Tiny Iceland made a stunning first-ever World Cup appearance on Saturday when they held 2014 runners-up Argentina to a 1-1 draw in a dramatic match where Lionel Messi blew his chance to win it when he had a penalty saved by Hannes Por Halldorsson.
Sergio Aguero had given the twice world champions the lead after 19 minutes of the Group D match. However, Iceland showed exactly the same commitment and self-belief as when they stunned the soccer world with their run to the quarter-finals of the European Championship two years ago and hit back four minutes later through Alfred Finnbogason.
Argentina, playing in all-black and roared on by the vast majority of the crowd in the Spartak Stadium, eventually took command and delivered wave after wave of attacks in the second half but they actually created few clear chances either side of the poorly-struck 64th-minute penalty by Messi, who had a remarkable 11 shots during the match.
Iceland, by far the smallest country by population to appear at the World Cup, famously beat England in the last 16 of Euro 2016 and again inspired by their “thunderclapping” fans ran tirelessly and fought for everything to write another glowing chapter in their short but glorious major tournament story.
“I hope it is going to prove important to us to reach our goal to qualify,” Halldorsson said of the penalty save.
“I did my homework, I looked at a lot of penalties by Messi, and I also looked at how I had been behaving in previous penalties, so I tried to get into their mindset, how they would be thinking about me.
“I think the Argentinians felt a bit frustrated that they weren’t getting through and it was important we equalised so quickly. I guess our game plan worked almost perfectly.”
Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli said: “We need to find more variety of options going forward. It’s a very competitive group.
“The circumstances around the missed penalty and that led to Leo’s mistake, that’s just another statistic, it’s part of the past… football is like that. We need to be strong as a group, believe in ourselves and know we have all the tools to beat anybody.”
His players won’t have to look far for inspiration when it comes to self-belief.
After poor-quality, low-intensity performances from some of the other tournament outsiders in the opening days in Russia, Iceland showed yet again their magnificent commitment, spirit and fitness.
They signalled their intent from the kick off, sending seven men charging into the box to challenge as the ball was pumped long and it proved to be just the first of many uncomfortable moments for a decidedly shaky Argentine defence.
The South Americans looked more assured in attack, though, and went ahead when Aguero turned tightly in the box and smashed in an unstoppable shot.
Iceland, however, are not a team to sit back and sulk and soon forced an equaliser when keeper Willy Caballero palmed Gylfi Sigurdsson’s low shot straight into the path of Finnbogason to sweep into the unguarded net. After Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat-trick in Portugal’s 3-3 draw with Spain on Friday, all eyes were on Messi to respond but he was generally kept at arm’s length by the rugged but controlled Iceland defenders, no respecters of even the greatest reputation.
The great man was then given the ultimate opportunity after Hordur Bjorgvin Magnusson got entangled with Aguero in the box, only for Halldorsson to fly to his right and palm the penalty clear. Iceland then defended superbly, almost fanatically, and when substitute Cristian Pavon did break through in the dying moments, Halldorsson made another fantastic full-length save to touch his shot clear.
Iceland’s players rushed to the stands to share their celebrations with their fans and now will have real belief that they can get out of a group that also contains Croatia and Nigeria, who meet later on Saturday.