Iceland pulled off the greatest result in their history, coming from behind to stun England in Nice and reach the UEFA EURO 2016 quarter-finals.
Trailing to Wayne Rooney’s early penalty, Iceland tipped this round of 16 tie on its head with goals from centre-back Ragnar Sigurdsson – only his second in 60 internationals – and Kolbeinn Sigthórsson. The next chapter in the debutants’ fairy-tale run is a date with the hosts.
The spot kick, awarded for keeper Hannes Halldórsson’s foul on the recalled Raheem Sterling, was exactly the start Roy Hodgson’s men craved. It was a fourth-minute goal to coax Iceland out of their shell. What followed next, though, was as remarkable as it was unexpected from Lars Lagerbäck and Heimir Hallgrímsson’s team.
First, Aron Gunnarsson hurled the ball in, Kári Árnason outjumped Rooney and the unmarked Ragnar Sigurdsson planted the ball past Joe Hart. What must have been relief for Iceland soon turned to ecstasy.
They came again, Gylfi Sigurdsson feeding Jón Dadi Bödvarsson, who in turn found Sigthórsson. The Nantes forward’s shot from the edge of the box was not the most vicious, but it squirmed under the outstretched left glove of Hart nonetheless.
England huffed and puffed, often shooting from long range such was the barrier of blue jerseys before them. The 60th-minute introduction of Jamie Vardy had little effect. Indeed, Gunnarsson, denied by Hart, nearly extended Iceland’s lead on a late counterattack.
Man of the match: Ragnar Sigurdsson (Iceland)
Sigurdsson is a name familiar to all England fans. If Swansea City midfielder Gylfi’s namesake Ragnar was relatively unknown before this game, he will not be now. The Krasnodar defender scored, almost made it 3-1 with an audacious bicycle kick and produced a perfectly timed tackle to preserve the lead when faced with the onrushing Vardy.
There was something ironic about England, the land where the tactic is utilised at all levels, being unhinged by a long throw. It was not as if they had not been forewarned, Bödvarsson having broken the deadlock against Austria via the same method. That two of the three players involved – Árnason and Gunnarsson – have English league experience will only make it more galling.
Iceland ignore the script
A lot of pre-match talk had centred on how an early England goal would make their task easier, that they might then go on to win by two or three against opponents whose only clean sheets in the last 15 games had come against Finland and Liechtenstein. How wrong that was. England’s failings in France were apparent again: no shortage of possession but a lack of cutting edge.
“Whichever way this goes, these players are winners already,” said Iceland joint-coach Heimir Hallgrimsson yesterday. This was a no-lose situation for the Nordic side, who had “already won the hearts and minds of the Icelandic population”. Their sensational campaign goes on. Whenever they return home, they will do so as national heroes.