So, thank you Iceland for making it a great Euro 2016 with your football and fans. They may have beaten Holland twice in the qualifiers and almost made it to the 2014 World Cup but few expected them to be more than ordinary, somewhat like what Eric Cantona thinks of Didier Deschamps abilities as a midfielder in a team that won the World Cup.
Till Sunday, Iceland had proved everyone wrong, having shared points with Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and Hungary, beating Austria and again showing to the world how bad England really are.
However, the first time they went up against a team of real quality it showed that while their improvement has been incredible -- thanks to indoor pitches, a massive pool of Uefa licensed coaches, manager Lars Lagerback and a lot of heart -- they still have some distance to cover.
Yes, Olivier Giroud was marginally off-side when he broke free and put France ahead but only television cameras would catch that. When Paul Pogba outleapt Jon Bodvarsson in a battle of No 15 shirts to head home Antoine Griezmann, France had a foot in the semi-finals. And, this quarter-final was only 20 minutes old. Iceland did conjure a training ground routine throw-in drill but Bodvarsson slid under the ball and it ballooned over Hugo Lloris’s goal.
The Iceland midfield’s inability to track back meant Dimitri Payet had all the time in the world to make it 3-0 in the 43rd minute and two minutes later, Griezmann dinked it over goalie Hannes Halldorsson. This was an improvement on Germany’s goal on Saturday in showing how quickly the ball can be moved from defence to attack. Again, like for the first goal, Iceland paid for playing a high line. Or was it inexperience?
Kolbeinn Sigthorsson’s excellent connection to a curler from Gylfi Sigurdsson made it 1-4 in the 56th minute but Giroud cheekily won a free kick and then converted Payet’s delivery to make it 5-1 three minutes later. He left to get ready for the semi-final immediately.
Most teams would have struggled to keep their heads up in such a situation but Iceland were determined to make the occasion as memorable as possible. Between the 55th and 70th minute, they still saw most of the ball and even got an 84th minute goal through Birkir Bjarnason’s header.
So, France and Germany it will be and who wouldn’t hope for a repeat of their epic clashes in the 1982 and 1986 World Cup semi-finals. Germany won both, but this time France are playing at home. And we know what happened when France played the Euros and the World Cup at home just as we know what happened when Germany last took on the home team in the semi-final of a major tournament.
That Iceland could breach France’s defence twice will give Germany hope. France couldn’t keep a clean sheet against Ireland and Romania too in this tournament but with Olivier Giroud having a good game, Griezmann being in form and Pogba improving with each knockout round, the hosts will be a lot bolder than in the 2014 World Cup quarter-final which, with a bit of luck, they could still have won.
Deschamps’ young team is now two years wiser and Mats Hummels, who scored the winner in Maracana on the day, will be suspended. Being like Germany, Deschamps had said then, was what his team aspired to be. He has a chance to show how far they have come.
The cultural composition of both teams could be an interesting aside. Griezmann has been made in Spain and with Adil Rami, N’Golo Kante, Samuel Umtiti, Payet, Moussa Sissoko, Bacary Sagna, Blaise Matuidi and Patrice Evra comprise a French team with roots as far as in Angola, Morocco and Mali among other places.
Like France, Germany, too, have a ‘multi-kulti’ (multi-cultural) team. Here, Mesut Ozil, a German of Turkish origin, provides the attacking inspiration. Emre Can, also born to Turkish parents, is a midfield option as is Leroy Sane whose father was a Senegal international. Jerome Boateng, who is of Ghanian descent, anchors the defence and he could be joined by Shkodran Mustafi who qualified to play for Albania. With Mario Gomez, whose father is Spanish, ruled out, coach Joachim Loew could consider giving Lukas Podolski a game. Podolski has Polish roots.