As Arnór Ingvi Traustason slid the ball home against Austria in the dying seconds, Roy Hodgson must have breathed a sigh of relief. Cristiano Ronaldo’s brace for Portugal had fired a timely warning to England’s hopes of reaching the quarter-finals; suddenly those six changes against Slovakia looked even more regrettable. But now, thanks to Traustason, Hodgson has been handed a bailout. For all their industry as one of the surprise packages at Euro 2016, Iceland are surely a much more favourable last-16 opponent.
That has been the consensus since England escaped a meeting with Ronaldo and Portugal, but Gary Martin, an Englishman who has spent six years playing in Iceland, warns it would be foolish to underestimate his adopted country. “If England can’t break Slovakia down they’ll struggle to break Iceland down,” says Martin. “As a team they’re so together it’s scary. Nobody wants to be the superstar, they’re all just one group. They’re high on life right now.”
Martin began his career at Middlesbrough, but despite being a regular scorer in the youth and reserve teams he was released in 2010. A move to Hartlepool fell through in July and, wondering what to do next, the striker received an unexpected offer. “I got a call saying I could go to Iceland from July until the end of September, ten games then I’d come back to England and see what happens,” he explains. “But I’m still here now, ten games turned into six years.”
It has been a hugely successful six years, during which Martin has witnessed the evolution of Icelandic football that has taken the national team from 131st in the FIFA world rankings to 34th. As one of the top players in the Úrvalsdeild (Iceland’s Premier League), leading the scoring chart in two of the past three seasons with KR before joining Vikingur, Martin has benefited from the initiative to introduce more 3G playing surfaces to combat adverse weather conditions. “They’ve just relaid all the 3G pitches that needed relaying. When you get to May when the league starts, the grass pitches aren’t ready because they’ve been frozen for seven months and haven’t had time to thaw,” he says. “If they do take the next step where they make all the pitches 3G, I think the league’s going to be even better. There are six and seven-a-side pitches all over the country; kids can play on every corner, so it’s good for the national team.”
The KSI, Icelandic football’s governing body, began introducing more 3G pitches across the country in 2002. Back then, with only a handful of indoor pitches on hard floors, it was almost impossible to train during the winter. Now there are seven full-size indoor pitches, 12 half-size indoors, 23 3G surfaces outdoors, and 136 artificial mini-pitches in school domes. It’s no wonder the current generation have been nicknamed “the indoor kids”.
When Martin arrived in Iceland the effects of the new pitches were just beginning to tell. “When I came here in 2010, I watched Iceland Under-21s beat the European champions Germany 4-1 and most of that team are now in the national team. Germany had just beaten England (4-0) in the Under-21 European Championship final.”
The Under-21s became the first side to represent Iceland at a major tournament by qualifying for the 2011 European Championship, and that momentum has been maintained over the past five years. “They nearly qualified for the World Cup. When they missed out I think a lot of people thought they’d had their chance, but two years later they’re in the Euros.
“Football is on the rise here. If you look at the European results over the years in the qualifying rounds: in 2014 Stjarnan knocked out Motherwell, the second best team in Scotland, they beat Lech Poznan, the second best team in Poland, and then they lost to Inter Milan. People look down on Iceland because it’s so small, but they’re such hardworking people that it’s no fluke what’s happening. It’s just going to keep on going.”
After starting their football education in Iceland many young players move abroad to continue their professional development, often to Norway, Sweden or Denmark, or to academies in Holland, Germany and England. “The best young players leave around 16 or 17 to go abroad and then they pick up a lot there,” Martin explains. “If players leave Iceland to go to a bigger league, maybe Norway, all of a sudden they’re one of the top players in that league. The two guys who scored in the last game, Jón Daði (Böðvarsson) and Arnór Ingvi (Traustason), were both playing in Iceland in 2012. And now they’re scoring in the Euros.”
There isn’t a single representative of the Úrvalsdeild at Euro 2016, with 12 members of the national team playing in nearby Scandinavian leagues, three in Britain – Swansea’s Gylfi Sigurdsson, Aron Gunnarsson at Cardiff, and Charlton’s Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson – and the rest dotted around Italy, Germany, France, Russia, Belgium and Switzerland. “It’s a step up for them because they’re not professionals in Iceland,” says Martin. “Even though they train every day they’re not paid as a professional, they have to work. Football’s not always first for the Icelandic guys in the league, that’s just the way it is. We don’t train til five-thirty in the evening sometimes, so players will work til four every day then come to training.”
The career of national team goalkeeper Hannes Þór Halldórsson is one of the many extraordinary stories that illustrates Iceland’s rise; a country of just 320,000 people taking on the might of Ronaldo and now Rooney. Halldórsson, who remained in the Úrvalsdeild until he was 30, previously had a second job as a film director and oversaw Iceland’s entry for the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest. “I won the league with him at KR in 2013,” says Martin. “He used to be a goalkeeper and a film producer, then he was sold to Sandnes Ulf in Norway.” SagaFilm, Halldórsson’s former employer, have reportedly kept his job open for when he eventually returns.
Halldórsson’s moonlighting may demonstrate the extent to which Iceland are the underdogs for Monday’s last-16 tie, but Martin has warned against England being complacent. Hodgson has hinted that he believes his team is best set up to attack on the counter, a tactic Iceland firmly intend to put a stop to. “That’s not going to happen,” says Martin. “Iceland will defend deep and try to frustrate England. They’re very organised and I think they’ll be harder to break down than Slovakia. There will be England fans expecting four/five-nil, but that’s not going to be the case. Definitely not.
“A lot of the team have been around big players – they played Portugal and Ronaldo and it doesn’t get much bigger – so I don’t think they’ll be overwhelmed. Iceland have quality players – Birkir Bjarnason, Gylfi (Sigurdsson) obviously, Aron Gunnarsson and Kolbeinn (Sigþórsson) up front. They’re strong in all areas, people just don’t know who they are. They don’t do their background checks but when they play them they realise they’re no mugs.
“I know how it is in England. People think if you don’t play in England you’re not that good, they’ve never heard of you. They look down on different leagues because some striker’s maybe scored 60 goals in 70 games then come to England and doesn’t perform. I hope they don’t look at it like that because they could be in for a big shock.”
It’s not only in attack that England could have problems, with Iceland scoring four goals in three matches so far – one more than Hodgson’s side managed in Group B. “If England score first it should take the wind out of Iceland’s sails, but the longer the game goes on the bigger chance Iceland will have,” says Martin. “Something people often underestimate is that Icelandic players are so naturally strong. Physically they’re very strong and some of them are very quick – and they’re a danger at set-pieces. Gylfi will cause problems, any set-piece around the box England have to be worried.”
It’s unlikely Iceland will have too many worries themselves, having already surpassed all expectations by reaching the knock-out stage. Football fever has gripped the country, with the hysterical reactions of commentator Gudmundur Benediktsson – Martin’s former assistant manager – providing one of the highlights of the tournament. “He was my assistant manager last season at KR but I don’t know him like this. When he’s on TV he goes ballistic but around training he barely spoke. It was a big surprise to see him like that, but it just shows you what it means.”
— Jeremy Vine (@theJeremyVine) June 22, 2016
With some 30,000 fans flying over to France – around 10% of the population – it has been a lot quieter in the capital Reykjavik since Euro 2016 kicked off. “It’s definitely easier to go to the supermarket,” says Martin. “The other day there was a game which is like the Man United versus Liverpool in Iceland – ÍA Akranes v KR, the two biggest clubs in history – and nobody’s here. There were only four or five hundred fans, I think last year there were 2,500. It just shows you where everybody’s focus is. It’s fantastic to see, it’s what football’s about. You don’t have to have the best players to win and achieve.”
Despite Iceland’s success, Martin has nailed his colours to the mast for Monday’s encounter: “I’m going to put my England shirt on and go down to watch it in the middle of Reykjavik.” If his warnings come true and England underestimate Iceland, he could be looking to make a sharp exit at the final whistle.