Hannes Halldorsson: The Icelandic film director who saved a Lionel Messi penalty

It’s a storyline that wouldn’t look out of place on the big screen. The chronically injured goalkeeper down on his luck and unable to play the sport he loves during his formative years, suddenly finding himself at the World Cup going head-to-head with a global icon.

But as Iceland glovesman Hannes Halldorsson claps his gloves together in preparation for Lionel Messi’s penalty kick, this isn’t a plot dreamed up by some bigwig director. It’s the 2018 World Cup, and most definitely real life.

The Argentinian’s penalty is at the perfect height for Halldorsson, who dives to his right in a direct collision course with the ball – getting across to parry the forward’s shot away to safety. Messi has been vanquished.

“My story being a lower-league goalkeeper in Iceland and ending it saving a penalty against the best football player in the world sounds like something from a bad cliché Hollywood sports movie,” Halldorsson jokes. “But I’m probably not going to make that one myself.”

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Best known for being the part-time film director keeping net for Iceland during their runs to Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup, Halldorsson’s story is so much more than that.

Despite his exploits for the Scandinavian minnows, the shot-stopper was close to never pulling on his gloves at all after a series of shoulder dislocations meant many of his teenage years were spent editing short movies rather than on the pitch. Hardly the usual grounding for a player who’s gone on to win 77 international caps.

“I didn’t play any football from the age of 15 to 19,” recalls Halldorsson. “At 20 years old, I was at a crossroads and had surgery to fix my shoulder, so I was able to try to get back on my feet with football. But at that time, the local club I was playing for [Leiknir Reykjavik] were in Iceland’s third division, so you don’t get much lower than that in world football.

“When I decided at the age of 21 to give football one last go, I had to start from the bottom in this third division team. At the same time, my film-making career was starting to roll a little bit, so I really didn’t think football would get me anywhere. I wanted to play in Iceland’s top division, that was my goal at the time.”

It didn’t start well. Handed his chance to shine for Leiknir in an end-of-season promotion decider when number-one Valur Gunnarsson was sent off, Halldorsson suffered from stage fright – scuffing a goal kick to the opposition striker to score the decisive goal. Leiknir missed out on promotion, and it was undeniably the goalkeeper’s fault.

The obvious scapegoat, Halldorsson was released and struggled to find a new club. Several speculative enquiries were rejected until fellow third-tier side Afturelding finally provided him with a chance for redemption.

There’d be no more bumps in the road. Within two years, the six-foot-four keeper had achieved his aim of hitting Iceland’s top tier when he signed for Fram, continuing his upwards trajectory by earning his maiden international cap in 2011.

His emergence would coincide with a golden period for the Nordic underdogs as they transformed from also-rans to qualification challengers. After losing to Croatia in a play-off to reach the 2014 World Cup, Strákarnir Okkar made it to Euro 2016 – shocking Roy Hodgson’s England in the last-16 on the way to an unlikely quarter-final.

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“It all started with Lars [Lagerback],” Halldorsson says. “He came in [as manager] in 2011 and at the same time, we had our best generation. So when everything came together and we started winning, we had the perfect coaches, the stadium was packed, we had the self-belief and chemistry in the team – everything just clicked.

“For six to eight years, we were almost impossible to beat at home and didn’t lose. We had an unbelievable run. We entered four competitions and two of them we qualified for and two of them we played play-offs.

“Before that, no Icelandic team had ever reached the play-offs, so we had an unbelievable run and it’s going to be difficult to repeat, but it was one hell of a ride.”

Along that journey came that meeting with Messi. It would have been a landmark occasion regardless of the result, as Iceland made their World Cup bow to become the smallest nation to ever appear at the finals.

Halldorsson and his team-mates had already done themselves proud by keeping the scores level at 1-1 but when Hordur Magnusson hauled down Maximiliano Meza to give away the penalty, most people naturally assumed Messi would tuck it away. Not the man in between the sticks, though.

“I looked at a lot of penalties the night before [the game] and decided I would dive right,” Halldorsson tells The Set Pieces. “He [Messi] had shot in exactly the same spot for his last penalty… and we came to the conclusion this would be the most likely scenario again.

“I did something right before he kicked, I don’t know if it had an effect – I let out a quick noise and clapped my hands, and tried to disturb him a bit. He didn’t shoot the perfect shot and was lucky enough to save it.

“You need a lot of luck on your side just to save a penalty, let alone saving a penalty from the best footballer in the world in the first game your tiny nation is playing at a World Cup. After being a lower-league goalkeeper 15 years before, it’s an unbelievable scenario so you need unbelievable luck for things to line up for this to eventually happen.”

Halldorsson’s save went a long way to securing Iceland a memorable point on their World Cup debut. Yet despite being held aloft as the hero of the hour, the 37-year-old says it isn’t his top moment as player – that title belongs to that summer in France two years earlier.

“The Euros is my career highlight,” he says decisively. “The Euros was the first one, everything worked out for us there.

“We didn’t lose a game until the quarter-finals [5-2 against hosts France] and we were experiencing it all for the first time. We were staying in a fantastic place in a hotel we had to ourselves. It felt like we were in a hotel with a bunch of friends, just hanging out, in fantastic weather, having a vacation, but playing a huge game every five days.

“It was the time of our lives and things just worked out well – it climaxed by beating England. Iceland had been hoping to play England for decades and we never had, so to finally play England in those circumstances when we’d reached our goal by going through the group stage was unbelievable. It was the time of our lives, I think everybody can agree.”

Now in the twilight of his career playing at Valur back in his homeland, the goalkeeper’s personal aspirations have tipped back towards the silver screen. Throughout his football journey, he retained his work as a director, working on the video for Iceland’s 2012 Eurovision entry and for an advert for Coca-Cola that aired during the 2018 World Cup.

His latest major project is the release of his first film, Cop Secret, an action-comedy centring around a policeman who falls in love with his new partner as the pair investigate a string of bank robberies where nothing seems to have been stolen. It’s as bonkers as it sounds and has been selected at London Film Festival in the Laugh category.

“My inspiration is all sorts of classic action movies: Tango & Cash, Die Hard and Lethal Weapon, also some more recent ones,” Halldorsson explains.

“There’s a close resemblance to Hot Fuzz where you have the best cop in London and place him in a tiny town in England where nothing happens. It’s similar in many ways to having an action movie in Reykjavik, where nothing happens [either].

“Obviously nobody speaks in one liners and we don’t have supervillains and the cops don’t even carry guns in Iceland, so that’s the core of the comedy of the movie to have all these over-the-top things happening in our peaceful city.”

Halldorsson promises big, ridiculous stunts and extreme scenarios in a “movie with a soul and real characters”. In the final sequence, there’s a nod to his other life as a footballer, with a high-octane scene taking place to the backdrop of a fictional Iceland match against England at the national stadium in Reykjavik.

But despite it featuring the same opposition as one of Icelandic football’s most famous nights, Halldorsson says it’s not an attempt to poke fun at his English viewers. Honest.

“When we started writing this 10 years, we decided then to have the final sequence taking place at the national stadium, where Iceland are playing against England,” he adds.

“It’s a funny coincidence because, at the time, Iceland had never played England, and it’s always been the dream of the Icelandic nation to face England. So that’s kind of the biggest thing we could imagine at the time, if we were playing England with all those superstars and there’s a full stadium – everybody would be focusing on that game. And that leaves everything clear for whatever scheme we have for the supervillain.

“It was hard just making it and keeping it in, and it would have been easy to take it out with budget and everything, but we decided to keep it in for many reasons. We wanted it to be big and it has some subtext in it, so we decided to go for it.”

It brings us back round to the idea of Halldorsson featuring in his own biopic, or one telling the story of Iceland’s football fairy tale. So if it happened, who would he like to see cast to play him?

“If I had to be old…” he tails off, thinking. “It would be Peter Stormare. If I was 60 years old, I think it would be him because we have a resemblance. But a young me, I don’t know.”

TSP counters with Sylvester Stallone, despite his advancing years, based on his performance as makeshift goalkeeper Captain Robert Hatch in cult classic Escape to Victory.

“I haven’t seen it, but I know the film,” Halldorsson laughs. “We have the same eyes, Sylvester Stallone and me, and we could get back in shape.”

It wouldn’t look out of place on the big screen.

Hannes Halldorsson: The Icelandic film director who saved a Lionel Messi penalty
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