It says plenty about Iceland’s remarkable upward trajectory that if the World Cup 2018’s smallest-ever nation were to defeat Nigeria, the so-called ‘Giant of Africa’, in Friday’s Group D fixture on the banks of the River Volga, there would be few eyebrows raised.
This is the view of Lars Lagerbäck, co-coach of the Iceland side who stunned England at Euro 2016, who sees no reason why his old team cannot take their thunder-clapping followers on a similar ride in Russia following their opening 1-1 draw with Argentina. “When it comes to Iceland I would never say I’d be surprised,” said Lagerbäck. “They at least look as good as they did when I worked with them in 2016.”
“They have more experience, have both the physical and mental strength and are one of the best-organised teams and with that you always have a chance of beating the big guns,” he added of the team who would move three points clear of Argentina with a victory, leaving the South Americans on the brink of elimination – and Iceland with a foot in the second round.
An Iceland win would also eliminate Nigeria and Lagerbäck, speaking to The Independent, can comment with some authority on the west African nation too given that he coached them at the 2010 finals – and has his former assistant, Roland Andersson, still scouting for Iceland coach Heimir Hallgrimsson.
According to Lagerbäck, Nigeria – a country with an official population over 500 times greater than Iceland’s 334,000 – the job of coaching Nigeria could not be more different than working in Iceland. “They’re the opposite,” said the Swede. “It’s not only the size of the country. It’s the way of playing football. It’s more from the individual. But they have potential. Roland Andersson, who I worked with, scouted Nigeria and he thinks they have really good players. You have to be on your toes even if they didn’t play a good first game.”
Not a good first game is Scandinavian understatement and how Nigeria respond will be intriguing to see. Their dressing-room culture involves plenty of song and prayer – Lagerbäck recalls the whole squad, Christians and Muslims, uniting in prayer “when they travelled, before games, after games” and also how “they always sang when we were reaching the end of the journey to matches.” Yet he witnessed also a sensitivity to individual criticism that was surprising to a Swede steeped in the collective mindset. “They’re very sensitive about getting criticised in a group,” Lagerbäck said. “You have to be very careful about that – and of course there are a lot more influences from different people in a country like Nigeria.”
The current Nigeria coach, Gernot Röhr, told reporters in his pre-match briefing that his players needed “animation”, not organisation, after the listless display in their opening loss to Croatia. One long-time Nigerian observer in the press room at the Volgograd Arena on Thursday was earlier heard lamenting the lack of individual talent in this squad, complaining that their instinctive talent “gets knocked out of them” in Europe.
Nigeria may be wearing a 1994 retro shirt but, with due respect to Chelsea’s Victor Moses and Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi, there is certainly nobody in the current crop with the magic in their boots that Jay Jay Okocha displayed in that debut World Cup campaign. Tellingly, Iceland coach Hallgrimsson, when asked about Nigeria’s strengths, did not mention technique but physical strength and speed.
Hence the debate over the use of Jon Obi Mikel, the former Chelsea midfielder, in a No10 role. Okocha himself has criticised that selection and so too José Mourinho, to whom Rohr alluded in his press conference, saying: “We had a very well-known colleague saying that he’s a bad number ten and we lost a good number six but it’s two years we were working like that and we qualified without any defeat.”
The German added that this was a meeting of two teams without “big stars” – and cited his squad’s average age (25.9) when playing down their prospects. “Why we don’t have star players is because we are the youngest team at the World Cup. What we have is a team for 2022.”
For Iceland, by contrast, the time is surely now. Gylfi Sigurdsson, their set-piece specialist, will not need telling that Nigeria conceded twice following dead-ball situations against Croatia. “We have to try to use that,” noted Hallgrimsson, who will be missing Burnley midfielder Johan Berg Gundmundsson owing to a calf problem.
The Icelandic national broadcaster screening the World Cup, RUV, reported a 99.6% audience share during the match against Argentina on Saturday lunchtime. They have a unity, a greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts-ness, that bigger countries seldom attain. “Nobody is trying to be bigger than the next guy beside him and maybe that is why these guys are getting results above their individual quality,” said Hallgrimsson. For his part, captain Aron Gunnarsson did not pause when asked to sum up their secret in just one word: “Togetherness.”
For Lagerbäck, it was Gunnarsson’s effort against Argentina – in his first match since knee surgery at the end of April – that summed this up. “He started training just a few weeks ago but look at what he did for 75 minutes – always in the right place, covering fantastically the defence. Gylfi [also injured in the spring] is also back so in my opinion they have a good chance of beating Nigeria.”
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