For Iceland football, ‘there aren’t bigger chances than this’ against England

While Iceland recognise their last 16 contest with England as maybe the biggest match in their nation's history, 'whichever way this goes, these players are winners already'.

Iceland  goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson celebrates during their Euro 2016 group stage win over Austria. John Sibley / Reuters / June 22, 2016
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Iceland's players are "winners" regardless of the outcome of Monday's Euro 2016 last 16 clash with England, but victory would change their lives "forever", joint-coach Heimir Hallgrimsson said on Sunday.

Iceland’s population of 330,000 makes them the smallest nation ever to have qualified for a major tournament and they approach the game in Nice as massive underdogs.

Having qualified at the expense of the Netherlands before emerging from a tough group alongside Hungary and Portugal, they have already made history and Hallgrimsson says that they will face England under no pressure.

“We’ve said previously that this game is a win-win game,” he told a pre-match press conference at Stadium Nice.

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“They’ve already won the hearts of all Icelandic people for their performances. With a good performance against England tomorrow, they’ll always be winners in my book.

“On the other hand, if we beat England, their lives will change forever, and significantly. Icelandic football will go up in reputation and the way we approach football will be different.

“It’ll all look different for us. If you want the best out of life, you have to be ready when the chance is there for you.

“There aren’t bigger chances than this for Icelandic football. It’s just up to the players to play tomorrow and hopefully we will beat England. But whichever way this goes, these players are winners already.”

As well as providing a path to a quarter-final against hosts France, the game also serves to reunite the countries who contested the ‘Cod Wars’ – the name given to a series of confrontations between British and Icelandic fishermen in the North Atlantic between 1958 and 1976.

While Iceland midfielder Aron Gunnarsson, who plays for Welsh club Cardiff City, was reluctant to discuss the matter, Hallgrimsson used it to craft a metaphor about his team.

“This was the only time Iceland went to war,” he said. “We are too small to have an army and lack manpower. So these guys are the Icelandic army.

“That’s why everyone is supporting them. If we had a war, we’d be beaten pretty quickly.”

Iceland's hopes of an upset may hinge upon the set-piece prowess of Gylfi Sigurdsson, who plays his club football in the Premier League for Swansea City, and he said that to beat England would defy belief.

“I’ve dreamed about this since I was a kid,” said Sigurdsson, who scored a penalty in the 1-1 group-stage draw with Hungary in Marseille.

“To play against England and to do it in the final 16? All the lads will be ready to play tomorrow. We’re full of excitement, the game is near and hopefully we will do well.”

Iceland’s experienced Swedish co-coach Lars Lagerback is due to retire after the tournament, with Hallgrimsson, his former assistant, taking on the role on a solo basis, but he is not ready to step aside yet.

“I’d prefer to stay another week or two because I enjoy being with these guys. It would be fantastic to stay,” said the 67-year-old.

“I’m sure the players would like that too, even if it means staying with me another week or two.”

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