They came, they saw, but they refused to be conquered.
If anyone still doubted whether Iceland belongs in this summer’s World Cup, those doubts faded Saturday in the split second it took goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson to dive to his right and bat down Lionel Messi’s penalty shot, preserving a 1-1 draw with Argentina.
“When you go to the World Cup as a goalkeeper, you have certain dream scenarios,” Halldorsson said. “And a penalty from Messi in the first game is definitely one of them.
“When the penalty was given I thought, ‘OK, this is going to be my moment.’”
He could have been speaking for his entire country, the smallest ever to qualify for a World Cup. Iceland arrived in Russia to find fifth-ranked Argentina and Messi, perhaps the best player of his generation, waiting for them. Yet, rather than shrinking from the challenge, the team, like its goalkeeper, embraced it.
“We have a goal,” defender Ari Skulason said. “We want to go through. We want to stay as long as possible in Russia. And this was a great start for us.”
It wasn’t an artistic one, with Iceland sitting back and absorbing pressure, and Argentina attacking in waves. Argentina had the ball 72% of the time, completed more than five times as many passes as Iceland and took 26 shots — with Messi getting 11, two more than Iceland had as a team.
But only one of those shots found the back of the net, with Sergio Aguero stopping sharply in the middle of the box and surprising Halldorsson with a left-footed bullet in the 19th minute.
Alfred Finnbogason tied the score four minutes later, gathering the rebound after a save by Willy Caballero and poking the ball past the Argentine keeper.
Iceland hunkered down after that, countering Argentina’s superior talent with superior organization and tenacity.
“If we go one-on-one everywhere around the pitch, you don’t need to ask who is going to win that game,” Iceland coach Heimir Hallgrimsson said. “If we would like to get points or if we would like to win against teams like Argentina, we have to play a special way.
“It is more enjoyable to play this way and achieve something than play in a different way and don’t achieve anything.”
Added Skulason: “Everybody knows how we play.”
Everybody knows Iceland’s story, too: A team of overachievers with more tenacity than talent, coached by a part-time dentist from a country with about as many people as Anaheim, it beat England and played Portugal to a draw in the European Championships two years ago.
Yet, in most people’s minds Iceland remained a gutty underdog fighting above its weight class.
“I hope it never stops because it always helps us,” Halldorsson said. “It gives us an advantage if there’s a big opponent and they can’t help but underestimate us a little bit.
“There’s no secret. There’s a bunch of guys who like each other. The bond is strong. We know our abilities. We also know our weaknesses, so we play to our strength.”
So by the time Messi stepped to the penalty spot in the 64th minute Saturday after Hordur Magnusson pushed Aguero in the back to draw a foul in the box, the Iceland goalkeeper had run the possibilities through his mind a million times.
“I did some homework. I knew this was a situation that could come up,” Halldorsson said. “I looked at a lot of penalties from Messi and I also looked how I had been behaving in the last couple of penalties, so I tried to get into their minds and imagine what they would be thinking about me.
“I had a good feeling.”
Messi took four choppy steps then swung his left foot back but Halldorsson was moving before the Argentine hit the ball, diving into its path and knocking the shot down with both hands.
Argentina didn’t quit, though. In the waning moments Messi sent a curling shot just wide, Halldorsson stopped a Cristian Pavon shot for the keeper’s sixth save of the day, then in stoppage time Messi sent a last-gasp free kick straight into the wall.
For Argentina, the tie felt like a loss.
“There’s a certain amount of frustration right now,” said coach Jorge Sampaoli. “We really came to win.”
For Iceland it was just the opposite.
“One-one against Argentina in the opening game of our first World Cup?” a smiling Skulason said. “You have to take your hats off to that.”