ROTHERHAM, England — Despite France having a deeper footballing pedigree (and a population over 174 times bigger) than Iceland, the play between them in Monday’s 1-1 draw was surprisingly comparable.
The approach of the two teams was similar, and their failings aligned on the night at New York Stadium, yet only France are progressing to the Euro 2022 quarterfinals.
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France started the tournament well, maybe even too well. In the first half of Les Bleues opening group stage match against Italy, their performance was sublime. There was also slice of luck for France, just as the defending from Italy was some of the worst the team have managed in recent memory, but the resounding memory was of how deliciously well the winners had controlled the midfield and possessed the ball.
Yet, that was when France’s truly breathless play ended, the team juddery in the second half against Italy and so too, in their second match against Belgium. Losing Marie-Antoinette Katoto against the Belgians was tough, but France had the depth to come out firing in Monday’s group stage finale.
And they did just that, when they took the lead 43 seconds into the game against Iceland. But again, that was when their best football seemed to fade out, with their inability to finish off the game after Lyon striker Melvine Malard’s early goal gave France the advantage.
Iceland needed little time to readjust and soon settled into the match and continued as they have all July, moving the ball around well and getting it to their danger women. Coming into the match with two draws from two, the worry for Iceland was how easily they could have wrapped up two wins and their progression with a match to spare, however the goals had refused to come for them. In Rotherham, the same theme continued.
Posting almost as many attacks as France, Iceland could only manage half the shots as their opposition, their finishes frustratingly lacking, the ball sent just wide more than once. Even after given a stay of execution after France had two goals disallowed — one for a clear offside, another for a ball-to-hand handball (and both goals overturned after a VAR intervention) — Iceland could not get the ball to drop for them.
With a team polarized between young and old, it’s clear to see the strength in youth coming through for the diminutive nation, as star defender Glódís Perla Viggósdóttir said to ESPN last week:
“I think we’re getting a new generation of younger players that are very good on the ball. We call them the turf generation in Iceland, because they didn’t have to play on the s— grass. They are very good with the ball and I think that gives us a lot.”
Listed as one of the players to watch this summer, 21-year-old Sveindís Jane Jónsdóttir has lived up to her modest billing, not quite at her best as Iceland have not quite been at their full potential. Yet it’s not just Jonsdóttir who plays her club football in the German Frauen-Bundesliga for VfL Wolfsburg, but others like Karólina Lea Vilhjálmsdóttir — who also plays in Germany, for Wolfsburg’s rivals, Bayern Munich — who has been one of the ones to delight and show a sparkle of the magic that lies beneath.
In Rotherham, 22-year-old Agla María Albertsdóttir very nearly found the breakthrough for Iceland after the break after she wove around the French defense and launched an effort at Pauline Peyraud-Magnin’s goal, drawing a fine save from the goalkeeper. Albertsdóttir, another who has left the Icelandic league in search of better football, the diaspora is something that’s only benefited the national team as Viggósdóttir said after the draw against Italy.
“We have more players that are playing out in the big clubs in Europe, which means that you play these games many times per year. Coming here isn’t a huge difference from when you’re playing with your club,” Viggósdóttir said. “I think the experience makes a very big difference. Now we have experienced players that are 20 years old, not just the ones that are 30.”
Meanwhile over at Manchester’s Academy Stadium, group underdogs Belgium took an unexpected lead against an Italy side who’d only been getting worse by the minute. The goal (and eventual 1-0 win) enough to shift the group standings and leave Iceland needing two against France, Stelpurnar okkar having been leapfrogged by the Red Flames.
Things went fast from bad to worse for Iceland as Jónsdóttir was forced off with an leg injury moments after the team squandered another chance, this time from captain Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir who sounded just wide.
With that mentality on show as they continued to push, their endeavours earning them a penalty deep, deep into stoppage time, VAR once again coming to their aid, clarifying a foul that hadn’t been overtly clear in real time. The spot kick converted by Dagný Brynjarsdóttir but any hope it gave Iceland was short-lived, the match over before France even had time to restart.
It did however earn Iceland the unhappy distinction of being the only team to get knocked out of the Euros without having lost a game, their hat trick of draws not enough to see them through to the last eight.
“I’m very disappointed that we didn’t go through but at the same time I’m extremely proud of the team,” Viggósdóttir said afterward. “I think we played very good game today, we are undefeated in the group. But unfortunately that wasn’t enough.”
On the night, both teams were guilty of failing to take their better chances, France likely to feel hard done by the repeated intervention of the VAR, yet the killer edge they boasted against Italy wasn’t on show. France manager coach Corinne Diacre did n’t put forth her strongest XI available, but with the Onus on the collective meaning she should be able to chop and change her team without it detracting from their overall strength.
“This evening I was able to give playing time to other players, and that went very well. We [also] have no new injuries… and that is important,” Diacre said. “We need to be more clinical. If we can take all our chances that would be much better. But what matters is creating chances, if you don’t do that you can’t score.”
Just as team togetherness is key for France, the same can be said for Iceland as Viggósdóttir had said ahead of the game:
“As players, we want the best for each other. We don’t have the individuals that are just thinking about themselves. We will do whatever we can to back each other up. If somebody has gotten beat, somebody else is there to back them up and I think that’s special and that’s a team that I want to play for and that’s so important.”
France’s success in England this summer is yet to be seen but, there can be no arguments that things are looking good for Iceland and their Turf Generation.