'Leader' Gylfi Makes Iceland Proud

by Paul McNamara

Gylfi Sigurdsson was the “leader” of the Iceland national team whose performances at this summer's World Cup filled the Scandinavian country with pride.

Everton midfielder Sigurdsson was Iceland’s standout player in Russia, the heartbeat of a side who took their bid to reach the knockout stages right to the wire.

Former Bolton Wanderers defender Gretar Steinsson, who was capped 46 times by Iceland in a 10-year international career, identified Sigurdsson as the “star” of Heimir Hallgrimsson’s team.

Steinsson is a confirmed fan of Sigurdsson – somebody he rates as Iceland’s most popular sporting figure – having been in the national side when the then-Reading player was first selected.

The pair lined up together six times for their country, the last occasion a World Cup qualifying match against Switzerland in October 2012.

As much as Sigurdsson’s footballing quality and intelligence struck Steinsson on first sight, the right-back was similarly wowed by his young teammates’ application and determination.

Likewise, Steinsson insists it would be remiss to overlook Sigurdsson’s selfless attitude when he plays for his country today.

“Gylfi, in my opinion, is the leader of the group,” Steinsson told evertonfc.com.

“He is the biggest footballer in Iceland. But what is underestimated, is what he sacrifices for the good of the team: for the group dynamics and how the team is set up.

“He can play as one of two up front, in the hole behind the striker, which I think is his best position, from the left, or in a midfield two.

“He just does the job. And he does it with extreme professionalism.

“His qualities are more on display in the Premier League. For Iceland, he will play wherever he needs to and bring others into the game.

“I would personally want to see him higher up the pitch but we have a lot of players who can do that. With him being behind them, he can make them better and, in turn, the whole team better.

“Then he has his set pieces, his runs into the box and, when he has the opportunity, he can pull the trigger at the edge of the area.

“Gylfi sacrificing himself and understanding what is needed for that football team to function at its best and allowing the team to shine ahead of himself – and he is the star – is very rarely spoken about.”

Sigurdsson first received international recognition as a 20-year-old in May 2010 and wasted no time establishing himself as a regular starter for his country.

The beneficiary of some inside knowledge, Steinsson had anticipated Sigurdsson swiftly making a positive impression on his national squad.

Reading’s Icelandic duo Brynjar Gunnarsson and Ivar Ingimarsson had both routinely reported for international duty extolling the virtues of their young countryman back at the Madejski Stadium.

“I have watched him for many years and heard about him before he was first selected for Iceland Under-21s,” said Steinsson, now technical director with League One club Fleetwood Town.

“He came into the international set-up quite late but hit the ground running. I remember watching him play on loan at Crewe and have followed his career since. It has been a fantastic thing.

“As soon as I started training with him, it was obvious what a special talent he was.

“But putting aside his talent, it was clear how determined he was to be successful. I like those types of players and people.

“You become a fan of them. I like their mindset and what they want to achieve.

“When they start doing it, you feel like you saw it coming. You always felt he would achieve what he wanted to achieve.

“You check when he is playing and hope he is scoring. You tell everyone to pick him in their fantasy team.

“When he was at Reading, they spoke so highly of him. I remember the Reading players talking about him when we met up with Iceland. They said he would be something special.

“Watching him blossom into this top Premier League player has been fantastic.”

Sigurdsson excelled in Iceland’s opening 1-1 draw against Argentina in Moscow, operating behind centre-forward Alfred Finnbogason, and was instrumental in the move which led to Augsburg player Finnbogason prodding in the equalising goal.

The Everton man was employed in a midfield two for the 2-0 loss to Nigeria but was back in his more advanced position in the meeting with already-qualified Croatia.

Sigurdsson converted from the penalty spot – five days after missing from 12 yards against Nigeria – to haul his team level with Croatia and set up a grandstand finish to Group D.

With Argentina and Nigeria all-square at 1-1 a winning goal for Iceland could conceivably have propelled them into the last-16.

But for all they battered at the Croatians’ door, Iceland could not barge through and were undone by Ivan Perisic’s 90th-minute breakaway winner, while Argentina squeezed into the next round thanks to Marcos Rojo’s dramatic late goal.

Nevertheless, the tournament represented another huge step forward for Iceland. Steinsson was in the squad at the outset of a qualifying campaign for the Brazilian World Cup four years ago which ended in play-off defeat by Croatia.

But following their run to the European Championship quarter-finals two years ago, Steinsson believes Sigurdsson and his colleagues’ World Cup exploits have further altered perceptions of what is considered possible in a country of fewer than 350,000 people.

“We always had players who were more than good enough and I was often frustrated playing abroad, with and against players competing in World Cups and European Championships,” said Steinsson, whose playing career also took him to Young Boys in Switzerland, Dutch team AZ Alkmaar and, before he hung up his boots in 2013, Kayserispor of the Turkish Super Lig.

“I would go back with Iceland and want to scream and shout that we were good enough. We just needed to find a way to make it all work and believe in it.

“When I first spoke to Lars [Lagerback, who was appointed Iceland manager in 2011 and was succeeded by Hallgrimsson following Euro 2016], I was deciding whether to focus on my club career or to keep pushing with the national team. After speaking to him and hearing his plans, I thought straightaway, ‘This could be something’.

“Unfortunately, I could not go all the way with them but I am just so pleased to see them do this. A lot of the players were my teammates at various clubs and to see them achieve what they have makes me enormously proud.

“With Gylfi’s penalty against Croatia… that is just what he does. Even if he had missed two before that, as a teammate I would not have hesitated to pass him the ball.

“He has that quality and mindset of not worrying about whether he is on the biggest stage.

“He has no problem handling the responsibility on him. He is used to operating in the final third at that higher level, with his slide-rule passes and set pieces.

“It is his slide-rule passes and fantastically timed runs into the box I have always really admired, even more than his set-piece delivery.

“Now we must be careful in Iceland not to stagnate and think, ‘This is enough’. We need to push more and do a lot of things better.

“It is basically the same 12 or 13 players who have been in the team for the past six years, which is not common in international football.

“Players with 80-odd caps will soon be replaced by others who have played 10 times.

“We have always had players in the Premier League, in Germany and Spain, in the biggest competitions. We have created football players for many years. We had a player at AC Milan 70 years ago (Albert Gudmundsson).

“Our footballers possess a mindset that is maybe unlike that in other nations.

“To become a footballer, you have to leave Iceland. You cannot go back after a tough year and be a professional in Iceland. You have to stick it out, you have to work harder, or you are done.

“It puts extra pressure on players. But this is nothing new, we have always done this. And we will continue to produce players as long as their mindset is to want to achieve something.”

Sigurdsson has 20 goals from his 60 Iceland appearances and at 28 could conceivably double both of those tallies.

Steinsson is backing his compatriot to have a similarly significant impact at Everton in the coming seasons. And Sigurdsson is guaranteed to have everyone in his homeland willing him on.

“Currently, Gylfi Sigurdsson is the biggest Icelandic athlete,” added Steinsson.

“We have other athletes at a very high level – a handball player at Barcelona (Aron Palmarsson), top basketball players, and UFC stars.

“When those individuals play or compete, we watch. We are very proud of our sportspeople.

“I watch all of them because what they have achieved fills me with great pride – because of how hard it is to achieve greatness.

“Seeing them participate at the highest level makes me feel very proud – and very Icelandic.

“The World Cup took over the whole country, like it does many nations.

“We probably make it a bit more dramatic than it really is. But we are extremely proud of it and try to advertise the country and what we are all about.

“We are a very proud nation and do not pay too much attention to our population size. That does not mean anything. It is just a number.

“It is all about the person who wakes up in the morning and wants to achieve something during the day before they go back to sleep.

“I think Gylfi is in a fantastic place for him now and he will have a huge part to play for Everton in the forthcoming years.”

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