Skip to main content

Iceland's goalkeepers Hannes Halldorsson, right, and Fredrik Schram attend a training session at Olimp Stadium in Kabardinka on June 14, 2018.

JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/Getty Images

The smallest nation ever to play at a World Cup has a big start against Lionel Messi in Moscow on Saturday.

Just don’t expect Iceland to be at all intimidated by Argentina and its superstar forward, going by its European Championship debut two years ago.

Then, the world’s other best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, reacted badly to Iceland’s come-from-behind 1-1 draw with Portugal.

Story continues below advertisement

Frustrated by an organized and disciplined opponent, Ronaldo sneered at Iceland’s post-game celebrating by a team “not going to do anything in the competition.”

Iceland, of course, advanced to the quarterfinals and went global as a feel-good story in France. Now it can no longer surprise, and has embraced its first challenge.

“You can’t have a better welcome,” coach Heimar Hallgrimsson said in Moscow last December. “There are a lot of romantic things in our heads now we start to play Argentina.”

There has been too little love between Messi and the World Cup in his three previous tournaments. They ended with losses in two quarterfinals and the 2014 final, all against Germany.

“I say that we have to reach the last four at the World Cup,” Argentina’s team general manager, Jorge Burruchaga, told FIFA’s website. “The game on Saturday — the first one — is always the most important. Getting the win gives you confidence, assurance and a boost to your self-esteem.”

Four years ago in Brazil, Argentina held off another World Cup newcomer from Europe, Bosnia and Herzegovina, with Messi’s second-half goal decisive in a 2-1 win.

Iceland is a similarly robust obstacle, with height and power in aerial challenges. Argentina has the English Premier League experience of central defenders Nicolas Otamendi and Marcos Rojo to help cope.

Story continues below advertisement

Messi’s last chance?

Turning 31 during the group stage, Messi likely has his last good chance to win a World Cup.

A major international tournament is about all there is left to win for the five-time world player of the year. The 2014 World Cup started a run of losing finals in three straight years, followed by the Copa America twice.

Also joining Messi at a fourth World Cup is teammate Javier Mascherano, who had his 34th birthday last week.

Injury trouble

Knee injuries have bothered both teams’ preparation. Argentina lost midfielder Manuel Lanzini from its likely starting lineup with a long-term ligament injury at a warmup camp in Spain.

Argentina forward Sergio Aguero and Iceland midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson both last played in the Premier League in March, for Manchester City and Everton, respectively.

Thunderclap happy

Whatever the result, Iceland will leave some of its best performance for the end, led by captain Aron Gunnarsson.

Story continues below advertisement

Gunnarsson, whose usual long red beard lends him a Viking warrior look, begins the post-game, slow-building clapping exchange between teams and fans that is now their trademark.

Expect a significant percentage of Iceland’s 330,000 population to join in during the Group D match at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow.

Argentina has support from fans whose singing has helped create a noisy atmosphere in packed late-night streets off Red Square this week.

Report an error
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

If your comment doesn't appear immediately it has been sent to a member of our moderation team for review

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.