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Iceland stops Messi, and a World Cup tie with Argentina feels like a massive win

Iceland goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson saves a penalty by Argentina’s Lionel Messi. (Matthias Schrader/AP)

MOSCOW — From the reaction of the respective players, coaches and supporters at the end of Saturday’s World Cup match at Spartak Stadium, you surely would’ve concluded that little Iceland had toppled Lionel Messi and the giants from Argentina, executed an upset for the ages and rocked the soccer orbit.

Indeed, as Argentine chins dipped, the Icelanders, some crazy percentage of the 337,000 population that had journeyed to Russia, celebrated with the vigor and joy that a 1-1 result does not convey.

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Forgive them, for what had just unfolded will take a special place in the country’s history, and not just in the sporting realm: a point in their World Cup debut, against South American masters and the most gifted player of them all.

Not all draws are equal, and for Iceland, which executed its tactics to perfection and quickly answered an early deficit, the single point could not quantify what it meant.

“People are saying, ‘Why do you celebrate a point like you won the game?’ ” Coach Heimir Hallgrimsson said. “But just wait and see when we win a game. That’s going to be a celebration.”

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For now, the Icelanders will savor what they richly deserved. And with the group favorite out of the way, they can turn their attention to beating Nigeria or Croatia for a chance to reach the round of 16.

The Viking Clap is just getting started.

There are greater heavy-duty conflicts during these two weeks of group scrums: Spain-Portugal, Germany-Mexico and Belgium-England. But none offered contrasts as delicious as here in northwest Moscow: big vs. small, elitists vs. outsiders, high style vs. blue-collar structure.

On the sideline, Hallgrimsson, a part-time dentist, was a profile in cool, arms crossed, in short pants and warmup jacket emblazoned “Island,” as the country name is spelled in the native language. His counterpart, Jorge Sampaoli, looked as if he was about to pounce onto the pitch like a cheetah freed from captivity. With each empty possession, he paced and growled, his arms in a constant state of tension.

It was a frustrating afternoon for the Argentines, who labored to solve Iceland’s 11-player defensive puzzle in front of 44,190 singing spectators.

Sergio Aguero had put them ahead in the 19th minute, turning and firing from 14 yards to find the upper left side of the net. For the most part, though, Iceland constricted space, moved in synchronicity, boxed in Messi and rarely allowed Argentina to accelerate the pace.

After Alfred Finnbogason converted a rebound from close range in the 23rd minute, Iceland resumed its stout ways.

“There’ a certain amount of frustration right now,” Sampaoli said. “We came very much motivated and we really came to win against a team that had a very strong defensive structure. We tried to work better in the second half to generate more opportunities, but what can you do?”

Well, Messi could’ve converted a penalty kick in the 64th minute. Instead, he left his attempt within reach of goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson for a momentum-killing save.

“In the first game of the World Cup, face the best player in the world in a penalty is, yeah, a big moment,” Halldorsson said. “It’s a dream come true to save it, especially because it helped us get a big point that I hope is going to prove important for us.”

Consider the players involved: Messi will enter soccer annals as one of the all-time greats (even if he never wins a world title), while Halldorsson is a 34-year-old aspiring filmmaker with an middling club résumé. (He plays for Randers in Denmark.)

In Iceland, World Cup players aren’t gods. They’re neighbors.

Messi, for all of his greatness, is not a sure thing on penalty kicks. And Halldorsson was prepared.

“I did some homework. I knew this was a situation that could come up,” he said. “It’s a long shot, but it happened. I looked at a lot of penalties from Messi and I also looked how I had been behaving in the last couple of penalties, so I tried to get into their minds and imagine what they would be thinking about me. I had a good feeling he would go this way today.”

The penalty bid was consistent with Messi’s off-day. Iceland’s fortitude allowed him only fleeting moments of freedom. With his teammates unable to get him the ball, Messi often dropped deep into the formation to take possession and launch attacks. In front of him, 11 Icelanders stood in his way.

Said Hallgrimsson: “We never gave them a runway to get anywhere.”

On the defensive tactics, he added: “If we go one-on-one everywhere around the pitch, you don’t need to ask who is going to win that game. If we would like to get points or if we would like to win against teams like Argentina, we have to play a special way. For everyone, it is more enjoyable to play this way and achieve something than play in a different way and don’t achieve anything.”

In the final 10 minutes, Messi stroked a shot wide left and, with a pocket of space, drove a 20-yard bid off a teammate in the penalty area.

And on the final touch of the match, presented with an opportunity for heroism, just as rival Cristiano Ronaldo had fulfilled for Portugal a day earlier, Messi smashed a 28-yard free kick into the wall.

Ronaldo’s name was raised in Iceland’s postgame news conference. Two years ago, after Iceland made its European Championship debut with a 1-1 draw against Portugal, the superstar criticized the underdogs for celebrating as if they had won a trophy. He called it a “small mentality.”

When asked about Iceland’s celebration Saturday, Halldorsson said to the questioner: “Are you Cristiano Ronaldo’s uncle? It’s a big draw for us. We learned at the Euros how important it is to get on the board right away if we are going to reach our goal.”

— Steven Goff

In-game updates

Full time

Argentina threatened during five minutes of stoppage time as it did for much of the match, but La Albiceleste couldn’t crack Hannes Halldorsson. The Iceland goalkeeper finished with six saves, including one on a penalty kick by Lionel Messi. It’s a huge result for Iceland in its World Cup debut.

Iceland substitution: Sigudarson for Finnbogason

Bjorn Sigudarson replaced Alfred Finnbogason, who tallied Iceland’s only goal, in the 89th minute.

Another save for Halldorsson

Hannes Halldorsson is having himself a day. The Iceland goalkeeper made his sixth save in the 87th minute to preserve the 1-1 tie. That was moments after he palmed away a crossing pass that seemed destined to lead to the go-ahead goal for Argentina.

Argentina substitution: Higuain for Meza

Gonzalo Higuain came on for Maximiliano Meza in the 84th minute as Argentina’s final substitute.

Just wide

In the 81st minute, Lionel Messi found enough space outside the box to bend a left-footed shot just wide of the left post. Messi has nine shots in the match, but he’s still looking for his first goal.

Substitutions for both sides

Cristian Pavon replaced Angel Di Maria for Argentina in the 75th minute. Ari Freyr Skulason replaced Aron Gunnarsson for Iceland in the 76th.


Iceland goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson kept things even 1-1 in the 64th minute by diving to his right to bat away a penalty kick by Lionel Messi. It was Messi’s first career penalty kick in World Cup competition and Argentina’s first in the tournament since 2002. As ESPN Stats and Information notes, Messi has failed to convert five of his last 10 penalty kicks overall.

Iceland substitution: Gislason for Gudmundsson

Rurik Gislason replaced Johann Berg Gudmundsson in the 63rd minute.

Quiet second half . . . so far

The first 15 minutes of the second half have been fairly uneventful. Lionel Messi wove his way through three Iceland defenders to help set up Argentina’s eighth corner kick of the game, but La Albiceleste couldn’t make anything of it. If Messi is going to follow up Cristiano Ronaldo’s three-goal game on Friday with his own hat-trick, he better find the net soon. Iceland has held him scoreless through 60 minutes in a 1-1 game.

Argentina substitution: Banega for Biglia

Ever Banega replaced Lucas Biglia in the 54th minute.

Another first for Iceland

Iceland’s first corner kick of the match came in the 51st minute and was punched out of harm’s way with ease by Argentina goalkeeper Wilfredo Caballero.

Halftime update

The game is level despite the fact that Argentina dominated possession (80 percent) and outshot Iceland 11-8 in the first half. Iceland threatened to take the lead in the 44th minute, but Wilfredo Caballero made a save on a shot by Gylfi Sigurdsson. Argentina was responsible for all six corner kicks in the first 45 minutes.


Iceland scored the equalizer less than four minutes after Argentina took a 1-0 lead with a goal by Alfred Finnbogason. Argentina goalkeeper Wilfredo Caballero stopped Gylfi Sigurdsson’s initial shot, but the rebound found Finnbogason’s right foot.


Argentina’s Sergio Aguero opened the scoring with his first career World Cup goal in the 19th minute, a left-footed blast into the top left corner of the net. Aguero’s goal was set up by Javier Mascherano’s long service into the box.

Messi makes a bid

Hannes Halldorsson punched away a long shot by Lionel Messi to keep Saturday’s match scoreless in the 17th minute. Argentina is dominating possession, but shots are even at four apiece.

Iceland’s first chance

A poor decision and a turnover by Argentina goalkeeper Wilfredo Caballero led to a golden opportunity for Birkir Bjarnason, but the Iceland midfielder’s shot from point-blank range sailed wide of the net.

A near miss for Argentina

In the eighth minute, Lionel Messi sent a left-footed free kick into the box from the right wing that deflected off Nicolas Tagliafico’s head and just skidded wide of the goal.

So particular

Before attempting a free kick in the fourth minute, Lionel Messi asked the referee to swap out the ball, which apparently wasn’t inflated to the Argentina captain’s liking. An Iceland fan nearby screamed in protest during the brief delay and Messi drilled the replacement ball wide of the net.

Starting lineups

Iceland’s fans bring the “thunderclap” to Moscow

About half an hour before kickoff, Fox’s announcers said they expected the scene at Spartak Stadium to resemble Reykjavík South, but that Argentina’s hordes of fans in attendance made it feel more like Buenos Aires East. Still, the “thunderclap” chant performed by Iceland’s fans before Saturday’s match was impressive.

Pregame thoughts

Two-time champion Argentina, which trails only Brazil, Italy and Germany in World Cup appearances, opens group stage play against an Iceland squad making its World Cup debut. It should be fun. This figures to be Lionel Messi’s final shot at World Cup glory after La Albiceleste finished as runner-up in 2014. Will his teammates provide any help? Iceland’s bandwagon has continued to grow since the tiny island nation made a shocking run to the quarterfinals at Euro 2016. Their fans’ Viking clap is a sight — and sound — to behold.

— Scott Allen

Team profiles


  • Last World Cup showing: Runner-up, 2014.
  • Best finish: Champion, 1978 and 1986.
  • Notable: Argentina has finished atop its group in three consecutive World Cups since being eliminated in the group stage in 2002.
  • FIFA world ranking: 5. ELO world ranking: 5.


  • Last World Cup showing: First appearance.
  • Best finish: N/A.
  • Notable: The last first-time World Cup participant to advance out of the group stage was Slovakia in 2010.
  • FIFA world ranking: 22. ELO world ranking: 24.

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