Autumn in Reykjavik is far removed from midsummer in Nice. On that sweltering evening in June 2016 the clock had passed 11pm when Iceland’s players, coursing with adrenaline after completing one of the most famous victories in European Championship history, performed the “thunderclap” with their disbelieving mass of supporters in the south-east corner of Allianz Riviera.
It was, whatever your persuasion, a stunning thing to witness and at that point it would have taken a brave onlooker to place a ceiling on the underdogs’ potential. Iceland did fall at the next hurdle, against France, but they went on to reach the 2018 World Cup and dispelled any idea that they were a flash in the pan. Now the task is to extend their longevity at the top through a period of generational change and that is why the rematch with England on Saturday, while unlikely to hit the dramatic heights of four years ago, holds particular significance for Erik Hamren and his side.
“They changed everything about our football and lifted Iceland to the next level,” their 21-year-old winger, Jon Dagur Thorsteinsson, says of the players who heaved the country among the elite so spectacularly. “It showed us that reaching a Euro or World Cup was not impossible. That’s the impact they made on the whole of the country.”
Thorsteinsson spent four increasingly frustrating years in Fulham’s age-group sides before joining the Danish club AGF last summer and enjoying something of a breakthrough year. He may well receive a chance to remind his former club what they are missing, even if from the bench, because many of Iceland’s veterans will be absent.
Six of Hamren’s mainstays will not be available to face England. Ragnar Sigurdsson, another former Fulham player, has not travelled to Reykjavik and their usual captain, Aron Gunnarsson – who plays for Al-Arabi in Qatar under the former national team manager Heimir Hallgrimsson – has not been released by his club. Runar Mar Sigurdsson is injured and three other key men have incurred the head coach’s displeasure.
“I am not happy with their decision,” Hamren said after Gylfi Sigurdsson, Johann Berg Gudmundsson and Alfred Finnbogason opted not to play, ostensibly because of the looming club season. It means the team he picks on Saturday will be a half-fat version of the one that propelled Iceland into the stars. He described it as “not a desired situation”, although in the long term it may be a necessary one.
Five of those big-name absentees are 30 or older. If Iceland are to at least level out as a good second-tier international side, which would itself be some achievement given the country’s population of about 360,000, the “golden generation” need credible heirs. There is certainly promise that the new crop can handle themselves: along with Thorsteinsson they can pick Arnor Sigurdsson, a huge talent playing for CSKA Moscow, and the exciting 18-year-old Bologna midfielder Andri Baldursson. The challenge is to step up their involvement while making sure Iceland keep on winning.
They found that problematic in the first edition of the Nations League, losing all four games against Switzerland and Belgium while conceding 13 goals. It seemed as if an elastic band had snapped after the high of Russia 2018, but Iceland gathered themselves for the Euro 2020 qualifiers and performed creditably against France and Turkey. Next month they face Romania in the play-offs and that is why, after so much time away, Hamren feels uneasy about choosing from such a skeleton crop against England.
“It’d be a big statement,” says Thorsteinsson of qualification for the tournament next summer. “It would show Iceland have been doing good work for the last 10 years and that we just want to keep it up.” Thorsteinsson was on holiday back home when the class of 2016 pulled off their heist in southern France, and remembers receiving plenty of good-natured ribbing from Fulham’s backroom staff when he returned to England.
This time he should play a more active role although Laugardalsvollur, Iceland’s small and reliably windswept national stadium, will be near-empty of takers for any communal celebration. England are unlikely to have a comfortable time and Thorsteinsson believes it is a chance for the younger brood to show they can emulate their decorated elders.
“Of course,” he says. “We have a lot of players with huge potential. Hopefully over the next five or six years we can mould a good team and it’ll all click together like before.” The thunderclap’s echo may carry for some time yet.