MOSCOW: Tiny Iceland made a stunning first-ever World Cup appearance on Saturday when they held 2014 runners-up Argentina to a 1-1 draw in a dramatic match where Lionel Messi blew his chance to win it when he had a penalty saved by Hannes Por Halldorsson.
Sergio Aguero had given the twice world champions the lead after 19 minutes of the Group D match. However, Iceland, who stunned the soccer world with their run to the quarter-finals of the European Championship two years ago, showed exactly the same commitment and self-belief to hit back four minutes later through Alfred Finnbogason.
Argentina, playing in all-black and roared on by the vast majority of the crowd in the Spartak Stadium, eventually took command and delivered wave after wave of attacks in the second half. But they actually created few chances either side of Messi’s poorly-struck 64th-minute penalty.
Iceland, by far the smallest country by population to appear at the World Cup, famously beat England in the last 16 of Euro 2016 and again inspired by their “thunderclapping” fans ran tirelessly and fought for everything.
They signalled their intent from the kick off, sending seven men charging into the box to challenge as the ball was pumped long and it proved to be just the first of many uncomfortable moments for a decidedly shaky Argentine defence.
The South Americans looked more assured in attack, though, and went ahead when Aguero turned tightly in the box and smashed in an unstoppable shot.
Iceland, however, are not a team to sit back and sulk and soon forced an equaliser when goalkeeper Willy Caballero palmed Gylfi Sigurdsson’s low shot straight into the path of Finnbogason to sweep into the unguarded net.
After Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat-trick in Portugal’s 3-3 draw with Spain on Friday, all eyes were on Messi to respond but he got little joy from the rugged but controlled Iceland defenders, no respecters of even the greatest reputation.
The great man was given the ultimate opportunity after Hordur Bjorgvin Magnusson got entangled with Aguero in the box, only for Halldorsson to fly to his right and palm the penalty clear.
Iceland then defended superbly, almost fanatically, and will have real belief that they can get out of a group that also contains Croatia and Nigeria, who meet later on Saturday.