June 16, 2018


World Cup Is About to Be Hit With Big Dose of Iceland Madness (John Leicester, 6/15/18, AP)

Reykjavik, Iceland -- To prepare for his job of keeping Lionel Messi quiet in Iceland's opening game of the World Cup, defender Birkir Saevarsson worked as a salt-packer at a warehouse in an industrial zone of Reykjavik, the Icelandic capital. Not because the 33-year-old seasoned soccer pro needs the money, but because the monotony of factory work, the graft, the need to cover his neat hair with an unsightly net all helped keep him real.

"This is normal for an Icelander, you know? More normal than going to the World Cup," Saevarsson said during a recent shift before he flew to Russia with the Iceland squad, talking to The Associated Press as he fed jars into a machine that slapped them with labels marked: "Hand Harvested Lava Salt."

Playing soccer professionally is "the best job you can have, but it's not the real life," Saevarsson added. So he works because "I can't really sit on my (butt) the whole day and do nothing. It's boring and you just get lazy. I didn't want to get lazy before the World Cup."

Go Iceland! In a sport of excess, the fiery volcanic island of 350,000 people is keeping its feet firmly on the ground. From a soccer perspective, there is nothing not to love about the least populous nation ever to play in a World Cup. [...]

 Watch Iceland, and you are essentially watching a group of buddies. Because the pool of players is so small, Iceland doesn't chop and change its squads as much as countries with more abundant talent, where competition for places is fiercer.

Two-thirds of Iceland's World Cup squad is unchanged from the 2016 European Championship, where the team advanced unbeaten from the group stage and sensationally beat England, 2-1, before succumbing, 5-2, in the quarterfinals to France, the eventual tournament runner-up.

The upside of squad stability is that Iceland's players have been playing together for years. Of the 23 in Russia, eight were part of the Icelandic youth team that made an impression at the European Under-21 tournament in Denmark in 2011. Those long-standing bonds foster trust and make the players more willing to work for each other, says Saevarsson, who has 79 appearances for Iceland, more than any other member of the squad.

"When the group meets, it's not like a football team is meeting, it's like a group of friends," he told the AP. "It couldn't be a better group to play football with.

"When you are that close to someone, it's easier to put demands on each other and not take it personally," he said. "If one of your friends shouts at you to do something better you don't take it badly or personally. You just decide to do it, because it's your friend."

He described it as "complete trust" and added, "It's easier to play football like that than with some people you don't like or don't know."

 With so few people and with most of them concentrated in and around Reykjavik, Iceland's players can't hide after a bad game. Chances are high they'll bump into a friend or a relative and have to explain themselves. That's a powerful motivator, Saevarsson said.

Posted by at June 16, 2018 6:45 AM