MANCHESTER, England — Sunday’s 1-1 draw between Belgium and Iceland served as a 90-minute advert explaining why Group D is the toughest to call at these Euros. Iceland’s collective body language at full-time, a sea of hands-on-heads and pained looks to the sky, suggested they felt hardest done by, but this was a game in which both teams missed chances to take what would have felt a priceless opening win given forthcoming games against France and Italy.
“We deserved more, but it is what it is,” Iceland winger Sveindis Jane Jonsdottir said after the match. “We have to keep going, see what we did well and take that with us into the next games.”
The two sides were palpably wary of one another before kickoff. Belgium adjusted their usual 4-3-3 shape to a 4-2-3-1, mindful of Iceland’s ability to play through midfield. Iceland sought to press the ball high up the pitch to force a Belgium side appearing at only their second ever Euros into defensive mistakes, attempting to cut off the supply line to Tine De Caigny, the top scorer in qualifying, and prolific forward Tessa Wullaert.
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A cagey affair belatedly turned into a football match, with Berglind Thorvaldsdottir missing a first-half penalty before she found the net five minutes after half-time with a back-post header, only for Justine Vanhaevermaet to equalize with a spot kick of her own ten 67 minutes.
The conditions may not have helped. Manchester is a northern English city synonymous with rain even in the summer months, and so the 28 degrees C at kickoff felt almost unfathomably warm, multiplying the physical challenge on top of the psychological one of starting well in a group of such fine margins.
The combination produced an inhibited opening 45 minutes, punctuated by a series of misplaced passes and a penalty awarded by Swedish referee Tess Olofsson on VAR review, adjudging Davina Philtjens’s arm to be in an unnatural position as she blocked Jonsdottir’s shot. Thorvaldsdottir’s 33rd-minute penalty was in keeping with what had gone before, poorly struck and lacking conviction, easily saved by Belgium goalkeeper Nicky Evrard.
Thorvaldsdottir did not have to wait long for redemption, however. Iceland began the second period with more purpose, pushing Belgium back.
Karolina Lea Vilhjalmsdottir’s 50th-minute corner was initially headed clear, but after the ball was returned in every direction, she took a moment to work space before delivering a fine cross to the far post where Thorvaldsdottir steered a header goalwards. Evrard had made some fine saves to this point, but she flapped at Thorvaldsdottir’s effort and Iceland were in front, her 12th international goal.
However, Iceland then stopped playing with the second-half drive that had put them in a winning position. They began to sit deeper, allowing Belgium back into the game, and when Wullaert the ball into Elena Dhont, Gunnhildur Jonsdottir blocked her off and a penalty was awarded. Vanhaevermaet made no mistake.
Vilhjalmsdottir spun and shot just wide before substitute Alexandra Johannsdottir glanced a header off target in the two most threatening moments as the game drew to a close. Iceland ended with 23 shots — only Spain (32) have had more in a single game at these Euros so far.
“It’s a double-edged feeling to end up with a draw, but I think the game could have gone both ways,” Vanhaevermaet said. “We had a really good game plan, but our passing wasn’t as solid as it might have been.”
The tension that permeated these two sides was understandable. Belgium did not make it out of their group five years ago and England exposed their limitations in a comfortable 3-0 warm-up win last month.
Iceland are still adjusting to a new coach after Thorsteinn Halldorsson succeeded Jon Thor Hauksson due to off-field issues and have lost eight of their ten matches in Euros finals. They were roared on by the vast majority of a 3,859 crowd that contained Iceland’s prime minister Katrin Jakobsdottir, who was seen in the city center fan park earlier in the day before reportedly having to return to her hotel to change because team colors are not allowed in stadium VIP areas.
If Iceland are to find the freedom to express themselves, it will surely be through Sveindis Jane Jonsdottir. Named Iceland’s Female Footballer of the Year last year, the 21-year-old Wolfsburg winger provided the highest moments of quality, with several jinking runs that left Jody Vangheluwe often clutching at thin air as she breezed past.
She did not deserve to end without three points, but in the end, everyone did. Time will tell in the tightest of groups how meaningful that proves to be.