PRIOR to holding Portugal to a 1-1 draw in their opening game, for most football fans, Iceland were something of an unknown quantity. If you asked someone to name some of their current internationals, they’d struggle to go further than Swansea midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson and former Chelsea striker Eidur Gudjohnsen. To find out more information, JOSH SEXTON spoke to lfchistory.net‘s Gudmundur Magnusson and former Liverpool reserve team captain, Victor Palsson.
Iceland are the smallest country to ever qualify for a major tournament, how important is this tournament, in terms of putting the country on the map?
Victor Palsson: We already put ourselves on the map when we went into the play-offs for the World Cup against Croatia, even though we got beat, that was the start of big things for us. I was involved in those qualifiers and I remember how the opinion towards our national team completely changed. We started getting a lot of press and the interest got bigger during the qualification for the Euros.
We would’ve never sold out our stadium four or five years back, but when we beat Turkey in the first qualifying game, the whole nation opened their eyes and knew something big was going to happen. The support has been great from Icelandic fans and fans around the world. Nobody has really doubted us because we showed how good we are and how difficult we are to beat. So the importance for us is huge because we are the smallest country. It’s a fairy tale, to be honest.
A great result for the team against Portugal, how is their success being received by the people of Iceland?
Gudmundur Magnusson: We’ve been bit a Euro crazy for the last year or so, almost 27,000 Icelanders applied for tickets to our matches which is about eight per cent of the whole nation! I think nobody got a denial so quite a few are spending their summer holidays in France. So we are not going to miss one second of this. I reckon a few Icelanders would’ve shed a tear or two after the Portugal game.
VP: I think a lot people will now be thinking we can go on and win this group. We’ve beaten Turkey, as well as Holland and Czech Republic in qualifying. Now we’ve drawn with Portugal and Hungary, with Austria up next, and, to be fair, they’re not the biggest and best team. We did get lucky with our group and this result makes us believe. I personally don’t think we’re going to lose a game in the group stages.
We all know about Gylfi and Eidur, but is there anybody else in particular that we should look out for during the tournament?
VP: Gylfi is our star man, and then Eidur brings so much experience to the team. Even though he didn’t play against Portugal, he brings so much to the team, and if he talks you listen.
I think you should look out for Ragnar Sigurdsson at centre-back. He’s a player that, for me, could easily play in the Premier League. Kolbein Sigthorsson has had a tough time with injuries but, when he’s at his best, he’s an unbelievable striker. Birkir Bjarnason, who scored the goal against Portugal, has just won the league in Switzerland with Basel and was a big part of that. Johann Berg Gudmundsson who plays for Charlton, although they were relegated, he still had a very good season and got some assists and goals, and should get a good move to the Championship, or even Premier League this season.
GM: I would look out for Arnor Ingvi Traustason and Sverrir Ingi Ingason. Traustason is an attacking midfielder who, in 2015, had a fantastic season with IFK Norrköping in Sweden, and is set to join Rapid Wien this summer. Ingason plays for Lokeren in Belgium and he’s a very strong defender.
Victor, you do have a few caps for your country, though they’re mostly in friendlies, do you still have ambitions to go to a big tournament?
VP: Definitely. Euro 2016 was my big ambition, but I’ve been injured now for the last nine months. For me, getting injured last September, I already knew that the chances of me going to France were gone. That was difficult to take. Of course, everybody wants to play for their country and I’m getting back to full fitness now and hopefully I’ll be back before pre-season and be involved for the World Cup qualification.
You did get the chance to captain the reserves during your time at Liverpool, how much did you learn from your time at the club?
VP: When I was at Liverpool, the reserves trained full-time at Melwood and being around first-team players every day for two-and-a-half years, getting the chance to train with them, was definitely key for me going into first-team football after Liverpool. Rafa Benitez signed me and then [Roy] Hodgson gave me a chance to be around the first team but when Kenny came back, the club really wanted to bring through the English players so you didn’t really get the chance.
I was definitely ready for the next step in my career, because I learnt so much from my time at Liverpool from great managers and players around me. The facilities were amazing and the time I spent there I would definitely do all over again. It was enjoyable, I really did learn a lot and those times I will always remember.
Gudmundur, do you think the Icelandic team share any of the characteristics that the Liverpool team have?
And, can you tell us something that most people won’t know about Iceland?
Finally, how far do you think the team can go in the Euros?
VP: Realistically, the way the team plays and the way the manager sets us up, bigger teams have real difficulty breaking through. I think in the group we will come in first or second. After that, it all depends who we get in the next round.
GM: Anything can happen. One of our players, Kari Arnason, said last night that they want to win the group, but I suspect Portugal are a wounded animal at the moment and will go full throttle in the last game of our group.
So, I’m thinking runners-up. That means playing against the runners-up in Group B — England. Getting through to quarter-finals would be unbelievable, and far beyond our expectations. But think about it for a minute – England vs. Iceland in the round of 16. It would be a fantastic game, with an awesome atmosphere!