Hallgrimsson reflects on Iceland’s stunning Euro run

Iceland's football coach Heimir Hallgrimsson spoke about his team's journey to the quarterfinals of Euro 2016 after it was nominated for the Laureus World Breakthrough of the Year award.

Heimir Hallgrimsson admitted Iceland's victory over England was "one of the best games of [his players'] lives".   -  Reuters

Iceland’s draw against Portugal in the European Championships last year was the “most important moment” for the island nation in its successful campaign in the tournament, its coach Heimir Hallgrimsson has said. The underdog equalised via Birkir Bjarnason to churn out a 1-1 draw that allowed it to gain confidence for a run of form to reach the quarterfinals. The team’s performance has propelled it to be considered as a nominee for the Laureus World Breakthrough of the Year award.

“I think the goal and draw against Portugal in the first game was the most important for us psychologically. When you do something for the first time in history, there’s always a little bird on your shoulder that says you’re too small to do it; so you believe it. You don’t know what’s going to happen. We were playing the best team - that in the end was crowned the European Champions - in the first game, and we managed to get a point from that game. And I think after that game, we had a lot of mental attitude with the players and the staff, because we managed to get a point from the game against Portugal, and we think we can do anything,” Hallgrimsson said, in an interview with mediapersons via a conference call.

Hallgrimsson praised the attitude and character of his players in going against the tide for its stunning run. Despite having been grouped alongside strong teams – Hungary, Portugal and Austria – the players believed they could qualify past the first round, and when Iceland did, Hallgrimsson said it was not a surprise.

“I think what gives this group of players the possibilities of succeeding is their character and their ambition is really 100 per cent. And I don't think we played a game where we have not given 100 per cent in the game. So, I think the attitude and the character of the players are so important. The ambition before the tournament, was always that we are going to qualify from our group, and even though we had good teams in our group, it was always our aim to do it. We talk that way, and we really, really believed that we could do it. It was a shock to some, but it was never a surprise to us that we would qualify from our group,” Hallgrimsson said.

Advantage of the underdog

Iceland’s major scalp in the tournament, however, was England. It knocked the heavyweight out in the Last-16 stage with a 2-1 win to storm through to the quarterfinals. For Hallgrimsson, it was a result of being “relaxed”.

“We played a good game against Austria. But we played even better against England. That is, I think, the advantage of the underdog; that you can go into a game like this really relaxed, and when you are relaxed when you are playing, you can show your best sides. But if you're stressed up and if you have everything to lose, you kind of stiffen up and you can't show your best abilities. But I think in that particular game, many of our players played probably one of the best games in their lives, and that’s down to their mental preparation,” Hallgrimsson said.

Hallgrimsson particularly credited Iceland’s fans for their support. “It's kind of the connection between the fans and the players and the staff, is most and the supporters is more united than in other countries. The players doing interviews after the tournaments and said that ‘I looked up into the stands and I saw my mother, I saw my uncle, I saw my friend, some guys I went to school with’. I think almost everyone in the stand had some connection to a player or a staff member or someone on the pitch,” he said.

The achievement truly “sunk in” only when the team was greeted warmly upon returning home. “I think when we came home, we got this fantastic reception. Yeah, knocked out in the final eight, getting the reception when we came was amazing. So maybe then we realised how we did something special in Iceland,” Hallgrimsson said.

The coach, who also works as a dentist, was happy about the boost in football standards in his country due to more engagement at the grassroots level. He felt countries like China or India also could rise up the rankings with a similar approach.

Iceland was nominated for the Laureus award alongside Formula One champion Nico Rosberg, athletes Almaz Ayana and Wayde van Niekerk, English Premier League champion Leicester City, and Olympic Rugby Sevens gold medallist Fiji.

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