Iceland football team hungry for more of the ‘big stage’

Paris (AFP) – Gylfi Sigurdsson has promised Iceland will not be content to bask in the glory of their Euro 2016 heroics having had a taste of the highs and lows of tournament football.

The smallest nation ever to take part in the European championship with a population of just 330,000 stunned England to reach the last eight. They received a reality check in a 5-2 thrashing by hosts France on Sunday.

But Iceland’s cool blue replica shirts had already sold out before the France defeat. They have made their mark.

“Of course this experience was (an) incredible, fantastic three or four weeks for us and I’m sure all the players want to experience this again,” said Swansea City playmaker Sigurdsson.

“We’ve got the World Cup coming up and hopefully we can qualify again.”

Goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson had a night to forget at the Stade de France as a double from Olivier Giroud bookended goals from Paul Pogba, Dimitri Payet and Antoine Griezmann to send France into a semi-final meeting with old foes Germany.

However, Halldorsson hailed Iceland’s “fantastic journey” from whipping boys to serious contenders on the European stage over the past decade.

“We can be proud of what we did, even though we wanted more.

“We have had great support from all over the world and it is has been a fantastic journey. Sadly it ended tonight.”

– Small nation, big hopes –

Iceland started the tournament by stunning Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal with a 1-1 draw. Ronaldo’s comment that they had a “small mentality” because of their dogged defence won only more supporters for Iceland.

They held Hungary by the same score and beat Austria 2-1 to reach the last 16 and create one of the biggest shocks of all time by coming back from a goal down to beat England 2-1.

Halldorsson, who plays for NEC Nijmenen in the Netherlands, believes Iceland now belong among Europe’s best.

“Now we have gotten a taste of being at the big stage, we love it and we belong here.

“It is going to be very tough, but we are going to go all in and give it all we have to qualify (for the World Cup).

“I think we’ve shown with the consistency we had in the tournament other than tonight that we belong up there with the big boys and we can get results and we’ll go for it.”

Sigurdsson was the only Premier League player in the 23-man Icelandic squad, but he believes many more of his compatriots deserve a chance to ply their trade in the world’s richest league.

“Lots of the players probably want to play in the Premier League, but it is a question of right place at the right time,” said Sigurdsson.

“They are good guys, good personalities and good players as well.”

The big challenge ahead of Iceland is replacing veteran Swedish coach Lars Lagerback, who will hand over the reigns to co-coach and part-time dentist Heimir Hallgrimsson after the tournament.

“It’s been a fantastic journey these last four-and-a-half years. All the support I’ve got from everywhere I’ve been in Iceland and around the game has been absolutely fantastic,” said Lagerback.

“It’s something really, really extra this tournament with all the fans coming here and what we heard from back home and all the interest and positivity.”

Lagerback took charge in his seventh major finals having led his native Sweden to five and Nigeria at the 2010 World Cup. He believes the future for Iceland can be bright even without his expertise.

“Hopefully the FA in Iceland and clubs can take this in and perhaps use the income from this tournament and put it into a project to help develop young players. I think the future is pretty good,” said Lagerback.

“If you look upon the whole tournament, as a newcomer to reach the quarter-final it’s been absolutely fantastic.”

Sigurdsson said Lagerback will go down as a “legend” for what he has done for Icelandic football.

“He is one of the guys that took us to France and to the quarter-finals. He will be a legend in Icelandic football history.

“He helped us get to the finals and achieve some of our dreams, so it is very sad he is leaving and I’m sure we’ll be in contact for the rest of our lives.”

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