World Cup reality beckons for Gudmundsson, Iceland

BURNLEY, England (AP) Around the turn of the century, when Iceland was a punching bag in European soccer and its aspiring young players mostly had to settle for gravel fields, Johann Berg Gudmundsson was a fully fledged England supporter when it was time for the World Cup.

His first World Cup memory – as a 7 year old – was David Beckham’s red card against Argentina in the last 16 in 1998. Another vivid memory is Ronaldinho floating a free kick over England goalkeeper David Seaman as Brazil knocked out Gudmundsson’s adopted nation in 2002.

At that stage, the prospect of his own country playing on the world’s biggest stage was fanciful.

”We’re a nation that has 330,000 living there,” Gudmundsson said. ”When I made my debut, I would never have thought I’d play at the World Cup one day.”

On Saturday, fantasy becomes reality for Gudmundsson and Iceland. Making it even more of a fairytale story is the fact that Iceland’s first ever match at a World Cup is against Lionel Messi and Argentina.

”We’ll probably just have a few players run after him the whole game,” he said, laughing. ”Just mark this guy.”

Except Iceland is a different proposition these days, and no longer the also-ran it used to be. At the end of the last century, its government and soccer association set up a training scheme to produce coaches who would teach kids from a young age. A few years later, they would be building vast indoor halls, offering kids proper conditions to learn the game instead of outside in the harsh environs.

The result? Qualification for its first ever major tournament, the 2016 European Championship, where it beat England en route to the quarterfinals. Now, a place at the World Cup, where it will be least populous nation to ever play on soccer’s highest stage.

With this back story, Iceland will once again be most neutrals’ favorites.

”We are always going to be underdogs,” Gudmundsson said, ”so people will be looking for us, definitely, and seeing how we are doing. The opposition is going to give us more respect than they did in the past, though.

”A few players playing in the team could be playing at a higher level. But it is tough. Icelandic players get overlooked because there is another maybe Brazilian or something (to buy), but it’s not always a case that they are better. Icelandic players are a good bunch of lads, a great work ethic as well.”

Gudmundsson is a wide midfielder and set-piece specialist who plays in the Premier League with Burnley. He sees similarities between Iceland in terms of team spirit, a simple playing style, hard work, energy and a team that punches above its weight.

”We know we are not the best footballers in the world,” he said at Burnley’s training ground, ”but it’s a team sport and we have a really together group, willing to work for each other.”

They’ll have to against the likes of Messi and Iceland’s other group opponents, Croatia and Nigeria. Then again, they kept Cristiano Ronaldo quiet at Euro 2016, earning a 0-0 draw against Portugal in their first group match, so there is no fear heading into the World Cup.

Especially when Iceland is backed by passionate support and its world-renowned ”thunderclap” war chant that became the soundtrack of Euro 2016 in France. For that tournament, about 15 percent of the population traveled to watch the team and Iceland’s players recognized many faces in the crowd.

”It gives you goose bumps when you hear it,” Gudmundsson said of the ”thunderclap.” ”It’s something different, something nice to be considered ours. We’ll hopefully see the whole stadium doing that. I’m pretty sure all the stadiums will be doing it when we play, both sets of fans. It’s a massive thing for Iceland.”

Just like beating Argentina would be.

”They have a massive, massive amount of talent in the squad and big stars, but hopefully they have too many big stars,” he said. ”Attacking-wise, they are probably one of the best in the tournament, but a few players in their defense are not playing at the highest level like their attacking players are, so hopefully that’s something we can use in our advantage.”

More AP World Cup coverage:

Steve Douglas is at