Iceland put Ronaldo and Portugal in their place to earn historic draw
SAINT-ETIENNE, France -- It took 13 seconds for Aron Gunnarsson to make his presence felt, even in the long shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo. Iceland's bearded captain put perhaps the greatest footballer on Earth to the ground with a hard tackle. The game seemed to stop for a moment, while everyone waited for a whistle that didn't come. The referee waved play on. Gunnarsson did stop, though, to lean over Ronaldo, still lying on the ground. Whatever he said, it didn't look like an apology.
That tackle, a classic, fearsome reducer, set the tone for a sometimes crunching 1-1 draw. Portugal dominated possession and generated opportunity after opportunity, but Iceland's physicality proved the ultimate leveler. In the warm night after, the Iceland fans cheered and sang and hugged; the Portuguese sat in stunned silence.
Ronaldo was not especially gracious about the treatment after. "It was a lucky night for them," he said, and he practically sniffed with disdain when he said it. "I thought they'd won the Euros the way they celebrated at the end, it was unbelievable. When they don't try to play and just defend, defend, defend, this -- in my opinion -- shows a small mentality and they are not going to do anything in the competition."
But little Iceland did do something, didn't they? It wasn't lunacy to think they might earn something from Portugal. The island nation took down Turkey, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, twice, during their qualification for Euro. They aren't here just because they're a great story, even though a country with only 330,000 citizens qualifying for Euro is a really great story. When told of Ronaldo's "small mentality" comment, Gylfi Sigurdsson smiled. "Well, we're a small nation, aren't we?"
Portugal looked far superior early, and even before Nani slotted home an easy goal in the 31st minute to open the scoring, their victory was starting to feel inevitable.
Maybe, though, Gunnarsson's almost menacing response was inevitable, too. (His post-match drug test, which kept him from speaking to the media, probably was as well.) In his club play for Cardiff City, he has built a reputation for taking men down: not a dirty player, exactly, but an unafraid one, an unflinching one. Not long after Nani's goal, he took down Ronaldo again -- this time earning the foul -- and when he offered his star rival a hand up, an angry Ronaldo waved it away.
Gunnarsson also took out Nani twice in the first half alone, the second time right at the whistle. He trotted off the pitch while Nani stayed on the grass. There was something symbolic about that moment. Iceland, at least, were refusing to go down.
"That's how we play," Sigurdsson said. "We're not going to give anyone an easy game."
The afternoon before the match, Lars Lagerback, Iceland's co-coach, spoke about diving and its impact on the game.
"Big acting I think is so unfair," he said, and he made specific reference to Portugal's Pepe and his fakery in the Champions League final.
At the time, it didn't sound like much beyond what any right-thinking football fan might say. In hindsight, perhaps it was a wise old coach taking the opportunity to do a little politicking. He knew how his team would have to play their more skilled opposition, and maybe the referees would hear what he said, and they would be mindful not to fall for even convincing simulations. There would be many non-calls, in fact. During one stretch of the second half, in particular, the Icelanders stood and looked down at a trio of stricken Portuguese, flopping like fish on the decks of their boats.
"They're a bit theatrical, as you probably saw," Sigurdsson said.
There was nothing brutish about the Icelandic equalizer. In the 50th minute, a long swinging ball from Johann Gudmundsson sailed over the Portuguese defense, where it found a wide open Birkir Bjarnason, who calmly put the ball in the back of the net. It was the first goal for Iceland in major football tournament history. Just about everything that happened in the match was a first for Iceland.
Maybe all of it began with that first tackle and the message that accompanied it.
"Before the game, we said we're going to hit 'em hard," Kari Arnason said after. "We're not going to give them an inch."
Portugal won a long free kick in the dying seconds of injury time. Ronaldo lined up to take it, assuming his familiar stance, straight-legged, straight-backed, arms held stiff out from his sides. Hannes Halldorsson, the Icelandic keeper, a Norwegian club pro and sometime video director who had played almost flawlessly, hollered at his wall. Ronaldo drilled the ball into the line. A hand ball was called.
The referee marched the ball closer to the goal, not that far outside the box. Ronaldo lined up again. Injury time was all but over. This is how the match would end, the way it began, with a showdown between finesse and strength, artistry and bravery. Either the great Ronaldo would score a brilliant goal and secure the win for Portugal, or scrappy Iceland -- not any individual player, but Iceland the team, maybe even Iceland the country, roaring in the stands behind them -- would stand tall one more time.
"The wall did its job," Arnason said.
Just like that reducer.
Chris Jones is a writer for ESPN FC. He's on Twitter @EnswellJones.