It is a David versus Goliath story as mighty Argentina take on Iceland in their FIFA World Cup 2018 Group D match today (Saturday). The Lionel Messi-led Argentina are among the global football power houses. However, there are reasons good enough for fans to back minnows Iceland, too.
The opening match of Group D at Moscow’s Spartak Stadium will see opposites collide as FIFA World Cup veterans meet one of the tournament’s debutants. Two-time world champions and 2014 runners-up Argentina are in their 17th FIFA World Cup finals, while Iceland – the smallest of all 32 nations by population with just under 335,000 inhabitants – are making their first FIFA World Cup appearance ever.
Despite their vast experience and an attacking line-up led by Lionel Messi, Angel Di Maria and Sergio Aguero, La Albiceleste have struggled for a ticket to Russia for the FIFA World Cup 2018. Jorge Sampaoli’s side had to wait till the match-winning hat-trick from Messi in their last FIFA World Cup 2018 qualifier against Ecuador.
Iceland, after reaching the quarter-finals of UEFA EURO 2016, have celebrated another major success by making it to the FIFA World Cup finals for the first time ever. Heimir Hallgrimsson’s men swept aside teams like Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey en route to Russia. Their campaign was all the more remarkable for its efficiency, with Iceland needing just 16 goals to qualify – fewer than any other group winner.
Fans and football pundits are terming this match as classic David vs Goaliath match. One team full of multi-millionarire stars and captained by the highest paid football player in Forbes’ top 100 highest paid athletes list this year. Other team comprises little-known faces of world football. Still, the team with no big names, without any great pedigree or tradition will start their FIFA World Cup 2018 journey as fan’s favourites.
But why? Here are the four strong reasons that drive fans sentiments to have a faith and belief in FIFA World Cup debutants.
Reason 1: SMALL BUT STRONG
Iceland on their way to Russia for the FIFA World Cup 2018 have proved that numbers and size are irrelevant, only class matters at the global stage. Their rivals on World Cup debut, Argentina are one of the world’s most popular and successful football teams. The two-time World Cup champions in three appearances in the Grand Finale.
Iceland, on the other hand, will walk into the FIFA World Cup finals grand stage for the first time. The Nordic Island nation has a mere 348,580 population. But each supporter will be backing their team with a strong conviction. Iceland is not just the least populated European nation, but also the smallest country ever to play FIFA World Cup finals. Believe it or not, the 340,000 Iceland nationals are equal to a mere 3% of the total Mumbai population.
Reason 2: PLAYERS & COACH
Iceland has only 18,000 registered male football players – 11 of them will take the field against the mighty Argentina. They all come from varied backgrounds – some even part-time footballers.
Heimir Hallgrímsson the team’s coach is actually a dentist and lives in the beautiful islands of Vestmannaeyjar. He actually needs to fly or take a boat to get to Reykjavík where the team trained for the World Cup. Iceland’s goalkeeper, Hannes Halldorsson is a film director. His film career is put on hold for now, but he was behind a climatic World Cup Coca-Cola commercial with the thunderclap sounds very evident.
Reason 3: A FAIRYTALE STORY
Iceland had narrowly missed out on qualification for the FIFA World Cup 2014 in Brazil, but their Euro qualification two years later and performance at the Euro is nothing less than a fairy tale. Iceland defeated big teams like England at Euro to become talk of the football world. Their success in making it to Russia indicates a successful approach to the game and big heart of Iceland team. When teams like USA, Italy and Netherlands could not make it to the World Cup in Russia – Iceland made it to the world’s biggest competition in an absolutely fairy tale manner. Iceland was placed 122nd FIFA World rankings, today they have scaled to the 22nd in the FIFA rankings.
Reason 4: BIG PLAYERS WITH SMALL PRICE
The Icelandic first division football, Úrvalsdeild, is a semi-professional league where the average annual salary is around £23,000. Most of the Iceland players play in the local league with the few exceptions plying their trade on the bigger stages like Premier League. Many players also work in other occupations. So in Iceland, football is different by nature. The lavish lifestyle of the Premier League is a whole world away from the Úrvalsdeild, where football is a supplementary form of income for its players, not a golden ticket. In comparison, Messi’s monthly earnings will be more than the complete one-year earnings of the entire Iceland squad.
These are the reasons why the fans all around the world will be rooting for underdog Iceland against Argentina tonight. Many fans around the world have adopted Iceland as their favourite team. Be it the USA, who missed a FIFA World Cup 2018 berth, or Poland and Dutch football fans. There are Italians, too. According to various news reports, American bars and football fans have “adopted” Iceland as their team. Denver’s Celtic on Market Pub has said it will be the “hub for the Iceland national team” throughout the tournament as it partners with a variety of Icelandic products, including: Reyka Vodka, Icelandair and Icelandic Glacial Water.
With all this noise and support around for the underdog Iceland team, Messi’s Argentina will certainly have a lot of thinking to do.