MOSCOW (Reuters) - Iceland’s amiable coach Heimir Hallgrimsson found time to discuss dentistry and the Cod Wars on Friday as the rank outsiders prepared to face Argentina in their World Cup opener on Saturday.
Iceland are the smallest country ever to have qualified for the World Cup and Hallgrimsson was clearly relishing their role as everyone’s favourite underdogs when he addressed around 300 reporters in a packed pre-match news conference.
“People like the fact that such as sparsely populated nation as ours is in the World Cup,” he said, before also bringing in his country’s reputation for peace and tranquillity.
“We haven’t attacked anyone, we haven’t been a war with anyone, we only had the Cod Wars and nobody got hurt there,” he said, referring to the fishing disputes between Britain and Iceland between 1958 and 1976. “You can’t help but love us.”
Iceland stunned the football world when they reached the quarter-finals of Euro 2016, beating Austria and England on the way, but Hallgrimsson said that Saturday’s match against the South Americans in Group D was an even bigger test.
“This is the biggest game in history of Icelandic football,” said Hallgrimsson, who then pre-empted a question about whether he was still practising dentistry — his first profession before he became an international football coach.
“I am still a dentist and I will never stop being a dentist,” he said.
The only thing that threatens to wipe the smile of Hallgrimsson’s face is the suggestion that Iceland’s progress has been a miracle.
“The team has been very stable for the last four years. We are 20th in the FIFA rankings, we won our World Cup qualifying group, we deserve to be here,” he said. “We do not see it as a miracle, that we are here in the World Cup.
“It’s the result of good work by the football association, the staff around the team and especially the players....it’s down to knowing your strengths and weaknesses.
“We play a different style of football but we have shown that if you have play as a unit, anything is possible. If someone is surprised, then they don’t know much about Iceland.”
Hallgrimsson recognised, however, that a Lionel Messi-inspired Argentina was the biggest challenge they have yet faced.
“Everyone has tried everything against him and he always manages to score,” said Hallgrimsson.
“We will do it together, and help each other and try to do it as a team... it would be unfair to give any given player the role of marking Messi, that would be not fair.”
He added: “We can have the best game or our lives tomorrow and still lose...that’s the reality.”
Writing by Brian Homewood in Berne, editing by Pritha Sarkar