Normally only one man can outshine the constellation that is Cristiano Ronaldo. Lionel Messi has been able to do that remarkable feat for the past four years, but no other player has been able to eclipse the excellence of the Portuguese sensation.
No man other than Messi has come close to surpassing Ronaldo. But on the first night of the last international break, a September 6 Friday evening, it seemed no one would be able to top Cristiano’s latest hat trick performance in a vital win for Portugal over Northern Ireland in World Cup Qualifying.
But there was one man in Bern, Switzerland who achieved the remarkable feat of outshining the Real Madrid talisman. And he wasn’t related to Messi either.
On that same September night, Johann Berg Gudmundsson announced his name to the soccer world as only the second man on the planet who could make Cristiano Ronaldo look second best on an evening.
Gudmundsson’s incredible performance was the needed kick start to Iceland’s improbable World Cup hope. Tipped by many to finish at least under Scandinavian rival Norway and Slovenia, behind Switzerland in Group E of European qualifying for Brazil 2014, Iceland have out of nowhere passed those teams and gone into the key second place playoff spot with just two matches left for all teams.
The sudden rise has been generated by a terrific young, attacking core of players emerging. It’s what made Aron Johannsson’s decision to play for the United States so huge and drew the ire of Icelandic fans, because the small nation has developed several other notable attacking talents blessing the Eredivisie at the moment.
Iceland’s current stars are captain Aron Gunnarsson of Cardiff City, and the always slick Tottenham midfield ace Gylfi Sigurdsson. But it’s the precocious forward Icelandic men in Holland’s top flight that have brought their growing reputations and form into focus, giving their country a chance of getting to the World Cup for the first time in its nation’s history.
Kolbeinn Sigporsson is a clear first choice #9 for Ajax, who has proven his class the past few seasons with the Amsterdam giants, and scored the winning goal for Iceland in their crucial 2-1 home victory over Albania to go to second in the group with 13 points. But out performing him (5 goals in league play) (and the now American Johannsson with 6 goals) is the play of Heerenveen’s Alfred Finnbogason, who has already hit the double digit mark of 10 goals to be at the top of the Dutch league scoring charts. He has an amazing goal scoring record so far of 34 goals in 38 matches for the Friesland club, but isn’t even good enough to start regularly for Iceland since the great Eidur Gudjohnsen still is a vital member of his country’s team at age 35.
They all, like Ronaldo, took a backseat though to Gudmundsson’s performance in that epic 4-4 comeback tie against the Swiss. With the Icelandic defense in shambles, a special effort was required from someone in those colors on the other end of the field. And the AZ Alkmaar winger produced just that with three goals that weren’t simple headers or a tap in like Ronaldo did against Northern Ireland.
Gudmundsson scored the game’s opener with a superb finish from a nice Sigurdsson pass before Switzerland put on a massive ambush at home to go up 4-1 and seemingly leave Iceland’s Brazil 2014 hopes for dead.
But Gudmundsson had headlines and articles to make that evening, and he just put his country on his back all the way. After Sigporsson’s relentless determination powered past Fabian Schaer to get his brace and make it 4-2 Switzerland, Gudmundsson got his brace with another beautiful left footed finish (from another class pass from Sigurdsson) to make it 4-3. And he completed his legendary night for both himself and his country by saving the best for a last, a Robben-esque, left-footed, gorgeous curler in the dying seconds of the match to give Iceland an improbable draw. It was the first time in 13 years that any player had scored a hat trick for Iceland and sealed the greatest comeback in the proud Scandinavian’s history.
Gudmundsson displayed the talent of why Chelsea (and Fulham) thought he was going to be the next Gudjohnsen when he was just a teenager. But with the usual story of a young player being homesick, Gudmundsson returned to his boyhood club Breioablik in the town of Kopavogur and revitalized his young career. Ready to move away from home unlike the first time, Gudmundsson set his sights on Holland and AZ Alkmaar’s great youth development over the last few years. He signed a five year contact with AZ at just age 17 in 2008.
Now the 22-year-old has blossomed into an automatic choice on the right wing for both club and country, and his exceptional performance against Switzerland was the final sign of an emerging star.
Only Lionel Messi can outclass Cristiano Ronaldo these days. But on just one night, in Bern, Switzerland, there was another man who accomplished quite the feat. Although Ronaldo shouldn’t have to worry about Gudmundsson surpassing him like the Argentine has, both Cyprus and Norway had better prepared again for Gudmundsson to try his hardest to emulate his September 6 display.
Editor’s note: Iceland are currently battling with Slovenia, Norway and Albania to secure a playoff spot for World Cup 2014. Iceland’s match today against Cyprus is being shown live on ESPN3.com in the United States beginning at 2:45pm ET.