Birkir Mar Sævarsson was a member of the Iceland squad who qualified for the country’s first major tournament, Euro 2016. Four years on from the victory over England in Nice, he talks about the experience of playing in the tournament.
I didn’t feel nerves. There’s always a butterfly in the stomach but I was just looking forward to it. We were making history, so what’s the point in being nervous? You have to remember that it’s football. It’s the thing we love, and we were going to do it against the best teams in Europe, in a tournament, for the first time in Iceland’s history. That’s something to enjoy, not get nervous about.
It was a bittersweet moment when I found out I was in the squad for Euro 2016. I was relieved to be included, but my uncle, Gunnleifur Gunnleifsson, was left out. It came as a shock. He was devastated and I was devastated for him. He had been in the national team for such a long time and the Euros would have been the perfect ending.
Two years later, when the squad for the 2018 World Cup was announced, I was eating lunch at the salt-distribution company I was working at. I had moved back to Valur by then. They are semi-professional and training doesn’t start until five o’clock. I was going crazy at home and needed something to fill the day, so I got a job at my friend’s company.
We opened the Euros against Portugal. I knew I would be up against Cristiano Ronaldo. I don’t usually focus too much on my opponent before a match, but I’d probably watched Ronaldo play about 300 times. My WhatsApp profile photo is of Ronaldo grasping at my shorts as I ran past him in a qualification match before Euro 2012. I might find a space on the wall for it when I quit football.
The match finished 1-1. It was crucial to get that first goal of the tournament and finish the match feeling positive. If we had lost heavily … well, you just don’t know. It could have been devastating.
We heard about Ronaldo’s comments when we were back in the dressing room. He had criticised our “small mentality” and defensive football. He said we’d go nowhere in the tournament. We laughed it off. For us, it was a case of “job done” when we heard that. We knew if he was complaining about our approach, it was because he was unhappy with the result and his own performance. We drove back to our training base at Annecy with any doubts gone. We felt like we could achieve something in France.
A win against Austria sent us into the knockout stages and a match against England. Playing them in a tournament was a massive deal. The English league is the one Icelanders watch above all others. We all support a team. We all have an opinion. I’m a Leeds United supporter. It’s been a rough few years. Most of my family are Liverpool – my grandfathers, my mum, my wife. I have my dad to blame for following Leeds. He chose them in the early 1970s. English matches were available on Icelandic TV back then, but only one week after they were played. Leeds won the league in 1992, when I was eight. I thought they would be an easy team to support. My last trip to Elland Road was a 0-0 draw with Barnsley, so I got that wrong.
There was no apprehension in the days leading up to the England match. Just excitement. Perhaps that was because of the clear message from our coaches Lars Lagerbäck and Heimir Hallgrimsson: England were overrated. It wasn’t about belittling or disrespecting England; we knew they had good players. But Lars and Heimir made us believe that we, as a unit, were just as good. England might have the star players and the individual skill, but we were the better team.
Lars added fuel to the fire when he told us in a team meeting that Roy Hodgson had not been at the Stade de France to watch our final group match, instead choosing to take his assistant on a cruise on the Seine. We didn’t quite go as far as to stick it to the dressing-room wall, but we certainly used it as motivation.
We made the worst possible start. After three minutes Raheem Sterling drifted inside off my wing. I should have kept an eye on him. I was ball-watching for a second too long. All of a sudden he was in front of me. He took the ball around Hannes and won a penalty, which Rooney scored. Maybe, at that moment, England thought the game was over and that goals two and three would come by themselves. Maybe they relaxed too much.
Two minutes later, we were level. Our old friend came to the rescue: the long-throw routine. Aron threw it to Kári, who nodded it on for Ragnar Sigurdsson to score. It was important to get that equaliser quickly. It’s in our nature, too. We’ve always been good at resetting after we concede or score a goal. We reset and continue as if nothing had happened. A lot of small teams would have given up but it didn’t matter to us. We always needed to score at some point if we were going to win the game.
We made it 2-1 soon after. Kolbeinn Sigthorsson scored after the ball slipped through Joe Hart’s fingers. Part of me wanted Hart to parry the ball because I was waiting just to his left, ready to score the rebound!
We could see in the England players’ eyes that they were stressed and frightened. “What will the press say if we lose to Iceland?” That was probably what they were thinking. The first 80 minutes in Nice were the easiest of the tournament. Everything we did worked perfectly. Every single one of us played to our full potential. I felt like England were never going to score and that’s an amazing feeling. We limited them to long shots and created more chances of our own; even I had one with my mighty left foot.
Things changed when Marcus Rashford came on with 10 minutes remaining. He was fresh and our legs were tired. Rashford kept picking the ball up in the space between Joey Gudmundsson and me. I couldn’t go all the way up to meet him because I would have left space behind me, and if Joey had dropped deeper, their left-back would have been free. So every time Rashford got the ball, he was able to work up some pace. We barely managed to stop him. If I were the England coach, and it’s easy to be wise with hindsight, I would have brought Rashford on earlier. He blew up the game. If he had been there from the 70th minute, he may well have created something.
But he didn’t. The final whistle blew. It was another of those blackout moments. We were in our own half when the referee ended the game and the Iceland fans were at the other end. I sprinted straight over and started celebrating. The English didn’t even cross my mind. One player came over to shake our hands and thank us for the game. I think it was Danny Rose. The rest just lay on the grass. The England shirt seemed pretty heavy.
After the initial joy had faded it was time for the ‘Viking clap’. There’s nothing like it. It brings the players and the fans together in a unique way. There were some pretty good ones throughout the tournament but this one was special. I will never forget the Euros. A happy memory that lasted for a month.
Extracted from Against the Elements, The Eruption of Icelandic Football by Matt McGinn, published by Pitch Publishing on 27 July 2020 at GBP 12.99. To pre-order a copy click here.