SANTA CLARA, Calif. — They were the darlings of the 2016 European Championship, upending favored England in a knockout round game and garnering international acclaim. A year later, they qualified first in their group for this summer FIFA World Cup in Russia, and legions of new fans around the world celebrated.
So much so is the Iceland men’s national soccer team a global sensation that head coach Heimir Hallgrímsson quipped ahead of the team’s international friendly against Mexico at Levi’s Stadium that despite his country entering the World Cup as the smallest qualifier in history, he’s not worried about a lack of support at the sport’s biggest tournament.
“Not particularly, I think everybody will support Iceland in Russia,” Hallgrímsson said. “They will all be on our side.”
His response was met with a bit of laughter, especially ahead of a match that will be played in front of a pro-Mexico crowd in Santa Clara. On the eve of the game, fewer than 5,000 tickets remained available, and the attendance could exceed 70,000 for Friday night’s friendly. To put that is perspective, more than a fifth of the entire population could fit comfortably inside Levi’s Stadium.
Iceland face a daunting set of opponents in Russia, as Group D also contains Argentina, Croatia, and Nigeria. Hallgrímsson stressed that both the game against Mexico on Friday and a friendly against fellow World Cup qualifiers Peru on Tuesday will be a good preview of the big-time atmosphere expected this summer.
“This will be really good preparation, and that’s why we picked here to play Mexico and Peru,” Hallgrímsson said. “Both are strong opponents, and these are big venues in Levi’s Stadium and also Red Bull Arena in New York: full house, a lot of media attention for the players, so it is a good test for both the players on the pitch and also for the staff and the coaches.
“And that’s a good preparation, it’s a big time difference for us to be here, and it will be like that in Russia. Also, there are long distance between matches, that will be in Russia too, so in many ways it’s a really good test for the players and the staff to prepare for the World Cup.”
The Iceland players took to the pitch for their first practice at Levi’s Stadium, and they were dwarfed by the immense structure. Still, playing on a big stage is nothing new for the team. After all, following their surprise run in Euro 2016 and their successful qualifying campaign last year, they won’t feel out of place among the sport’s elites when they open their World Cup against Argentina.
“Obviously, it will be big,” Hallgrímsson said. “It can be compared to the first game Iceland played in the Euro finals, it was against Portugal. Then they became the European Champions. But it was a moment when you walked into the stadium and you thought maybe we were too small for this, but then we proved that we weren’t.
“We drew Portugal, and then we played four games without losing. I think it will be the same type of feeling, but now we have the experience. We go into the competition with the belief that we deserve to be there like everyone else. Why should we think something else when we have a chance to progress from the group.
“We know what we are about, how we need to play to win football matches, and that’s the strength of the squad that they know exactly what we are about. We are not trying to be something else, and in the end that will be our strength in the World Cup.”