Iceland at EURO 2016: Aron Gunnarsson and Heimir Hallgrímsson recall a fairy-tale run

It is four years since Iceland made their major tournament debut. Aron Gunnarsson and Heimir Hallgrímsson look back at their Thunderclap-powered run to the UEFA EURO 2016 quarter-finals.

Watch Iceland's celebrations after their win over England
Watch Iceland's celebrations after their win over England

Powered by their fans' trademark Thunderclap celebration, Iceland exceeded all expectations on their major tournament debut by reaching the UEFA EURO 2016 quarter-finals.

Not only did they hold eventual champions Portugal to a draw in the group stage, but Iceland also stunned England in the round of 16 before eventually succumbing to hosts and tournament favourites France in the last eight.

Captain Aron Gunnarsson and coach Heimir Hallgrímsson reflect on a remarkable journey.

WATCH ON UEFA.tv: GUNNARSSON AND HALLGRÍMSSON ON BEATING ENGLAND

Group stage

Portugal 1-1 Iceland: How did it feel going into Iceland's first ever match in a major tournament?

EURO 2016 highlights: Portugal 1-1 Iceland
EURO 2016 highlights: Portugal 1-1 Iceland

Aron Gunnarsson 
We were obviously keeping a close eye on the fans and how the atmosphere was building up with the whole country. I felt like there was a lot of excitement in the group; preparing for the biggest game in the history of Icelandic football. We started [the game] quite well. They had a couple of chances at the beginning, and we kept them at bay. We didn't let them play their usual game. The feeling after the game was obviously just a relief to get that over and done with.

Heimir Hallgrímsson
Maybe there was a little bird on your shoulder that said 'Portugal are too big for you to beat.' I think a lot of people were afraid that we were going to lose this game and lose big. In the preparation games before, Portugal slaughtered their opponents. They beat Estonia 7-0 in the game prior to playing us; it was a little bit scary. We didn't know how strong we would be in a tournament like this. So this was the ultimate test. [Getting a draw] gave us a lot of confidence that we could build on.

Iceland 1-1 Hungary: Gylfi Sigurdsson's 40th-minute penalty kick was cancelled out by Birkir Már Sævarsson's late own goal. That must have been hard to take?

Aron Gunnarsson
That was probably our worst game, performance-wise. I know we were up 1-0, but there was something lacking. Maybe, it was the relief after the first game. I felt like the pressure on us before that game was quite high and [...] we took that into the game. We didn't play our usual match. Hungary outplayed us in all departments, and they deserved to win that game. After the game we were obviously disappointed, but I think we were lucky to get a draw.

EURO 2016 highlights: Iceland 1-1 Hungary
EURO 2016 highlights: Iceland 1-1 Hungary

Heimir Hallgrímsson
I was not disappointed. I think it was a good point. The credit should go to Hungary who played, not only against us but in all the group phase games, really well. There was maybe the presumption that we were better than them, but both on the day and in the group phase, Hungary were probably better than us.

Iceland 2-1 Austria: Three teams could have potentially qualified from your group. Did this affect Iceland's performance?

Aron Gunnarsson
We went into that game, obviously, to win and not sit back. It felt like the longest game I've played in [...] because of the amount of chances they had, and the amount of blocks our defenders had to make. Austria were fighting hard to [score]. I remember I looked at our defence, and they were marking five players.The drama towards the end is well known. Coming towards that last minute was so much hard work. In the end, it was obviously sweet to get that last-minute win.

Heimir Hallgrímsson
If [Austria] had scored this goal, which fell in the end to us, they were through, and we were out, so the emotions were really high. They were really hammering us at the end and left no one at the back. We even changed strikers for midfielders to add on to the running instead of attacking. 

EURO 2016 highlights: Iceland 2-1 Austria
EURO 2016 highlights: Iceland 2-1 Austria

Jón Dadi Bödvarsson gave Iceland the lead on 18 minutes. Had the prospect of facing England in the last 16 crossed your minds during the match?

Aron Gunnarsson
I never even knew who we were going to play if we won that game, so I wasn't focused on any of that. Obviously, there was a lot of things that went [our way]. I remember Hannes [Halldórsson] nearly miskicking where Marko Arnautović got the ball off him but managed to miss a big chance, and I felt like, 'Wow, that could be a point in the game where it might turn for us and the luck might be on our side'.

Heimir Hallgrímsson
We didn't think about who we'd meet, we were only thinking about getting through. A lot of players were just going on fumes; they already finished the gas in the tank. That was maybe good that we were focusing on ourselves and our performance. I didn't think we realised until [we were] in the dressing room that we would face England.

The end looming and it was 1-1. Suddenly, you had three on one heading towards Austria's goal. What was going through your mind at this point?

Aron Gunnarsson
I was shouting to [Elmar Bjarnason], 'Take it to the corner!' We were that exhausted. We had been defending that long and I just thought, 'Just take it safe and let the time finish'. He probably didn't hear me. Our fans were tremendous that game.

Knockouts

EURO 2016 highlights: England 1-2 Iceland
EURO 2016 highlights: England 1-2 Iceland

England 1-2 Iceland, round of 16: After the dramatic end against Austria, was it hard to prepare for the England game?

Heimir Hallgrímsson
It was probably the easiest game to get the players motivated [for], it was really on autopilot. I think it was [more important] not to get over excited, not to be scared of the names of the opponents. It was quite easy psychological-wise going into that game, and we knew that the prize if we won would be [that] it would be talked about forever in Icelandic sports history, so it was almost impossible to lose that game.

Aron Gunnarsson
The Premier League is the most talked about league in the world. We have a big support for the English teams in Iceland. We see them play week in, week out. It has always been a dream to play against England in a finals tournament.

England took the lead after four minutes. What were your immediate feelings? Did the game then play out as you had expected it to?

Aron Gunnarsson
I felt like [England's early goal] was going to help us in a way. I know it sounds strange, but I felt like it balanced us a little bit. Scoring the equaliser straight away helped us massively because it put the pressure back on them. They were getting nervous. The second goal [on 18 minutes], it just felt like normal to us. We had so much belief. Afterwards, it felt like it was a constant threat from them. But we dealt with it.

Heimir Hallgrímsson
England didn't create a lot of goalscoring chances against us. It was long-distance shooting, they never played through us, only that penalty in the beginning. That was probably the game I really felt the most relaxed. The performance by the guys was superb.

At the final whistle, there was pandemonium in the stadium. There were wild celebrations, and the players, coaching staff and fans performed the Thunderclap. It must have been up there as one of the best moments of your career?

Aron Gunnarsson
I still get goosebumps from even thinking about it, just the feeling of it. You want to always relive that feeling. The atmosphere was incredible. I remember I went into a little bit of a blackout; I took my shirt off and ran into the crowd for no reason. It was just a moment of crazy feelings and emotions.

France 5-2 Iceland, quarter-finals: Was it daunting to face the hosts in the last eight?

Aron Gunnarsson
Leading into that game we felt like we were on top of the world and no one could beat us. We played most of the tournament with the same 11 players; the same starting line-up. I felt like we were getting a little bit tired towards the end but it wasn't hard to get motivated.

EURO 2016 highlights: France 5-2 Iceland
EURO 2016 highlights: France 5-2 Iceland

Leading Iceland into the last eight of a major tournament is a monumental feat. Four years later, what are your fondest memories of EURO 2016?

Heimir Hallgrímsson
We brought the people, the nation, together. We brought a lot of smiles to Iceland. You can never have the chance to have a first kiss again, so doing it for the first time gave it an extra special spice. You can never relive this because everything was new, everything was like, 'Wow! This is fun. This is huge'. Hopefully there will be a lot of kisses with a better experience in the future.

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