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Iceland brimming with optimism, ready for Mexico challenge

International friendly brings two World Cup qualifiers together at Levi’s Stadium

Iceland head coach Heimir Hallgrímsson and captain Aron Gunnarsson address the media ahead of their match against Mexico at Levi’s Stadium
Robert Jonas | Center Line Soccer

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Everyone still seems to be surprised that Iceland, a Nordic island nation with a population a third the size of San Jose, is going to make its FIFA World Cup debut this summer in Russia. And that’s just fine with head coach Heimir Hallgrímsson, who welcomes the anonymity his national team receives.

Joking with reporters during a press conference the day before Iceland faces fellow World Cup qualifiers Mexico at Levi’s Stadium in an international friendly, Hallgrímsson acknowledged that few fans outside of Iceland will be expecting much in Russia, but those back home will always believe their team can beat the best.

“Icelandic people are normally very optimistic, so it’s no surprise to them that we are in the World Cup,” Hallgrímsson said. “They expected us to win every game and go to the World Cup.”

Following up on their shocking run to the 2016 European Championship quarterfinals — a tournament that saw them draw with eventual champions Portugal in the group stage and then embarrass England in the knockout round — Iceland topped their UEFA World Cup qualifying group last year to book their ticket to Russia. Their run of success shouldn’t come to anyone’s shock if they look at how the team has fared in recent years.

“These guys have been playing consistently well for now six years,” Hallgrímsson said. “We’ve beaten really good football nations, almost qualified for the World Cup in Brazil after losing to Croatia. We don’t like them very much. They always seem to be the hurdle that we cannot jump over. Now we did, the first time we have beaten them in the last summer.”

Croatia, who finished second to Iceland in World Cup qualifying, were drawn into the same group as the island nation for this summer’s tournament. The two European rivals join a group that contains African power Nigeria and the previous World Cup’s runners up Argentina. Iceland captain Aron Gunnarsson, who plays his club football at Cardiff City, knows his squad has the discipline and confidence to survive their group and advance in the tournament.

“That’s our identity,” Gunnarsson said. “We want to be true to where we are from and remember that no one is too big to play for this team. Like we’ve said many times, our biggest star is the guy who works the hardest. That’s what identifies the team’s spirit. We’ve got a bond between the fans and the team, and that’s what we need to do to get results. We need to have everyone pulling in the right direction. That’s what we’ve done for the last six years.”

Iceland will have a lot of support from neutrals around the world, especially from those countries that did not qualify, and Gunnarsson hopes the team can live up to its plucky reputation. Still the captain knows that success in Russia, as in the international friendlies this week against Mexico in the Bay Area and Peru at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, will ultimately come down to the basics of teamwork, a message that will resonate with fans of those less flashy football sides the world over.

“Obviously, we won’t get away from our tactics” Gunnarsson said. “We are tactically strong and always have been. It’s about keeping compact and hurting teams when we possibly can, especially on set pieces. And it’s the about the team spirit as well. About moving in the right direction and doing everything for each other. That’s how we’ve always been, and always will be.”

Friday night at Levi’s Stadium, Hallgrímsson hopes to put on a good performance against the heavily favored Mexico. The Iceland coach is certainly not conceding anything to the de facto home team, and he expects his players’ mindsets will carry them through the challenge.

“You can expect everything from Iceland,” Hallgrímsson said. “We will be trying to make it a little bit harder for Mexico. It’s going to be a test. Individually, they are good players, tactically they are good also, so it’s going to be a test for us. Whether we play three in the back, four in the back, five in the back, it will be a test anyway, so we will be thinking ahead.

“We will probably be thinking of the game against Argentina when we play Mexico tomorrow,” Hallgrímsson continued, and then with a laugh said. “When you see us play tomorrow, you will see how we will play against Argentina.”

Full Iceland roster for international friendlies against Mexico and Peru

Goalkeepers: Hannes Thor Halldórsson (Randers FC), Ögmundur Kristinsson (SBV Excelsior), Ingvar Jonsson (Sandefjord), Rún Alex Rúnarsson (FC Nordsjæland), Frederik Schram (FC Roskilde).

Defenders: Birkir Már Sævarsson (Valur), Ragnar Sigurðsson (Rubin Kazan FC), Kári Árnason (Aberdeen FC), Ari Freyr Skúlason (KSC Lokeren), Sverrir Ingi Ingason (Rostov FC), Hörður Björgvin Magnússon (Bristol City FC), Jon Gudni Fjóluson (IFK Norrkoping), Hjörtur Hermannsson (Brøndby IF), Hólmar Örn Eyjólfsson (Levski Sofia), Samuel Kári Friðjónsson (Vålerenga).

Midfielders: Aron Einar Gunnarsson (Cardiff City FC), Birkir Bjarnason (Aston Villa FC), Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson (Burnley FC), Emil Hallfreðsson (Udinese Calcio), Rúrik Gíslason (SV Sandhausen), Theodor Elmar Bjarnason (Elazigspor), Ólafur Ingi Skúlason (Kardemir Karabükspor), Arnór Ingvi Traustason (Malmö FF).

Forwards: Kolbeinn Sigþórsson (FC Nantes), Jón Daði Böðvarsson (Reading FC), Viðar Örn Kjartansson (Maccabi Tel-Aviv FC), Björn Bergmann Sigurðarson (Rostov FC), Kjartan Henry Finnbogason (AC Horsens), Albert Gudmundsson (PSV).