The secret to Iceland’s most successful EURO start in 18 years

FEATURE: An unwavering common objective and shared experience from the older players to the young generation are the keys to Iceland’s sensational preliminary campaign in Malmö

Iceland have made the perfect start to the EHF EURO 2020, qualifying for the main round after two victories

Iceland will enter the final preliminary round day for group E in Malmö as the only side through to the main round and with the chance to top the table. With a victory or a draw over Hungary on Wednesday in their last preliminary round match, Iceland will top group E and be sure not to proceed to the next stage empty-handed, no matter whether it is Hungary or Denmark who join them.

Iceland have not had such a successful start to the EHF EURO since 2002. That was the last edition where they recorded two wins in the preliminary round. If they defeat Hungary, this will be the best ever start to the competition.

Playing in a group that includes world and Olympic champions Denmark, Hungary and Russia, Iceland were not the favourites to win the group ahead of the Men’s EHF EURO 2020 – but their performances so far have made it clear they could be the favourites to do much more than that.

Iceland’s campaign opened with what was one of the biggest upsets of the competition – a thrilling one-goal victory over Denmark that immediately had them marked as one of the most interesting teams in the EURO.

“To beat Denmark, you have to play almost a perfect game, and I think we did play very well, both in defence and attack. We had a very good game plan before the game, and we followed it through. In attack we made few mistakes, technical mistakes – I think only five in the whole game – and we played with not so many different tactics. We were very precise in what we wanted to do, and that meant that were following the game plan very well,” said Iceland coach Gudmundur Gudmundsson following the match. “Of course, it was very close, but I think we were better in this game.”

“We talked about it immediately, on the floor even”

However, Iceland were cautious, as the successful opening was not an unfamiliar situation – at the two previous EUROs, they overthrew powerful opponents in their first match before losing the following games and being eliminated. Even at the 2014 edition where Iceland ranked fifth, they won the first match and could not take a second victory in the preliminary round.

Iceland already had their happiness in check before even leaving the court after the clash against Denmark, as they were eager to avoid repeating those past experiences.

“We talked about it immediately, on the floor even. After we had celebrated a bit, we as a team talked about it still in the hall, on the floor, after the game,” said Gudmundsson the day after the Denmark match.

“We were just talking about what we had experienced in the two last European championships: winning the first game against good nations. It was against Norway and in the last tournament against Sweden – very good teams – and after this, not doing so good.

“We have a young team now, also. Some of the players are inexperienced and they have to hear from the more experienced players, you know, how we are going to do things. And I of course come into the picture as a coach also. So, we are just talking. We do not want to experience this again. That is really what we talked about. We want to stay focused and keep on.”

Iceland did just that, finally ending their ‘curse’ – and in style. In round two, they defeated Russia with a record-equalling result of 11 goals in their favour, writing the 34:23 victory into the history books as their biggest EHF EURO win alongside a 33:22 victory against Switzerland in 2002.

When their main round berth was confirmed later in the evening, as Hungary and Denmark’s clash ended in a draw, the team did not celebrate. 

“No celebration at all. Of course, we’re happy that we reached the next stage, but the focus is just on getting the two points [to take] with us,” said right back Viggo Kristjanson, highlighting the fact that Iceland are far from satisfied with their achievements thus far, and anything less than a win on Wednesday will be a disappointment in light of their current performance level and targets. 

“It’s a moment that I cherish a lot”

As Gudmundsson mentioned, one important aspect of Iceland being successful in their goals would be the experience older players could pass on to the younger ones. During the warm-up for the Russia match, captain Gudjon Valur Sigurdsson – who is the all-time top scorer at EHF EURO events and won the bronze medal with Iceland at the EHF EURO 2010 – talked to his team for several minutes in a huddle on court.

Clearly, along with the preparation and tactics for the game, whatever was said helped. What did Sigurdsson share with his team?

“It’s just something I think of before every game. I gather the guys and we talk together,” said Sigurdsson, who, at 40 years of age, is not sure he will participate in another EURO, after playing every edition since 2000. “I try to give them just a few pointers for the game, and for future, and what we have done in the past. As long as it helps, I will keep on doing it.

“We have our privacy in public and it’s a moment that I cherish a lot. You know, being with my team, with my guys. So close to starting the warm-up and the game. I guess it will be one of the moments I will miss.”

Sigurdsson does not remember – or perhaps does not want to divulge – exactly what was said in those moments. But these team talks, and the broader communication led by coach Gudmundsson and consequential clear understanding of the objectives, are one aspect that has likely been critical for Iceland’s success.

As Gudmundsson pointed out, his older players can share valuable experience – and Sigurdsson agrees his chance to help the younger ones to maintain focus is important.

“It’s easy to get carried away. I can remember, for example, my first Olympic Games. I was in awe. We got prepared and older athletes were coming and advising us how it is being in the Olympic village and everything. But I can remember I was in awe when I saw this athlete here and this athlete was next to me on the bus or in the village,” said Sigurdsson, speaking at a media call in Malmö on Tuesday afternoon.

At the media call, many Danish journalists were present to discuss the fact that Iceland have such an influence on Denmark’s main round chances. Such media attention, and not even about their own team, is one aspect of a tournament that may not be so easy for young players to prepare for.

“[We are] getting the attention now because of having the Danish fate in our hands,” said the left wing. “Now, everybody’s talking about not will we win – they’re talking about will we help Denmark. So, we are not the main course – we are just the appetiser!

“It’s a thing that we know and we accept and we are used to, and that’s why it’s fun to see how the young guys are handling that – to see that we are in it to be successful, but we also know that we are not one of the biggest, we are not the favourites, we are not one of the biggest countries here.

“We have been performing well the first two games, but hopefully this is just the beginning. We take it as it comes and are at least enjoying the moment,” concluded Sigurdsson.

written by Courtney Gahan / jh