Iceland laser focused while Croatia could rest in upcoming showdown
ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia (AP) — Iceland’s coach isn’t dwelling on worldwide media attention, potential offers from big clubs, or even the prospect of having a hand in eliminating Lionel Messi and Argentina from the World Cup.
Heimir Hallgrimsson has even switched off his cellphone on the eve of his must-win match against Croatia. The 51-year-old coach said as pressure mounts in Russia, he’s also made sure players take regular breaks and have some fun, and stick to a routine drilled into him as a youth coach that includes placing training cones on the pitch during practice.
“As everyone knows I’ve been training with kids and amateur teams. You have to do it all yourself. I know not many trainers put things up on the pitch, but this is something I want to do,” Hallgrimsson said.
Iceland held Argentina in 1-1 its opening match but needs to win its last Group D game after losing to Nigeria 2-0. With just one point each, Iceland and Argentina would both have to win to qualify, but the Nordic team has a slight edge in goal difference. Argentina faces Nigeria in a simultaneous survival match in St. Petersburg on Tuesday. Nigeria, on three points, only needs a draw.
With his team already qualified, Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic is likely to rest several key players to avoid suspensions and fatigue. Six Croatia players picked up yellow cards in first two matches, including Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic and Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic.
Hallgrimsson, a practicing dentist and long-time trainer of boys’ and girls’ teams at community sports clubs in Iceland, said morale in the team remains high since the Icelanders have already made history.
As underdogs, Iceland — along with fans and their emblematic “thunderclap” celebration — drew international admiration on their thrilling run to the quarterfinals at the European Championships two years ago, holding winners Portugal in the group stage and knocking England out at the last 16.
Hallgrimsson was the head coach’s assistant at the Euros, but took the helm to lead the tiny island nation to its first World Cup after 14 failed attempts.
“For some other teams it wouldn’t be a disgrace but it would at least be a shock if they didn’t to qualify for the final 16. (But) if we manage to qualify it would probably be the biggest success in our short Icelandic football history.”