“They're not going to do anything in this competition.”
As predictions go, this wasn’t one of Cristiano Ronaldo’s finest. There were, as it proved, big things ahead for the Iceland team he lambasted for “a small mentality” after they held Portugal to a 1-1 draw in their UEFA EURO 2016 opener. Even at the time, though, Kari Arnason didn’t take offence. In fact, having been embroiled in a fascinating duel with the increasingly frustrated three-time Ballon d’Or winner, the Iceland centre-half took Ronaldo's rant as the ultimate compliment. "It’s lovely to hear that,” he said at the time. “It shows we got under his skin.”
Iceland, of course, went on to reach the quarter-finals, defying the Portugal captain’s forecast and winning a host of new fans along the way. Yet Arnason, while feeling that Ronaldo's captain’s comments were “ungracious”, did leave France with a few critical observations of his own. Indeed, while most pundits hailed Iceland for punching above their weight, this veteran defender felt that they had in fact allowed their standards to slip.
That’s why, as Heimir Hallgrímsson’s side prepare to do battle with Croatia, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland and Kosovo for a place at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, Arnason was to be found stressing areas for improvement in this candid interview.
FIFA.com: Now the dust has settled, how do you reflect on UEFA EURO 2016?
Kari Arnason: I reflect on it all with great fondness. No-one outside our dressing room expected us to do what we did and, in that England game, we showed how good can be. Up until then, I actually didn’t think we’d reached the level we’re capable of. So much of our success in the group came down to last-ditch defending, and that’s normally not what we have to do. We’re usually a lot more controlled, better as a unit, and we don’t normally give up as many chances to the opposition as we did in those games. The way we defended in the first half against Portugal and especially against Austria was quite out of the ordinary for us – and not in a good way.
That’s interesting to hear. So, the England game aside, you feel we didn’t see the best of Iceland?
Definitely. I strongly believe we’re better than we showed in most of those games, and the qualifiers showed that. Even the top teams we played in the qualifiers – Holland, Turkey, the Czech Republic - didn’t create many chances against us, and we always found a way to score. Our chances to goals ratio is good and we always know as a team that we can get a goal – we showed that again in every game at the EURO. But we were much better at defending as a team during the qualifiers. It was definitely far easier for the back four than it was at the EURO, where the game against Austria was probably the toughest I’ve played in my entire life. But if people watched that and think all that last-ditch defending is all that Iceland is about, they’re wrong. We have a lot more in our locker than that.
So is that a key objective going into the World Cup qualifiers: regaining that control and defensive solidity as a team?
That’s for sure, and we need to keep the ball better too. There were nerves at the EURO – no-one wanted to be the one to make the mistake – but we’re normally better in keeping the ball, working openings. Of course, it’s nice to say that we did so well and still have a lot of room to improve.
How did it feel becoming everyone’s favourite second team for a month or so?
It was special. We even had a lot of nice messages from people in England after knocking out their team, and that says something. I guess it’s natural to cheer for the underdog but, all the same, we enjoyed every minute of it.
Cristiano Ronaldo wasn’t too complimentary, of course. Was it nice to prove him wrong about Iceland “not doing anything” in the tournament?
That did make it extra sweet. I just think they were silly comments from someone who’s clearly one of the best players in the world. They were needless and a bit demeaning to us. And he was wrong. We were the underdogs, playing against a team that went on to win the tournament, and he should have understood that. Plus, we scored against them and could have scored more, so this suggestion that we defended for 90 minutes just wasn’t true.
Are you hopeful that Iceland’s rise can be sustained; that we’ll look back on EURO 2016 as the start of something rather than as an isolated success?
Well, qualifying for the World Cup is probably the only thing bigger than reaching the EURO and it would be amazing to reach back-to-back finals. It’s going to be tough, though, because we’re in a very competitive group. It’s one of those sections where literally anyone could go through and where we won’t have a single easy game, especially away from home. The same goes for the other teams though – I’m sure none of them will be looking forward to coming to Rejkavijk, where we haven’t lost in a very long time. We start with a really tough away game in Ukraine, with a lot of travel, so it’s going to be a tough task from the word go. But I do believe we can make it, especially if we keep on winning at home.
The big change from the EURO, of course, is that you’re continuing without Lars Lagerback, with Heimir Hallgrímsson - previously the co-coach - now in sole charge. How much of a difference will that result in within the dressing room?
Heimir already played a big role, so I don’t have any fears. But there’s no doubt Lagerback set the standard for all of us. As players, we can’t allow those standards to slip. We have to build on the foundations that he put in place and not try to reinvent the wheel by moving away from what we’re good at.
At 33, do you see yourself continuing on to Russia and perhaps beyond?
Beyond? We’ll see. But hopefully I’ll have a chance to do that and prove to the coach that I’m still capable of playing at the top level. I definitely want to be involved and firmly believe I have a lot of good years left in me.
We often see with defensive players that their best years come after they turn 30. Do you feel that’s been true with you?
I definitely feel that way. It’s different from player to player, but since turning 30 I know I’ve become a much better defender. I think what’s helped me is that I started playing professionally a bit later. You see with players who start at 16 that it’s much tougher for them to keep going and enjoy a long career in the game while also maintaining a high level. Professional football is a grind, it’s tough on your body, and I think it’s especially tough for forwards, who always need that sharpness and explosiveness. I also think strikers’ play is mainly instinctive, whereas defenders are learning all the time about how to play their position. I definitely try to learn from every goal my teams’ concede and that all adds up to improving your reading of the game, your positioning, even as your pace starts to drop. Right now, I definitely feel I’m as good as I’ve ever been.