Column: Tiny Iceland neutralizes Messi and Argentina

Iceland's Alfred Finnbogason scores his team opening goal during the group D match between Argentina and Iceland at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Spartak Stadium in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, June 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)

MOSCOW (AP) When the final whistle blew, Lionel Messi angrily kicked away the ball like it was poison and tore off his captain’s armband as though it was cursed.

A superstar of football knocked off his pedestal at the World Cup.

By a bunch of guys from Iceland.

Iceland.

Population 350,000.

Back on the volcanic, wind-swept island bashed by Arctic seas, in winters to come when storms are blowing and the sun is on strike, Icelanders will draw warmth from the memory of the 1-1 draw in this, their first-ever World Cup match. They and the team celebrated the result like a victory.

And rightfully so.

By neutralizing two-time World Cup winner Argentina, who had Messi on the field, a cigar-puffing Diego Maradona watching from the VIP seats and the pope on its side, Iceland blazed a trail for small countries and territories everywhere.

Luxembourg, Malta, Hong Kong, Scotland and the like, are you paying attention? Because this was no fluke. It was Iceland’s reward for two decades of thought, investment and ambition lavished on football, so all Icelandic boys and girls who want to play now have an abundance of pitches and qualified coaches.

Although Iceland has a pool of just 100 or so full-time professionals to draw from, its team is only getting better and growing in stature, no longer just a cute story of overachievement but a bona fide outfit to be reckoned with. And it has developed a real taste for bringing the great and good of football down a peg or two.

First was Cristiano Ronaldo, sulky and frustrated after Iceland restricted his Portugal to a 1-1 draw at the European Championships in 2016, in what was Iceland’s first experience of a major tournament. Then followed a milestone victory against England, sent packing 2-1 in the first knockout round of those championships. The upset made Iceland the darling of underdog-lovers everywhere.

And now Messi, the latest star extinguished by a blanket of sturdy Icelandic defending, physicality, organization, teamwork and self-sacrifice.

He had a penalty saved . He fired shots wide. Iceland’s players stuck to him like chewing gum on a shoe. When two or three of them followed his runs, others stepped into the gaps he opened in Iceland’s defense, plugging them. There always seemed to be a head, leg or other Icelandic body part in his way. Nine of Iceland’s starting 11 stood 6-foot (1.83 meters) tall or more. Nine of Argentina’s starters were under 6-foot. Iceland used every spare inch.

With Argentina pressing for a second-half winner, Messi sublimely controlled a long pass and was primed to shoot. The defender who stopped him from doing so, with an outstretched foot, was Birkir Saevarsson. When he’s not playing football, Saevarsson works a day job packing salt into jars in a warehouse back in Reykjavik, the Icelandic capital.

Forming blocks of blue up in the stands, the Icelandic fans never let up their din. This was David vs. Goliath stuff.

None more so than when goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson stopped Messi’s penalty in the 64th minute. Halldorsson plays his football in Denmark. His market value, surely rising now, is less than Messi reportedly earns in a week at Barcelona. Halldorsson used to hone his reflexes by kicking a ball hard at a wall and catching the rebound. He plays with a surgically reconstructed shoulder that was damaged when snowboarding in his teens. When he isn’t keeping goal, he works as a film director.

And he does his homework.

He plunged to his right when Messi kicked and punched the ball away. Halldorsson said he studied footage of previous Messi penalties and ”had a good feeling that he would go this way.”

Truth is, the penalty was poor. Weakly struck, badly placed. Ronaldo did far better from the spot the previous night against Spain. His hat-trick in that 3-3 draw means that, already, so early in the World Cup, Ronaldo is winning the bragging-battle between the five-time winners of the Ballon d’Or.

”It hurt missing the penalty. It could have given us the lead and that could have changed the match,” Messi said. ”It would have changed their game plan, too. They probably would open a little bit more and we could get more space.”

Maybe. Maybe not. Halldorsson told a different story.

”Our game plan worked really well,” he said. ”We could feel it right away in the first half that the game was playing out as we wanted.”

Iceland.

Wow.

Croatia and Nigeria, the other teams in Group D, be warned.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

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