Iceland dream of first semi-final since 2010
Just one semi-final ticket remains to be decided on the last day of main round games at the EHF EURO 2022, with the three already secured having been won by teams that have been familiar presences in the medal round at major championships in recent years.
The first was snatched by reigning back-to-back world champions Denmark, the second by defending EURO title holders Spain, and the third by World Championship 2021 silver medallists Sweden.
Denmark and Spain also fought for the medals at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, taking silver and bronze, respectively, while Spain clinched third place at the World Championship won by Denmark one year ago in Egypt.
If Iceland manage to take the last semi-final berth, their story would be completely different, as they would end a wait of over a decade to contest this stage of a major championship. And it would mean a lot to the small nation if they pull it off.
“It is an unbelievably popular sport in Iceland. We say sometimes we are a handball nation, and people take handball very seriously. They are very passionate about it and have been for many years and that is very good for us,” says coach Gudmundur Gudmundsson.
“We of course want to perform for our spectators and for our country all the time, because there is a huge interest in handball in Iceland. We have maybe up to 65 per cent of the nation looking at the games. That is a good feeling for us.”
Iceland’s last semi-final participation was when they won the bronze medal at the EHF EURO 2010, two years after they clinched silver at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. Iceland contested only two other semi-finals aside from that, at the EHF EURO 2002 and the 1992 Olympic Games, and both times finished fourth.
The team has naturally changed dramatically since the 2010 bronze medal. Only goalkeeper Björgvin Pall Gustavsson and back Aron Palmarsson remain in the squad. Gustavsson was 24 years old at that time, while Palmarsson was only 19. Both are part of the EHF EURO 2022 squad but have been sidelined through much of the tournament due to Covid-19 positive tests.
Current coach Gudmundsson was at the helm for three of Iceland’s four semi-final participations — at the EURO in 2010, at Beijing 2008 and at the EURO in 2002. He was also the man in charge when Denmark won Olympic gold at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
“Iceland is on its way again to the best teams in the world”
Gudmundsson is on his third stint as head coach of his own nation’s team, after reassuming the position in 2018 — the start of a rebuilding period for the side. Here at the EHF EURO 2022, Iceland are seeing that rebuilding period come fully into fruition. A semi-final berth would be the perfect reward for what has been a great campaign in Hungary.
“I started this project in 2018 and we were changing with younger players coming into the team. We did it step by step. Viktor [Hallgrímsson] was one of them, and many other young guys coming in,” says Gudmundsson, underlining how one key to rebuilding is patience and really allowing the team time to grow, make mistakes and record losses.
Iceland started with a fresh-look squad for the IHF Men’s World Championship 2019 co-hosted by Denmark and Germany; caught attention with some big results at the EHF EURO 2020, including a win against then world and Olympic champions Denmark in the opening round; and had a strong performance at the World Championship last year.
Although their Egypt 2021 campaign ended with a 20th place finish at the 32-team event, Iceland did not lose any game by more than two goals — 23:25 versus Portugal in the preliminary round, then 18:20 to Switzerland, 26:28 to France and 33:35 to France — showing they were very close to a much better result.
“We played always in big tournaments with this team — 2019 in Germany and then 2020 in Sweden, and again in Egypt — always giving the young players more and more experience. It was not always easy because sometimes when you are building a new team, you will lose some games which you should maybe under other circumstances win. So, for me as a coach, it was not always easy because the coach is always to blame for everything, but, well, I’m still here and I think we are now on the right track with the team,” says Gudmundsson.
“I think everybody, the handball world, sees that Iceland is on its way again to the best teams in the world. I have to say it is like this — this was our goal and is our goal.”
Huge results in Budapest
Iceland’s EHF EURO 2022 campaign saw a perfect preliminary round run, with victories against Portugal, the Netherlands and Hungary, which meant they proceeded to the main round as group winners.
“I’m very proud of the team. I’ve very happy,” were Gudmundsson’s words after the last victory, against Hungary. “We can play very, very good handball and we are looking forward to the main round.”
In the main round, they were defeated by Denmark and Croatia — the latter after seeming very much on their way to a win, which would have placed them in an even better position ahead of the last main round day. In between, they handed France their biggest ever defeat in the competition, 29:21, without their most experienced stars Palmarsson and Gustavsson. Goalkeeper Hallgrímsson had a spectacular match against France, with 15 saves at 44 per cent.
With the game against France in particular, it became clear the rewards for the years of rebuilding were coming with increasing frequency — and Gudmundsson’s tactical genius was also further confirmed. No doubt, the Icelandic Handball Federation’s support in keeping the coach in his position over the years has been critical and proves that a few losses do not translate to a need for a change on the bench.
Iceland will meet Montenegro on Wednesday in the first game that will determine their fate, and then they will await the result of the last match of the group, which will be the final decider. Iceland have four points while France have six, but due to their victory against France, Iceland own the head-to-head contest — so they need a win against Montenegro and France to lose against Denmark.
“We are preparing for Montenegro and we are going to win that game and get two points,” says back Elvar Ásgeirsson. “This is not all in our hands anymore, but we are 100 per cent focused on the last game in the main round tomorrow [Wednesday] and we intend to win.”