Argentina vs Iceland 1-1 | FIFA World Cup 2018

Alfred Finnbogason in action in Iceland’s first-ever World Cup game, against Argentina
MOSCOW — Heimir Hallgrimsson wanted to save time. Before Iceland’s coach faced the questions of the gathered news media on the eve of his country’s first game at a World Cup, he tried to help out. “Before anyone asks,” he said, “I’m still a dentist, and I will never stop being a dentist.”

Hallgrimsson and his players are in no doubt as to how they are perceived; they are well aware of the role to which they have been assigned. They are the ultimate underdogs, the smallest nation ever to play in a World Cup — just as, two years ago, they were the smallest nation ever to play at a European Championship — the team that knows a substantial proportion of its fans by name, the team that is managed by a dentist.

They understand it, too. They appreciate just how compelling their story is, how remarkable it is that a country so small should now have assumed a place if not in the first rank of soccer nations, then surprisingly close to it. The romance of their rise is so seductive that the players cannot help but acknowledge it and, occasionally, even revel in it.
There comes a point, though, where that romance begins to obscure the achievements of these players, rather than celebrate them, where the appeal of presenting them as nothing but a plucky band of adventurers does not highlight the scale of what they have achieved, but begins to diminish it.
For on Saturday, in its World Cup debut, Iceland held its own in a 1-1 draw with powerful Argentina — Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and all the rest of them — not because of its relationship with its fans, or because of the thunderclap, or because of its coach’s day job.

No, Iceland emerged with a well-deserved point — and a substantially enhanced chance of reaching the knockout rounds of this competition, just as it did at the Euros in 2016 — because of something much more mundane, and much less quirky and compelling: the fact that it is a well-organized, well-drilled side, made up of hard-working, disciplined professionals and sprinkled with just a little invention and stardust. Iceland keeps achieving these things, keeps surprising the world and surpassing its assumed limitations, because it is a good team.
And the romance with Iceland is the consequence of all this, not the cause.
That Iceland, population 330,000, could hold off Argentina, population 43.85 million humans, plus Messi, is not a shock to compare with Cameroon beating Argentina in the 1990 World Cup, or Senegal overcoming France in 2002. It is not even an equivalent to New Zealand’s tie with Italy in 2010.

Iceland’s soccer pedigree is too great, its quality too high, for it to be included with those startling results. This is a team, after all, that boasts players in the Premier League, the Bundesliga and Serie A; of the 23 players at Hallgrimsson’s disposal in Russia, only one — the right back Birkir Saevarsson — still plays in Iceland. Judging by his performance on Saturday, shutting down no less a threat than Ángel Di María, he will not be there for long.

It is a side that reached the quarterfinals of the European Championship just two years ago, beating England to get that far. At that point, emotionally and physically exhausted, Iceland lost to France, the host, but still managed to score twice in defeat.

And Iceland possesses a group of players as professionally prepared as any other. “There was nothing in Argentina’s game that surprised us,” Hallgrimsson said after the game. Iceland knew it would have to absorb pressure, knew it would have to resist being dazzled by Argentina’s possession, knew it would have to take its chances on the counterattack, which is just what it did when Alfred Finnbogason tapped home a first-half goal to cancel out Aguero’s opening salvo. Iceland, it remains clear, is a team that knows who it is and what it can do.

In that sense, on Saturday, it contrasted markedly with its opponent. Argentina’s players are, as Hallgrimsson put it, “superior individuals, in better teams and playing in better leagues,” but they continue to contrive to be less than the sum of their parts when joined together.

Argentina started this game with Aguero, Di María and Messi on the field, a trio worth many hundreds of millions of dollars, if any price at all can be put on the last of the three.
As well, Jorge Sampaoli, the Argentine coach, had the option to bring on Gonzalo Higuaín, a striker Juventus paid more than $100 million to sign from Napoli in 2016. In fact, Sampaoli, if he chose, could cycle through three different tactical approaches, or even four. He had a player for every purpose on the bench.
But in the end, nothing he tried made the difference on Saturday, in part because of Iceland’s obduracy, its refusal to wilt. But only in part. For Argentina’s shortcomings were there to see, too.
The easy analysis would have it that Messi is somehow reduced when he is removed from the context of Barcelona and put in his country’s uniform. But it is worth pausing to ask why it is, precisely, that an Argentine team blessed with so much attacking talent is so reliant on just one player, even if he may be the best there has ever been.

Too many of his illustrious Argentine teammates seem content to exist entirely in his shadow, waiting for him to deliver a miracle. When he fails — as he did here, with his second-half penalty shot saved by Hannes Halldorsson, Iceland’s film-producing goalkeeper, another little dash of romance — there is no obvious candidate to ease his burden.

None of that should detract, of course, from Iceland’s joy. This was a marquee result on a red-letter day for the team, and the country. It deserved its celebrations after the game, spending several minutes on the field, communing with its fans.

All of that only adds to the romance, of course. There will be more people who fell in love with Iceland on Saturday, with its determined defending, its courage, its clear-eyed focus in the face of dazzling talent, in the Moscow sunshine.

But to reduce this team to nothing more than a novelty act does Hallgrimsson, and his players, a disservice. They are not here to win hearts, or fans. They are here to win games. They know it is a wonderful story, one that deserves to be told. Their concern, though, is not how they came to be here, but what they can do now that they are.

Here is how the game unfolded, from Victor Mather and Matthew Futterman:

95’: Messi Stopped Again and We Have a Draw!

Free kick awarded from 40 yards. Is there still a twist in the game? Messi … it hits the wall. Game over!
Matthew Futterman: At the end of the match, Iceland walks over to the corner of the stadium where its jubilant fans are celebrating like they’ve won. Argentina’s players wandered off with their hands on their hips, heads down. Only at the World Cup do two teams each score a goal and come away with a point and one team celebrates and the other acts as though there has been a death in the family. And obviously Iceland becomes the smallest country ever to get a point at the World Cup.
  • 93’: Argentina Running Out of Time

  • A last throw of the dice for Messi sailed over the net. Frustration for Argentina. Iceland booted the ball far up the field.
  • 90’: Five More Minutes

  • Five minutes of added time. That’s five minutes of hope for Argentina.
  • 88’: Argentina Trying Everything

  • Pavon tried a curler, which drew a diving save. Then Mascherano’s long-range effort drew a save. Argentina throwing everything at Iceland now. Iceland made a sub and both players take their time on the swap.
  • 85’: Last-Minute Reinforcements

  • Argentina brings in Gonzalo Higuain of Juventus for Meza in hopes of some offensive magic in the dying minutes.
  • 82’: Can Iceland Hold On for a Draw?

  • Messi shot from distance, but it went wide by a foot. Can Iceland hang on for 10 more minutes? They certainly don’t look like winning, but a draw would be a first-rate result for them.
  • 80’: Argentina Keeps Pressure On

  • Messi controlled a ball right by the net with an athletic leap, but before he could fire, Saevarsson jumped in and cleared. A well-deserved congratulation from the keeper for that play.
  • 78’: No Penalty, No V.A.R.

  • A big penalty appeal from Pavon, but it’s denied. In truth, the penalty that was called, for Aguero, was marginal.

  • 75’: Messi Stopped … Again

Messi over a free kick outside the box … it went into the wall of four Icelanders.
Iceland is playing nine in the box right now, with only Finnbogason a lonely figure further up the field.
Matthew Futterman: It is impossible to read Messi’s mind, but even before the missed penalty, from up close he has seemed a bit low-energy on the day, as though he might rather be on a beach in Ibiza rather than carrying the load of the nation on his shoulders. Remember, he did want to stop playing for the national team two years ago and had to be coaxed out of retirement. Then he got Argentina to Russia on the last day of qualifying with a hat trick. Iceland has maintained a tight circle around him all afternoon, keeping four burly defenders and midfielders within a few yards of him for most of the game. That can’t be a fun way to spend a match … Now watch him score two goals in the final 12 minutes to win it.

  • 72’: Messi Stopped Again

  • Messi finally got the space to go on one of his runs, which led to a series of passes, which finished on the feet of Banega. But his shot is saved.
  • 69’: Argentina Coming On Strong

  • Argentina continues to pour it on, and you’d still think they could score in the last 20 minutes. Iceland’s stubborn defense, and keeper Halldorsson share the man of the match award so far.
  • 64’: Huge Save for Iceland Against Messi

Penalty to Argentina! Messi to take … Saved by Halldorsson. Incredible!
Aguero hit the turf in the penalty area after a collision with Magnusson. The penalty was called, But Messi’s shot was down the middle and Halldorsson was able to save the day for Iceland.

  • 60’: Iceland’s Defense Strong

  • Messi found Banega at the half moon, and he got off a decent shot. But Ragnar Sigurdsson threw his body in front of the ball. That’s the kind of consistent defensive commitment that Iceland has shown.
  • 55’: Maradona Is Here

  • Another candidate for soccer G.O.A.T., Maradona, is picked out by the cameras. He looks somewhat unimpressed.

  • 49’: Big Miss By Argentina

Nicolas Otamendi misfired off a Dii Maria corner and howled in disappointment. Iceland is keeping nearly its whole team behind the ball.
Matthew Futterman: A note on the crowd here at Spartak Stadium, where seating capacity is 45,000. Argentina has traveled in a major way. Iceland has taken over one corner of the stands, from the pitch to the top row. And then there is another clump two sections over in either direction. Other than that it’s a sea of blue and white striped jerseys here, almost like it was in Brazil, when much of the country could drive to Argentina matches. No shame on Iceland — they only have 340,000 people total, so there are only so many who could make the journey.
  • 46’: Second Half Kicks Off

  • Still trying to solve Argentina’s defensive problems here. Perhaps the defensive midfielders need to track back more? Perhaps Argentina doesn’t really need The New York Times’s help?


Argentina have dominated and are still comfortably favored for the win. But the shaky defense could still give up a goal … and could bring serious trouble against better opponents.
  • 46’: Nearly a Goal, But by Iceland!

  • They hoofed the ball up, Sigurdsson was unmarked and forced the diving save from Caballero. Defense is definitely the weakness of Argentina so far. Though Iceland seldom get the ball into the box, when they do the disorganization of Argentina is clear. And that’s halftime.
  • 42’: Iceland Tries to Draw Penalty

A good little cross by Meza found Biglia by the net. He went down, appealed for the penalty and got a “No dice” from the ref. Still all Argentina.

  • 37’: Argentina Still in Control, But Few Shots

Argentina controlled the ball in the Iceland end for seemingly endless minutes. But it didn’t even really get a good shot off. Iceland defenders closed down every player, paying special attention to Messi, often using two or three defenders and putting a hand on him. It’s effective, but with the ball always near the Iceland goal, any error could bring disaster.
  • 33’: Argentina Controlling Ball

Argentina dominating possession. As the team moved the ball toward dangerous territory, Lucas Biglia perhaps got antsy and tried a shot from way out. It sailed over the net.
Matthew Futterman: A fascinating moment in the 29th minute when Iceland had a throw-in in front of Argentina’s bench. Iceland captain Aron Gunnarsson grabbed the ball and with his tattooed right arm waved all but one of his players ahead, as if to say, “boys, we are only going to be this deep so many times today. We have to take our shots.” Gunnarsson then launched his throw a good 30 yards to the top of the penalty area, a heave by any measure. If Iceland ever gets a throw deep in Argentina’s end, it will essentially be corner kick.
  • 24’: GOAL! Iceland Answers!

Argentina had much more trouble than it should clearing the ball, and it zipped around the box dangerously. Alfred Finnbogason poached it just outside the keeper’s area and had a fairly easy finish. Poor defending by Argentina.

  • 23’: A World Cup First for Aguero

Aguero has scored 37 times for Argentina, but never before in a World Cup game.
  • 19’: GOAL Argentina! 1-0

It’s Sergio Aguero, who picked up the ball in the box, freed himself and fired, looking almost off-balance as he did so. Right in the net. That’s what Argentina needs to do about six more times in this tournament.

  • 18’: Messi With a Great Chance

Messi was isolated with only Hallfredsson guarding him. He paused casually, beat his defender in a step and fired from just outside the box. Wide.
Matthew Futterman: For some reason FIFA has give the media some of the best seats in the house here at Spartak Stadium. I’m sitting just above the Argentina bench. If Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli didn’t have to manage the match and would turn around, we could have a chat without event raising our voices. This does not often happen at major international sporting events. I can tell you that Sampaoli up close looks like he is expecting some terrible new from a doctor. He’s barely stopped pacing the sidelines since the opening whistle. He keeps grabbing his face. He looks like he might cry. With good reason, perhaps given how close Iceland came to taking a lead in the early minute. Meanwhile, Iceland Coach Heimir Hallgrimsson — I’d have to raise my voice to talk to him, but not scream — has been stoic and mostly stationary. Arms crossed. He may be contemplating some upcoming dental surgery. It’s a fascinating contrast.

  • 13’: Argentina Controlling Possession

  • First corner to Argentina. Di Maria hesitated over it, then sent it right to Iceland. Argentina controlling possession, and Di Maria tried a very speculative shot. Not close.

  • 10’: Missed Chance for Iceland

  • A sloppy pass in Argentina’s box leaves Sigurdsson inches away from poking it in. Bjarnason then latches on to it and shoots it just wide. Nearly a terrible error for Argentina.
  • 9’: Another Chance for Messi

  • Free kick to Messi again. It races through the box and Tagliafico gets a head to it, but it goes wide.
  • 5’: Free Kick for Messi

  • It’s from 40 yards plus, but still. Free kick for Messi! He ships it into the box where it rolls free, worryingly for Iceland, but is eventually cleared.
  • 3’: Caballero Starts for Argentina (Not for Chelsea)

  • Between the sticks for Argentina is Willy Caballero, who sits on the bench for Chelsea. But here he’s starting for a World Cup contender. (Chelsea’s starter, Thibaut Courtois, is the starter for Belgium here.)
  • 1’: Kickoff in Moscow!

Argentina is in black and Iceland in white. A first ever World Cup for tiny Iceland. And is this the start of (finally) Messi’s World Cup? Or will it be another disappointment?

Argentina vs Iceland 1-1 | FIFA World Cup 2018 - Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and all the rest of them — not because of its relationship with its fans, or because of the thunderclap, or because of its coach’s day job.

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