Interview: Johann Berg Gudmundsson – Ronaldo should be praising Iceland, not putting us down
Long-time international minnows Iceland shocked the world when they qualified for their first-ever major tournament last year. At Euro 2016, they shocked most of them a second time by holding the might of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal to a draw, before coming within two minutes of victory against Hungary.
On Wednesday, they could be just another draw away from reaching the knockout stages to complete a hat-trick of surprises, when they conclude their group stage obligations against Austria.
If we’re to believe Cristiano’s embittered post-match words, the Nordic nation are achieving it all by doing little more than parking the team coach in front of their goal and crossing their fingers. But for the team who were once just one rung above the likes of Luxembourg and San Marino, there’s much more to it.
Johann Berg Gudmundsson provided the superb cross for Birkir Bjarnason’s unlikely leveller against Portugal, in a contest where he was the superior No.7 on the same pitch as former Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldo. It comes at the end of a season where he notched 11 assists in the Championship – the league’s joint-second-best tally in 2015/16 – for relegated Charlton.
We were never going to go out against a team like that with all guns blazing and constantly attack. That was never going to happen.
After their Group F opener, Ronaldo claimed that Iceland “don’t try anything”, that they “just defend, defend, defend”, and concluded it had been a “lucky night” for them.
Speaking to FourFourTwo.com, however, Iceland midfielder Gudmundsson was quick to point out how Italy are widely admired for guarding their goal so tenaciously on a higher level.
“Definitely,” said the right-winger when asked if the Italian model served as inspiration. “We’re really tough to beat. It’s how we set ourselves up.
“We don’t concede a lot of goals and we nearly always score at least one. If we keep a clean sheet, we win games. That’s why defending is so important to our strategy. We’re a really well-organised team. It’s tough to break us down.”
And doesn’t Cristiano know it? On the Real Madrid star’s derogatory comments, Gudmundsson joined several of his team-mates in dismissing his words as “sour grapes”.
“Cristiano Ronaldo is entitled to his opinion,” he said. “He was obviously frustrated because Portugal didn’t beat Iceland.
Why Iceland riled Ronaldo
“We were never going to go out against a team like that with all guns blazing and constantly attack. That was never going to happen.
“Portugal have really good players so it was vital that we defended really well. Ronaldo doesn’t like that but it’s not our problem.
“We have a population of 330,000 and we’re here at a major tournament. You would think he would praise our efforts against the odds rather than put us down.”
Must do better
We conceded two goals in two games and we don’t think that’s good enough
It soon became apparent that Iceland’s biggest shared trait with the Italians wasn’t the defensive set-up per se, but rather the entire squad’s undying thirst for perfection.
Despite being stranded outside the top 100 of the FIFA rankings fewer than five years ago, every player, coach and staff member refuses to settle for mediocre and microanalyses every error.
“We conceded two goals in two games and we don’t think that’s good enough,” Gudmundsson admits. “Hopefully we can keep a clean sheet against Austria because we’re always confident of scoring.
“It will be very tough because Austria have a great team, but we’ve shown we have what it takes to beat good teams. We just have to put everything together and make it happen this time – we’ve worked really hard to get this far.
“We were really close to beating Hungary and next time, we will be extra determined to finish the job because we will know that a win will send us through, for sure.”
I’m very happy with my tournament so far, between the assist and working really hard in the two games but I should have scored against Hungary
In the wake of Charlton’s drop back down to League One amid widespread club turmoil, it’s pretty safe to assume Gudmundsson will be plying his trade elsewhere in 2016/17. His efforts over the last 12 months, not least in France, will ensure there are no shortage of offers.
If the 25-year-old continue to shine, he could even become one of the shrewdest catches of the now-traditional shop window function of a major international tournament. With two years of English club experience already, Gudmundsson is prime for targeting.
For the time being, though, he is focusing on the immediate task at hand – and on rueing the gilt-edged chance he struck straight at the tracksuit bottom-covered legs of Gabor Kiraly against Hungary.
“I’m very happy with my tournament so far, between the assist and working really hard in the two games,” he tells FFT. “But I should have scored against Hungary, so I know it could have been even better.
“The chance didn’t go my way, and that’s football. But above all else I’m just disappointed that we couldn’t win the game, no matter who scored.”
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England might just await in the last 16, should Iceland finish second in Group F.
They are a point above Austria after two matches, with two to Das Team’s one. Victory would guarantee them a top-two finish and place in the last 16; a draw would ensure at least a spot in the third-place lottery. If Iceland draw and Hungary beat Portugal, they would finish above Ronaldo & Co.
Now, what would he make of that?