Game: Argentina vs Iceland

Date: FIFA World Cup 2018 (2pm Saturday 16th June)

Location: Otkrytie Arena, Moscow   

Att: 44,190

That the Iceland teams find themselves in Russia is a huge achievement.  While the Argentinians were runners-up in 2014 and tournament winners twice previous (1978 and 1986) this was Iceland’s first ever match at a World Cup finals.

Outside Spartak Moscow’s modern Otkrytie Arena the blue shirts of Iceland were everywhere.  Many fans had flown in for the day while others had come to Russia for the whole group stages.  All expressed an excitement if not disbelief at the prospect of the team competing at the highest level of the game.

If the game in Argentina can be described as intense, frenetic and passionate the Icelandic game could not be any different.  The international team did not play on a grass pitch until as late as 1957 although the club sides have been around for some time.

Iceland’s first football club ‘Vikingur Reykjavik‘ has existed since 1908 while the domestic league was conceived of in 1912.

With the league’s founding, a number of clubs quickly began to form. That same year, two clubs were founded; the Reykjavik side ‘KR Reykjavik’ and, from the Westman Islands – ÍBV.   In 1915, these sides would be joined in the league by another Reykjavik side – Valur FC.

Despite being a sizeable island the entire country of Iceland only has a population of a little over 300,000 (as opposed to the inner urban region of Buenos Aires were almost 3m people live). This small population makes for a largely rural country and a capital city which feels like a really big small town.

Iceland was settled by Vikings from Norway sometime in the 8th century. This fact makes Iceland a fairly “young” country when it comes to settlement, and also contributes to its distinct cultural background.   While definitely European/Scandinavian in nature, the country of Iceland is unique in so many ways compared to Argentina not least that while Iceland is famous for its volcanoes Argentina is famous for having arguably the best player on earth – Lionel Messi.

Since 2010 the game in Iceland has developed at an incredible pace not least thanks to the shock win over England at Euro 2016.   If the loss was a new low for English football it was the greatest achievement in Icelandic sporting history.  While once the country prided itself on the humble achievements of its handball teams it is now the national football team that brings the true sense of national pride.   Football has entrenched itself in the minds and lives of thousands of youngsters in Iceland with the men’s and women’s national teams reaching great heights in international competition.

Perhaps the most famous characteristic of the Icelandic side is the thunderclap.  Hundreds, if not thousands, of animated Icelandic fans, roar together with their cries of “Afram Island!” (“Onwards Iceland!”) together with the hand clap bringing a collective passion now distinct amongst supporters.

The Icelandic teams’ ability to face up to adversity was never brought more into focus after Sergio Aguero gave Argentina the lead in this Group D fixture.

Argentina with all its stars, were up and running within 19 minutes, although their opening goal had an element of luck about it.

Marcos Rojo lined up a shot from distance that fell straight to the feet of Manchester City forward Aguero, who still had a lot to do.  However, in characteristic fashion, the forward earned himself some space with a lovely piece of close control, before firing an unstoppable shot into the roof of the net.

It took Iceland less than five minutes to equalise after a scramble in the Argentina box, with the ball eventually falling to the unmarked Gylfi Sigurdsson at the far post.   The Everton forward’s low driven shot was saved but fell kindly at the feet of Finnbogason, with the Augsburg striker keeping his cool to side-foot the rebound into the gaping goal.

There were two VAR calls before the break for possible Argentina penalties, both of which were turned down. But referee Szymon Marciniak did not need any help in deciding Hordur Magnusson had pulled down Maximiliano Meza in the box midway through the second half.

Up stepped Barcelona man Messi, only for the five-time Ballon d’Or winner to see Halldorsson guess correctly and dive full length to his right to keep out the penalty with a save.  This was the fourth time he had missed a spot-kick in his last seven efforts for club and country.

There was more controversy, however, when the Polish official opted not to use VAR to decide if Cristian Pavon had been tripped as he drove to the left byline with 13 minutes to go. It did appear as though Birkir Saevarsson had made contact with the sub.

With this draw, Argentina had failed to win their opening match at a World Cup tournament for the first time since losing to Cameroon in 1990. They eventually reached the final of that event, losing out to West Germany.  In truth, Argentina dominated but struggled with the height and power of the Icelandic team.  The men in blue failed to record a single shot in the second half, while Argentina recorded 16 attempts on Iceland’s goal in that same period.

The penalty miss was crucial.  Argentina has now missed their last two penalties taken at a World Cup (excluding shoot-outs), with Ariel Ortega failing to convert against Sweden in 2002.   The Barcelona man had a chance to make up for the miss having 11 shots in total in the match more than he’s had in any of his previous appearances at the World Cup

Meanwhile, Javier Mascherano’s 144th appearance for Argentina in this match will not be one he remembers fondly despite the midfielder now overtaking Javier Zanetti (who watched on) as their most capped player.

If most had turned up to see the Messi show, the man of the match award was given to the Icelandic goalkeeper Halldorsson.  Impressive at Euro 2016 the goalkeeper would have been expecting a busy afternoon at the Otkrytie Arena, and that is exactly how the contest panned out in the Russian capital.

The 34-year-old had to twice be alert to deny Messi in the first half, before reading the playmaker’s mind to palm his second-half spot-kick aside.   However, the Iceland No 1 saved his best for last when reacting brilliantly to keep out substitute Cristian Pavon’s cross-cum-shot with just three minutes to go.

Next in this group for the Argentina side is a crucial mission to take on Croatia at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium before Iceland then face Nigeria at the Volgograd Arena.

All is not well with the South American nation, as the teams struggle to qualify for the tournament would suggest.  Diego Maradona had lambasted Jorge Sampaoli after the game suggesting the coach would be better not showing his face in Argentina on the teams return and he cut a nervous figure on the touchline during the game.

Certainly, the Argentinians deserved to win this game but its the Icelandic team that should take the bulk of the plaudits.

Argentina: Caballero, Tagliafico, Rojo, Otamendi, Salvio, Biglia, Di Maria, Meza, Mascherano, Messi, Aguero Subs: Banega, Higuain, Pavon

Iceland: Halldorsson, Saevarsson, Sigurdsson, Arnason, Magnusson, Gudmundsson, Bjarnason, Gunnarsson, Hallfredsson, Sigurdsson, Finnbogason  Subs: Gislason, Skulason, Sigurdarson

Man of the Match: Hannes Halldorsson

Photo Album from Russia 2018 is here