FIFA World Cup raid ends in Rostov but Iceland’s saga not over
As anyone who has read the Islendingasogur, or even watched ‘Thor III: Ragnarok’, can tell you, not every Norse tale of conquest and adventure can have a happy ending.
So it was in Rostov-on-Don on Tuesday, where Iceland’s attempts to reach the FIFA World Cup’s round of 16 ran aground. It was not for lack of effort.
After initially struggling to interrupt the pretty passing of a much-changed and already qualified Croatia team, Heimir Hallgrimsson’s players, through the sheer force of will that has characterised their rise from obscurity to earn a place in the hearts of neutrals the world over, slowly began to make their presence felt.
In the final five minutes before half-time, Alfred Finnbogason and captain Aron Gunnarsson both went close to breaking the deadlock.
Even when Milan Badelj put Croatia ahead, Iceland responded emphatically, refusing to acknowledge the looming reality of their tournament mortality.
If there is a World Cup afterlife for those who performed heroic deeds in a losing cause, Sverrir Ingi Ingason will deserve his place in the FIFA-sponsored equivalent of Valhalla, having forced Lovre Kalinic to tip one header over the bar, before crashing a second against the woodwork a minute later.
Such fine margins between glory and despair, less than the length of the bright red beards gamely sported by Iceland’s taciturn supporters, whose appeal to divine intervention in the form of Viking ‘thunderclap’ chant fell on deaf ears.
They received an ally in their quest in the form of Russian fans, whose affinity for FC Rostov automatically translated into loyalty to Iceland, given Ingason, Ragnar Sigurdsson and Bjorn Bergmann Sigurdarson all ply their trade for the local team.
It was Sigurdarson who scored the first goal at the city’s new arena in April in a Russian Premier League match, and Everton’s Gylfi Sigurdsson followed suit on Tuesday, winning and converting the 76th-minute penalty that made it 1-1 and offered the team agonising hope of sustaining their journey.
Ultimately, the combination of circumstances necessary to propel them forward did not transpire, but only just.
With Nigeria crumbling late on in St Petersburg, if the third goal in Rostov had fallen to Iceland rather than Croatia’s Ivan Perisic, it would have been Jorge Sampaoli and Lionel Messi going home, perhaps deservedly given the hereto underwhelming use of their gifts and resources relative to the tiny Nordic nation.
There were tears on the pitch and in the stands amid a farewell thunderclap following the final whistle and the disappointment will linger for Hallgrimsson, Gunnarsson and the squad, but not for too long. They are made of sterner stuff than that.
Iceland have done themselves proud on the biggest stage in the game, won yet more admirers and will surely be at Euro 2020, ready to launch another raid on football’s mainland. Increasingly, we will expect them.