A year ago Iceland came within an inch of becoming the smallest ever country to reach the FIFA World Cup™, pluckily battling their way through to the play-offs for Brazil 2014. Opponents Croatia were in no mood to let the island nation of 320,000 people enjoy a fairy tale ending, however, and crushed their dreams with a 2-0 aggregate win.
Twelve months on, though, and the Icelanders are at it again, winning their opening three games in Group A of the qualifying competition for UEFA EURO 2016, triggering hopes of a maiden major finals appearance.
“After our great run in the World Cup qualifiers everyone was asking if we were capable of bouncing back,” said Iceland keeper Hannes Halldorsson, in conversation with FIFA.com. “Our recent performances have got everyone’s hopes up again. Qualifying for the EUROs would be a dream for the whole country, and if we made it we’d be treated like world champions. I really get the feeling that the players are all aware that the dream is on.”
Halldorsson knows a thing or two about projecting himself on the European stage. Awarded his first professional contract only last year by Norwegian club Sandnes Ulf, the 30-year-old had previously juggled his football career with film-making. As well as directing a number of successful short films and adverts, he also shot the video for his country’s 2012 Eurovision Song Contest entry, Never Forget by Greta Salome & Jonsi.
“If we qualify for the EUROs, I’ll definitely make a film that’s up to the event,” he said, before adding that he also shot a very popular advert for an airline, in which he cast himself and his Iceland team-mates.
“They’re both real passions of mine, and until last year they were both as important as each other,” he explained. “I worked from eight in the morning to four in the afternoon as a film-maker, and then from 5pm to 8pm I devoted my time to football.
“My weekends were obviously taken up with matches and the little free time I had available to me. I’d take my computer with me to away games so I could edit my films. It was all a bit exhausting but it was exciting too. All the same, I’m relieved that my life is not as hectic now and I’m pleased that I’ve chosen football. My employers backed my decision and they told me that the door will be open for me whenever I want to go back to directing.”
His talent between the posts also made his decision easier. Standing fully 6’4 tall, Halldorsson is an all-round goalkeeper and the undisputed No1 in an Iceland team that has yet to concede a goal in the EURO 2016 qualifiers.
Voted Iceland’s Player of the Year in 2011 by his peers, he turned in an outstanding performance in the first leg of the Brazil 2014 play-off against the Croatians, helping his side secure a goalless draw at home, though he was powerless to prevent a 2-0 defeat in the return leg.
“I always thought I was a better director than a footballer, but I started to think differently when I joined up with the national team,” said Halldorsson, who now has 24 caps to his name.
Rewriting the script
The first of those appearances came in 2011, when Halldorsson was plying his trade for KR Reykjavik, since when his international career has flourished under the watchful eye of Lars Lagerback, who steered his native Sweden to three EUROs and two World Cups and also took charge of Nigeria at another world finals.
“Lars Lagerback has so much experience and he commands instant respect,” said the keeper of his coach. “He’s got everyone pulling in the same direction, and he’s very meticulous when it comes to physical and tactical preparations. He’s just the coach the national team needed and forms a perfect duo with [co-coach] Heimir Hallgrimsson."
Since the arrival of the Swede and Halldorsson, Iceland have climbed a whole 84 places in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, rising from 112th to 28th. Back-to-back 3-0 defeats of Turkey and Latvia and a 2-0 win over the Netherlands provide compelling proof of just how much Strákarnir okkar ('Our Boys'), as the national team is nicknamed, have closed the gap on Europe’s big guns.
“It’s taken us a little bit of time for sure, but this is a very good team now,” said the film-making custodian, reflecting on Iceland’s inspiring rags-to-riches story. “We’ve have never had as many top players as we have now, and everyone is moving in the same direction. We’ve become more consistent, and I’m convinced that little Iceland can now challenge the very best teams in Europe.”