Belfast Telegraph

Only Iceland believed in a miracle while England flops fell to new low

It barely ever grows dark in Reykjavik at this time of year but for Iceland this was their longest, greatest day. On the final whistle the players and staff of this remarkable team streamed towards the thousands of Icelandic fans who had come to the Riviera in expectation of at best an honourable defeat. What they got was beyond their wildest fantasies.

Just ten minutes after the final whistle the stadium was empty save for their fans and the soft lilt of their national anthem was drifting into the night air.

What mattered was that this team believed they could do it and that is the precious quality their manager, Lars Lagerback, had instilled. They had, after all, beaten the Netherlands home and away in qualification and they knew what it was to protect a lead.

Lagerback had famously never lost to England and you could sense in his voice during the pre-match press conference that he expected that sequence to end. It was not even close to a draw.

This was the greatest match in the history of Icelandic football, probably Icelandic sport.

Nobody connected with England, not their fans, their players, the backroom staff or the travelling media remotely expected what would unfold on the Cote d'Azur.

Iceland was one of the few nations to have welcomed Brexit with their president, Olafur Grimsson, commenting that Britain should look north to a trading bloc that would include Iceland, Norway, the Faroe Islands and Greenland. It might not have been Paris, Barcelona and Rome but these days we, like our footballers, are living in reduced circumstances.

On a night that would have distilled every nightmare he had ever woken from as a football manager, Roy Hodgson woefully underestimated these footballers. Against Austria, Iceland had scored a very similar goal to Ragnar Sigurdsson's opener that was triggered by a long throw. When Aron Gunnarsson delivered a long ball into Joe Hart's area, his defenders reacted as if they were astonished Iceland's captain should have attempted something so straightforward.

Iceland did not, like Slovakia had done in St Etienne, attempt to pack their defence and eke out a goalless draw. If they had planned to do so, Wayne Rooney's early penalty forced them into attack although Iceland could never have known how soft an underbelly they would be attacking.

However, it was the way Iceland defended that was astonishing. Gylfi Sigurdsson, perhaps the one player available to Halgrimsson and Lagerback who might have merited consideration for Hodgson's side, blocked attack after attack. Ragnar Sigurdsson, having scored the goal of the game, made the tackle of the game to dispossess Jamie Vardy when he looked as if he might score. He departed an exhausted hero, the stuff of sagas.

At the end, they were applauded off by the England fans and now France and the quarter-finals await. If 10 per cent of the Icelandic population had left to be with their team, the island will be empty when their team walk out in the Stade de France. They will always have Paris.

Belfast Telegraph