The smallest nation ever to play at a World Cup has a big start against Lionel Messi in Moscow tonight. Just don’t expect Iceland to be at all intimidated by Argentina and its superstar forward, going by its European Championship debut two years ago.
FC Barcelona’s Argentinian forward Lionel Messi reacts during the UEFA Champions League quarter-final second leg football match between AS Roma and FC Barcelona at the Olympic Stadium in Rome on April 10, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Andreas SOLARO
Then, the world’s other best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, reacted badly to Iceland’s come-from-behind 1-1 draw with Portugal. Frustrated by an organized and disciplined opponent, Ronaldo sneered at Iceland’s post-game celebrating by a team “not going to do anything in the competition.” Iceland, of course, advanced to the quarterfinals and went global as a feel-good story in France. Now it can no longer surprise, and has embraced its first challenge. “You can’t have a better welcome,” coach Heimar Hallgrimsson said in Moscow last December. “There are a lot of romantic things in our heads now we start to play Argentina.” There has been too little love between Messi and the World Cup in his three previous tournaments. They ended with losses in two quarterfinals and the 2014 final, all against Germany. “I say that we have to reach the last four at the World Cup,” Argentina’s team general manager, Jorge Burruchaga, told FIFA’s website. “The game on Saturday — the first one — is always the most important. Getting the win gives you confidence, assurance and a boost to your self-esteem.” Four years ago in Brazil, Argentina held off another World Cup newcomer from Europe, Bosnia and Herzegovina, with Messi’s second-half goal decisive in a 2-1 win. Iceland is a similarly robust obstacle, with height and power in aerial challenges. Argentina has the English Premier League experience of central defenders Nicolas Otamendi and Marcos Rojo to help cope.