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To Russia With Love

Magazine

To Russia With Love

By: Jóhann Páll Ástvaldsson

September 6, 2013. It’s a warm fall evening in Bern, and Iceland squares up against a much-fancied Switzerland side in a World Cup qualifying match for. Iceland, led by Swedish coach Lars Lägerback and his assistant, Heimir Hallgrímsson, have performed admirably so far in qualification. The dream of playing in fabled Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro, the home of football in Brazil, is still distant, however. After an unexpected Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson opener, the Swiss team appear to be a number too big for the Icelandic players, as Iceland find themselves 4-1 down 54 minutes in. After a quickfire Icelandic equalizer, Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson steps up as he scores two breathtaking goals to draw the Icelanders level and complete his hat-trick – the first one that an Icelander has ever scored in a competitive match. The image of the Icelandic team celebrating still lingers in people’s memories. That night in Bern gave both the nation and the team a newfound belief – and Iceland hasn’t looked back since.

It's five years later and Jóhann Berg is gearing up for the World Cup tournament in Russia. Although the surroundings will be different, the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow will be the setting of the same spectacle as the sandy beaches of Brazil promised some years back. The Icelandic team came so close in 2013, losing a play-off matchup against Croatia. The Croatians wait again this time around, as they have been drawn with Iceland in a group. Jóhann Berg is riding high into to the tournament, as he enjoyed a fantastic season with unfancied outfit Burnley in the English Premier League. He was voted into the ESPN Team of the year for players outside England’s top six and has provided 8 assists along with goals against stalwarts such as Liverpool and Manchester City. If anyone is ready for the World Cup, it’s Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson. We picked Jóhann’s brain on the upcoming World Cup, beating England at the EURO 2016, and his Counter Strike skills.

Jói Bern and playoff heartbreak

After the hat-trick in Bern, Jóhann Berg received the apt nickname Jóhann Bern. “That night in Bern helped the team immensely. We saw how good we could really become. It was one massive step in the process of us going to the World Cup. It was a magnificent night for Icelanders as well as me personally. I will always look back fondly on that night.” The dream of qualifying for Brazil 2014 ended abruptly, however, in a two-legged playoff against Croatia. At the time, many Icelanders felt that they had lost their one and only chance and the players struggled with the defeat. “It was difficult to recover from that blow. There were many who believed this was the closest we would ever come to qualifying for the World Cup. What helped us immensely was to recover by qualifying for the EURO 2016. Then we managed, incredibly, to seal our ticket to the World Cup by coming in 1st place in a group with four teams who played at the EURO 2016.”

World Cup fever

Iceland is the smallest nation ever to reach a World Cup tournament, so Icelanders are eagerly waiting for the matches in Russia this summer. Qualifying for the World Cup is way bigger than we realize, I think. In a few years, we will look back on these achievements and realize how great they are. I’m just trying to enjoy the moment while it lasts.” He’s also recognises the pressure they’re under, as the team was the darling of the EURO 2016. “When you perform well, it makes people sit up and notice. There is pressure on us to do well after our performance at EURO 2016, but I’m not stressed about it. I am just going to play football at the World Cup and have fun. We can do great things if we give a 100% in every match.”

Heimir Hallgrímsson

During Heimir Hallgrímsson’s reign as the Icelandic national team’s manager, Iceland has enjoyed unprecedent success, qualifying for the EURO 2016 and will now step on the grandest sporting stage of them all, the World Cup. By doing so, Iceland became the smallest nation ever to qualify for the tournament.

Heimir’s honest approach to work and life has gained him many admirers. Testament to how beloved he is by his countrymen, a hop heavy pale ale named Heimir has recently been specially brewed in his honour. We sat down with the charming Heimir to discuss his background in dentistry, his philosophy, and how he plans to stop Lionel Messi this summer.

Team Iceland vs. Messi

Iceland will face off against Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria at the World Cup and the first hurdle at the tournament will be stopping Lionel Messi on the 16th of June in Moscow. “We always work as a team, even when facing superstars. We would never ask one player to stop Lionel Messi, it would be unfair. We do everything together – that is our philosophy.” Teamwork and unity is what sets Iceland apart from other teams. According to Heimir, “Our identity is based on working as a team. There are certain fields we want to be the best in and these are different from other nations. We are unique due to the players hard-working nature and unity we display on the field”.

Sharing top secrets

Heimir started out as assistant coach to Swede Lars Lagerback in 2011, at a point when interest in the Icelandic team was at a low and the team hovered around 130 on the FIFA World Rankings. Since Heimir’s work with the team started, Iceland has progressed step by step and is now ranked as the 22nd best footballing nation in the world. He took it upon himself to meet Tólfan, the Icelandic supporters group, in a small pub before the Icelandic team’s home matches. In the meeting, he discusses tactics and discloses the team’s starting line-up, sometimes even before the players themselves know the starting eleven. “Our relationship is on another level. This is unthinkable for other national teams. When we started out there were only seven people attending in a small room. It has grown since then, along with our respect for each other.” Heimir is not afraid to disclose secrets to the select group of fans, “No one wants to destroy this by leaking anything out.”

Heimir for president?

After the Icelandic team’s success at EURO 2016 there were many who called for the Swedish coach Lars Lagerback to run for the President of Iceland. When asked if he will be in the same position if Iceland performs well at the World Cup, Heimir laughs “I know President Gudni Th. Jóhannesson well enough, and he can do no wrong. If he puts on the wrong pair of socks it simply becomes a trend. There is no-one who will overthrow him unless he decides to leave himself.” On that note, we say goodbye to Heimir and wish him well for the challenges waiting at the World Cup – Áfram Ísland!

Read the full article in the June-July issue of Iceland Review magazine. Subscribe here.