Fighting spirit keeps Iceland fairytale alive
By Zoran Milosavljevic
ST ETIENNE, France (Reuters) - Having shaken off the tag of whipping boys dating back to the formation of their FA in 1921, Iceland were in no mood to roll over in their Euro 2016 opener and their spirit was rewarded with an impressive 1-1 draw against Group F favourites Portugal.
Iceland defied the odds to reach their first major tournament at the expense of triple World Cup finalists Netherlands, but few outside the nation of 330,000 believed they could make any sort of impact at the European Championship.
Many pundits expected Tuesday's clash at the Geoffroy Guichard stadium to produce the tournament's first drubbing and those predictions appeared accurate after Nani made Portugal's first-half dominance tell with a 31st-minute opener.
The battling Icelanders had other ideas, though.
Roared on by their passionate fans, who arrived in St Etienne draped in the country's flags and sporting Viking-style horned helmets, Iceland hit back as Birkir Bjarnason silenced the Portuguese faithful with a well-taken 50th-minute strike.
Try as they might, an increasingly frustrated Portugal were unable to breach Iceland's backline once more and the team's euphoria was palpable as the final whistle sounded.
Bars in St Etienne were packed with jubilant Icelandic supporters after the game and midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson acknowledged their role in the draw.
"The fans were wonderful," he told reporters after an outstanding performance.
"You could see before the game, they were all singing the same song and I think we all got our goosebumps while we were warming up."
Opposite a clearly more talented outfit boasting triple World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo, Iceland stifled the Portuguese with tireless running and at times rugged defending, marshaled by captain Aron Gunnarsson.
The red-bearded skipper harried his opponents and chased every loose ball, while a subdued Ronaldo endured a miserable evening despite matching Luis Figo's record of 127 international appearances for Portugal.
"We had a game plan and stuck to it," Gunnarsson said.
"I could see that Portugal relaxed a little bit and started showing off after they scored, but that didn't work against us.
"The first half wasn't that great but as soon as we got more involved in the match, things started going much better.
"I think I played my part in defence as planned, that's what you expect from a defensive player."
With seemingly their toughest group match out of the way, Iceland will look forward to their next game against Hungary, surprise 2-0 winners over Austria, in Marseille on Saturday.
They also take on the Austrians in Paris next Wednesday and with third place in the group potentially enough to advance to the knockout stages, there could yet be an even more extraordinary chapter to the country's famed folklore.
(Editing by John O'Brien)