against Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal and then Hungary, Iceland knows a third draw against Austria at the Stade de France in Paris on Wednesday will secure a place in the last 16.

Not a bad achievement for a tiny island nation of barely 330,000 people appearing in its first major tournament.

"It's been a wonderful experience, obviously, getting the interest that we deserve," Iceland captain Aron Gunnarsson said Tuesday. "We have fought hard to get where we are. It all started as young boys, wanting to get here.

"We are here now but that not enough in our eyes, we want to qualify and keep going. Everyone wants to stay ... the whole world likes the underdog."

The cast involved in the adventure make Iceland's story all the more charming.

There's joint-coach Heimir Hallgrimsson, who — when not managing his country's soccer team — owns a dental surgery in a small town in Iceland.

"I have dentists working at the office for me while I'm away," Hallgrimsson said Tuesday.

Then there's goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson, a movie director who was behind the music video for his nation's 2012 Eurovision Song Contest entry. His career behind the camera is on hold until his life as a soccer player is over.

"We don't want this to end," Halldorsson said. "We're really enjoying playing on the big stage."

Under Hallgrimsson and fellow coach Lars Lagerback, the Iceland team appears to be one big happy family. Gunnarsson spoke Tuesday of the players taking part in quizzes to kill the quiet time in camp and of being given a replica Cristiano Ronaldo jersey by his teammates, having failed to get the real thing off the Portugal superstar following the teams' game last week.

"I thought I'd swept that away and closed that case," a grinning Gunnarsson said. "The guys in the team decided to give me the jersey to keep the jokes going."

But Iceland means business.

Lagerback said the team hasn't played to its best yet at Euro 2016 and that it has a "really good" chance of beating Austria to reach the last 16. A draw could even be enough to qualify, either in second or third place in this expanded tournament.

"We want to show the real Icelandic attitude," said Lagerback, a Swede. "I think Austria is in for a tough game."

Gunnarsson, who plays in the second tier of the English league, said a last-16 match against England would be a "dream for every Icelander." That would happen if Iceland finished second in the group, which is its current position after two games.

"As a country, we've always looked towards England in the finals," Gunnarsson said. "The Premier League is the most-watched league in Iceland and is the most talked-about, and playing them in the finals would be special, I tell you that.

"But it's all about getting there, it doesn't matter how you do it."