Face down: Iceland in a deepening crisis

Less than 8 years have passed since Iceland’s sensational performance at Euro 2016, where the Vikings beat England in the round of 16. Less than 6 years have passed since the historic World Cup, where Iceland squeezed 1:1 from Argentina, while Leo Messi missed a penalty against the great goalkeeper Hans Halldorsson. It was a magical time for a nation of about 380,000 people, and the long-term strategic plan that produced such wonderful results was widely covered around the world.

Since it was a real national project, there was an expectation that it was not about one generation of talent, and that Iceland would become a respectable soccer country over time. In practice, this did not happen, and the decline was rapid. In the Euro 2020 qualifiers, the Icelanders were still clear favorites in the play-off against Hungary, and should have advanced to the tournament, but conceded two dramatic late goals.

In the qualifiers for the last World Cup, it already showed poor ability in a relatively comfortable home, finishing in fifth place after North Macedonia, Romania and Armenia. In the current qualifying tournament, Iceland has already been truly humiliated, at least in the eyes of local journalists and fans. With the exception of two wins over Liechtenstein who surrendered to everyone, they collected only 4 points in 8 meetings against Portugal, Slovakia, Luxembourg and Bosnia.

in constant decline.  Iceland national team (Radad Jabara)in constant decline. Iceland national team (Radad Jabara)

In between, there were 4 draw results against Israel and Albania as part of the League of Nations in 2022. The Icelanders considered themselves favorites and were disappointed when Sean Weissman equalized 2:2 in the 84th minute in Haifa, but today, ahead of the battle in the playoff semifinals for promotion to Euro 2024, they are already much less optimistic, to say the least. In the time that has passed since then, the Icelanders have weakened, and feel that they have returned to their natural dimensions. “It may still be possible to get past Israel, but we won’t have a chance against Ukraine. The audience is realistic, and has no unrealistic hopes,” says an Icelandic journalist.

There are several reasons for the crash, and one of the most prominent lies in the many affairs surrounding the most central stars of the magnificent squad from the end of the previous decade. Gylfi Sigurdsson, one of the best Icelandic players in history who was signed by Everton for 40 million pounds at the time, was suspected of pedophilia in 2021, and his career practically ended then.

Captain Aron Gunnarsson was accused in the same year, along with other parties, of the rape that allegedly occurred back in 2010. He was not ultimately prosecuted, but most of the association’s top officials, including president Godney Bergson, resigned when their part in the cover-up was revealed. Without them, all orderly management disappeared as if it had never been, and chaos has dominated Icelandic football in recent years. The long-term strategy no longer exists.

Gylfi Sigurdsson and Gordon Eve (Reuters)Gylfi Sigurdsson and Gordon Eve (Reuters)

Ahead of the meetings against Israel, the possible summons of Sigurdsson and Gunnarsson became the talk of the day in the Icelandic media. They are both 34 years old, and in the ideal world they would be at the disposal of the national team continuously until now, while continuing to contribute and pass on their experience to the next generation. In reality, they have been out of the picture for 3 years now. Sigurdsson has claimed he is fit to play after recovering from an injury that ruined his short spell at Danish side Lingby, and was deeply disappointed that the association thought otherwise.

Gunnarsson has not had a team since leaving Qatar’s Al Arabi last year, and is also irrelevant. Deserving heirs have not yet emerged for them, nor have coaches been found who are able to step into the shoes of Heimir Hallgrimsson who guided the team in the 2018 World Cup.

The Icelandic squad was relatively older in the World Cup, and only two players survived in the current squad from those who met Messi in Moscow. One of them, the important defender Hordor Magnusson, who currently plays for Panathinaikos, will be absent from the game against Israel after tearing ligaments in his knee back in the fall. Striker Alfred Fingbogason, who scored the historic goal against Argentina and entered the books as the first Icelandic scorer in the World Cup, is sitting on the bench in Uifan from the bottom of the Belgian league and has not scored in the media since September. At the age of 35, he was indeed the team’s player in last year’s European Championship qualifiers, but now they are no longer really built on him.

The stars are out of the picture.  Iceland national team players (Reuters)The stars are out of the picture. Iceland national team players (Reuters)

Therefore, the only player who took part in the 2018 World Cup and is supposed to be on the field against Israel on Thursday is the defender Sverir Ingason. In 2018, he was a backup player and partner only in the last match of the group stage against Croatia, but today he is the ultimate leader in the rear, and one of the few in the squad who is in good shape. The 30-year-old star is one of the standouts in the ranks of Midtioland, which leads the Danish league, and in Iceland they are convinced that only his progress will prevent the collapse of the rear. His partner in the center of the defense is expected to be Jurtor Hermansson, who is not getting minutes in Pisa from the second division in Italy, and is in an ongoing personal crisis.

He is really not the only one in the squad who does not play enough for his team. In Iceland, they are not happy with the move of the promising goalkeeper Haakon Valdimarsson to Brentford in January, because he does not play at all for his new English club. In 2023, he was the outstanding goalkeeper in the Swedish league in the ranks of Elfsburg, but now he is only training, which is not necessarily sufficient for the challenge in the national team. At the same time, captain Johan Berg Gudmundsson lost his place in the Burnley lineup, and Iceland badly needs his leadership in the center of the field.

He should not be confused with Alfred Gudmundsson, a Genoa striker who is actually in good form this season, and scored 10 goals in the Italian league, where he is coached by former star Alberto Gilardino who knows a few things about balls in the net. The thing is that most of his conquests were in 2023, and he was returned to the national team only recently in a controversial move, in the shadow of sexual assault charges. His friend should be the young Uri Oscarsson, who rarely plays in the Copenhagen uniform. Some believe that Andriy Gudionsen, the son of Barcelona and Chelsea star Eidor Gudionsen, deserves to start in his place, but coach Oga Hareida thinks otherwise.

Coming in good shape.  Alfred Gudmundsson (Reuters)Coming in good shape. Alfred Gudmundsson (Reuters)

In general, the decisions of the 70-year-old Norwegian boss are not necessarily optimal. He is not interested in giving the reins to the two young midfielders who may define Iceland’s new generation, arguing that they are too young. Isak Bergman Johansson, who will celebrate his 21st birthday on Saturday, is a key player in the midfield of Fortuna Dusseldorf who are fighting for promotion to the Bundesliga. The 20-year-old Kristian Helinson, who has taken a regular place in the Ajax lineup this season, is arguably the most creative and elegant player that Icelanders have to offer, but he has only one half in the ranks of the senior team so far, and Reyda is not expected to bet on him against Israel. This is certainly happy news for Alon Hazan and his players, but Linson may still fit in as a substitute, and it is very worthwhile to study his style in depth.

In general, the last campaign in the qualifiers was seen in Iceland as particularly poor, and a dramatic change for the better needs to occur so that the meeting against Israel will not be a direct continuation of the series of failures. The sweet memories of Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup feel like something quite far away, and the current reality in Icelandic football is bleak. The Israeli national team has the responsibility of not allowing the Vikings to get out of the crisis, and to show that currently we are simply better, unlike the previous years.

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