Euro 2016: Why some teams are more than the sum of their parts
Which international sides are pushing past their limits?
‘Aim for the sky and you’ll reach the ceiling. Aim for the ceiling and you’ll stay on the floor.’
It's a quote often credited to Liverpool’s legendary manager Bill Shankly, but the mystery behind its actual source is a little hazier than some of his admirers would care to admit. That said, whoever the originator and for whatever purpose, it’s almost impossible to deny the inherent folk wisdom behind its message; if one wants to be successful, one's goals need to be as daring as possible.
When it comes to international football, the coming together of two opposing forces can spark emotions that just don’t crop up on the club scene. Passion of a different vintage, pride in a more concentrated form and an intoxicating tribalism that can rouse players to surpass limits they normally battle with overcoming – playing for your country is a speciality dish that very few like refusing to dine on.
Euro 2016 is in the throes of excitement in the amphitheatres and cavernous cauldrons that are today’s modern football stadiums and we have already been treated to some hugely impressive performances by teams that have shown a desire to aim high, to catapult themselves toward accomplishment.
Indeed, it hasn’t even been the big teams with the brightest stars turning it on either because we have seen some of the underdogs (that’s défavorisés in French) produce surprising strides in the face of adversity as their teams have pulled together to more than makeup for an obvious lack of individual prowess.
Small teams possessing a big mentality
There was quite a bit of uproar surrounding Cristiano Ronaldo’s misguided comments about Iceland‘s apparent lack of a big mentality as social media accounts went into overdrive to defend the team who had held Portugal to a memorable 1-1 draw in Saint-Etienne. The intelligent consensus has been that the smallest team in the competition were brave in their victory and that they deserved their point.
It wasn’t simply a case of on-pitch clashes of power between one big team and one little team; it was a clash of two contrasting histories of football, two very different sets of expectations and a pair of outfits who had their own ideas of what was a good and bad result.
Iceland may only have taken a share of the spoils in terms of points but they won out in the moral stakes. What Ronaldo deemed as a ‘small mentality’ was the end product of a game-plan that found the goal they needed as well as managing to stifle the Portuguese for large periods. More importantly, it was a means of catharsis that saw them deal a sucker punch to a big team that took the Icelanders for granted.
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What some saw as a group solely out to trip Fernando Santos’ men up in a bid to cause a shock for the sake of headlines, others rightly identified as a team intent on making their mark the only way they knew how – by executing a defensive approach that they felt comfortable with and by coming away with a result that few had even dared to flippantly suggest in the build-up.
To grow big, teams like Iceland have to play to their strengths which is entirely different to aiming low or setting minute objectives, and when one bores through that misconception it becomes clear to see that shutting Portugal down was an immense achievement, particularly for a country with only 330,000 in population.
For Iceland, they aimed for the sky (and have done for quite some time as their rise through the FIFA world rankings testifies to). The only ceiling they hit was the short-sighted view of their begrudging critics. Because the truth is that they are renowned as real soldiers who always give their all and strive to be the best they can. Want proof? Check out this quote from Iceland FA’s Director of Education, Arnar Bill Gunnarsson, from These Football Times’ Jon Townsend:
“I’m not sure if we have a ‘goal’ about what type of player we want to have, but Icelandic players have always been known for their mentality. Their winning mentality, we adapt easily and have a great fighting spirit.”
The team co-managed by Heimir Hallgrimsson and Lars Lagerback are not the only small fish making big waves on the European stage either as the Republic of Ireland have also had a big impact on the competition in France this summer.