It is a realistic aim for Iceland to reach the last 16
Main player profile: Aron Einar Gunnarsson
That Aron Gunnarsson is still the captain of Iceland demonstrates the esteem in which he is held by his managers Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrímsson. Not long after he had been handed the armband Gunnarsson remarked the Iceland squad had been advised against venturing out of their hotel before their World Cup qualifier in Tirana in October 2012 because Albanians are ‘most criminals’. The Cardiff City midfielder could easily have been demoted as a result but, perhaps due to Gunnarsson’s swift apology or perhaps a feeling that something was lost in translation convinced Lagerback and Hallgrímsson to stand by him.
Nearly four years on and after guiding Iceland to their first ever European Championship it is decision they are unlikely to regret – Gunnarrsson has been outtanding for the national team ever since. "He handled it very, very well. He made a mistake, he admitted it and apologised to everybody. That was good," Lagerbäck said in a press conference before the next game.
Just 23 when he was made captain Gunnarsson has risen to the challenge and matured with his responsibilities. He is the obvious leader of the team, is ambitious, passionate and driven and brings a combative style that typifies Iceland’s resolute 4-4-2 system. A dogmatic ball winner, Iceland tend to be far more vulnerable at the back when Gunnarsson is absent from the side and he also scored twice in qualifying, including the crucial equaliser in a 2-1 win over Czech Republic last June.
He is not exactly renowned for his goalscoring, though he did carve himself a slice of history at Cardiff when he scored their very first Premier League goal in August 2013 against Manchester City, but it is his Rory Delap-esque long throws for which his is best known in Cardiff, and indeed Coventry where he began his career in England.
Those who have followed his career for even longer however, will not be surprised by his party piece – Gunnarsson was an excellent handball player in his youth and, may well have pursued a career, just like his brother Arnór.
He was in fact one of the youngest players ever to domestic handball match in Iceland, making three appearances when he was aged just 15 but by the time he reached 17, he had opted for football and joined AZ in the Netherlands.
Arnor, who represents Iceland and plays in the German handball Bundesliga, told the Icelandic newspaper Morgunblaðið: "When we weren’t competing against each other in football or handball we found ways to compete in areas which don’t have anything to do with sports. It would be things like who would be first to finish his bowl of cereal, who would be first to finish the fish during dinner or a race to the car when we were going somewhere."
Armed with such a competitive spirit and no little talent Gunnarsson made his international debut at the age 18 and is part of somewhat of a golden generation of players who qualified for the 2011 European Under-21 Championship finals, including Gylfi Sigurdsson, Kolbeinn Sigþórsson, Alfreð Finnbogason, Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson, Birkir Bjarnason and Rúrik Gíslason. Gunnarsson however was the first to make the breakthrough to the senior side and has been cementing his place ever since.
In recent years Gunnarsson has been playing alongside Sigurdsson to impressive effect, acting as the midfield anchor and providing the link between the defence and the midfield and as he has matured into the captaincy, so he has made significant improvements to his positioning – upon arriving in the national team Gunnarsson’s tendency was to run somewhat wildly all over the pitch but now he holds his defensive role and allows Sigurdsson more freedom to roam.
"Aron has played really well during this competition and he gives the team a good balance. You have to play many games to handle his role, play well for the team and read the situations on the pitch. It’s not the easiest role in the team for sure, " Lagerbäck said, late in Iceland’s qualifying campaign.
And perhaps the best gauge of Gunnarsson’s worth to the team came when he injured his shoulder in a World Cup qualifier against Slovenia in 2013 – a lay-off that coincided with Iceland’s failure to advance to Brazil, going out in a play-off to Croatia. Thankfully however, Gunnarsson’s long throw-ins have not suffered and Iceland’s captain now has the chance to lead his side at a major championship.
Tactics and key questions
With a 4-4-2 formation favoured by the coaching team and deployed to impressive effect in qualifying, it is the central midfield partnership of Aron Gunnarsson and Gylfi Sigurdsson that will prove pivotal for Iceland. It is a system that has been implemented since Lars Lagerback and Heimer Hallgrimsson took charge in 2012 but it was not until a World Cup qualifier a year later that Sigurdsson assumed a more central role, shining in the 4-4 draw in Switzerland.
The Swansea midfielder had previously been used on the wing or as a second striker but he has blossomed alongside the more defensive Gunnarsson – a tough player who relies upon excellent positioning – whereas most of Iceland’s attacking moves flow through Sigurdsson.
As demonstrated in his two spells at Swansea, and perhaps to a slightly lesser extent at Tottenham, Sigurdsson’s long-range shooting ability will always make him a threat but his work ethic and willingness to defend when dovetailing with Gunnarson should not be overlooked and both players feel almost irreplaceable if Iceland are to perform well at the tournament.
In the 4-4-2 system the key for Lagerback and Hallgrimsson is that each and every player contributes defensively in a side that kept six clean sheets in qualification, including both matches against Holland and Iceland have the ability to counter at pace once the ball has been won.
After Sigurdsson and Gunnarson the next most important player, and one certain to start, for Iceland is Birkir Bjarnason, who is equally at home on either wing. Birkir represents better than most the hard work and self-sacrifice sought by the managers, and as well as possessing excellent technique he has an great eye for creating goals.
Johann Gudmundsson or Emil Hallfredsson will most likely fill the other wing position, with the former another who is dangerous from long range while the latter offers a better defensive option.
Up front Kolbeinn Sigthorsson has played a big part in Iceland’s improvement in recent years, and has scored 19 goals in 37 matches. He has had a difficult season in France and has been struggling with injury, but he and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson did a fantastic job up front in the qualification, troubling the opponents both on and off the ball.
Alfred Finnbogason has not had many opportunities in the starting lineup but he will provide backup and is knocking heavily on the door after an excellent season in the Bundesliga with Augsburg.
At the back Ragnar Sigurdsson and Kari Arnason are an experienced and settled partnership, having played together consistently over the last four years. Ragnar in particular has impressed – he is always composed and reads the game well.
Ari Skulason is the more offensive full-back, having previously played as a midfielder for a number of his club teams and he possesses a dangerous left foot. He lacks a bit of height but has a bigger heart than most. On the other side Birkir Sævarsson is a reliable right-back while the goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson has developed into a key player for Iceland and if he can rediscover the same form as before he suffered a shoulder injury last autumn, he is likely to catch the eye.
Probable starting XI: Hannes Thór Halldórsson – Birkir Már Sævarsson, Kári Árnason, Ragnar Sigurdsson, Ari Freyr Skúlason – Jóhann Berg Gudmundsson, Aron Einar Gunnarsson, Gylfi Thór Sigurdsson, Birkir Bjarnason – Kolbeinn Sigthórsson, Alfred Finnbogason.
- Which Icelandic player will take everyone by surprise at Euro 2016?
That could be Ragnar Sigurdsson, a solid centre-half who plays for Krasnodar in Russia. Turning 30 the day after the match against Hungary, Ragnar has perhaps been the most important member of Iceland’s stingy defence, playing in every minute of their qualification campaign. Up against the European elite much will depend on how he plays.
- Which player could be a disappointment?
At 26 Kolbeinn Sigthorsson is already Iceland’s second highest ever goalscorer ever with 19 goals in 37 matches but he struggled following his move to Nantes, managing to find the net just three goals in Ligue 1 this season, and knee injury ruled him out of the end of the campaign. Sigthorsson has been a key player in Iceland’s attack but his injury and an evident lack of confidence have put his participation in jeopardy.
- How far do you think Iceland will go and why?
It is a realistic aim for Iceland to reach the last 16. One victory could be enough to claim third place in the group and their record in the qualification shows what this group of players is capable of.
The secrets behind the players
- Birkir Már Sævarsson
A right-back who plays for Hammarby in Sweden, Sævarsson almost quit football when he was 17 years old, concluding that, having failed to break into Valur’s first team, a career as a pilot was a better avenue to pursue. He learned to fly before he learn to drive, "but I was not disciplined enough to concentrate on my flying and it was first after that I got really interested in doing something with my football career," he said. Sævarsson does still harbour ambitions of flying however and expects to do so when he hangs up his boots.
- Hannes Thór Halldórsson
A goalkeeper who plays for Bodö/Glimt in Norway on a loan from NEC Nijmegen, Halldórsson was rejected by an Icelandic fourth division side at the age of 20. Earlier that year he was a reserve goalkeeper in the second division but called his coach and told him that he had decided to quit football. "Later that year I changed my mind, set myself a target of reaching the top divison in three years and found a third level team that needed a keeper," Hannes said. The rest is history as Halldórsson has established himself a one of the best keepers in the Premier League and finally earned himself a move abroad at the age of 30.
- Kári Árnason
Arnason’s route to Euro 2016 is more different than most, having accepted a scholarship to Adelphi university in the US after beginning his career at Vikingur in Reykjavik. After a year however, he was offered a contract at Djurgarden in Sweden by his former Vikingur coach and put his studies aside before continuing via distance learning and completing a masters degree in business. His final essay was focused on corruption in English football, where he later played for Plymouth and Rotherham but the centre-back is now based back in Sweden with Malmo FF.
- Jón Dadi Bödvarsson
A striker who plays for Kaiserslautern in Germany, Bödvarsson made it his first task, after signing a professional contract in Norway 2013, to create a fund-raising scheme to support kids in his hometown. He left Selfoss as the town’s sportsman of the year decided to use his money to start helping kids who were struggling to buy football kit and shoes. "It was my mum’s idea," Bödvarsson said. "She worked extra night shifts and did everything to help me being able to train and play, and go to kids tournaments."
- Ragnar Sigurdsson
Sigurdsson does not watch much football in his spare time and admitted he had no idea who Mario Mandzukic was before Iceland’s World Cup play-off against Croatia in 2013. "The truth is that I had never heard of him. I have not been following football so much in later years," Sigurdsson said. A no-nonsense centre-back, Sigurdsson’s attitude is that modern football is becoming like a fashion show, where players display their stomach muscles and nice hair, and try to cheat to win penalties.
Hannes Halldorsson (Bodö/Glimt, 32 Länderspiele)
Ögmundur Kristinsson (Hammarby, 10)
Ingvar Jonsson (Sandefjord, 4)
Birkir Saevarsson (Hammarby, 56)
Ragnar Sigurdsson (FK Krasnodar, 54/1 Tor)
Kari Arnason (Malmö FF, 47/2)
Ari Freyr Skulason (Odense BK, 37)
Haukur Heidar Hauksson (AIK Solna, 6)
Sverrir Ingi Ingason (KSC Lokeren, 4/1)
Hördur Björgvin Magnusson (AC Cesena, 3)
Hjörtur Hermannsson (IFK Göteborg, 2)
Aron Einar Gunnarsson (Cardiff City FC, 57/2)
Emil Hallfredsson (Udinese Calcio, 52/1)
Birkir Bjarnason (FC Basel, 46/6)
Johann Berg Gudmundsson (Charlton Athletic, 45/5)
Gylfi Sigurdsson (Swansea City, 37/12)
Theodor Elmar Bjarnason (Aarhus GF, 25)
Runar Mar Sigurjonsson (GIF Sundsvall, 9/1)
Arnor Ingvi Traustason (IFK Norrköping, 6/3)
Eidur Gudjohnsen (Molde, 84/25)
Kolbeinn Sigthorsson (FC Nantes, 38/19)
Alfred Finnbogason (FC Augsburg, 31/7)
Jon Dadi Bödvarsson (1. FC Kaiserslautern, 20/1)