Iceland coach Heimar Hallgrimsson, center, talks with his players at the start of Iceland's official training on the eve of the group D match between Argentina and Iceland at the 2018 soccer World Cup in Spartak Stadium in Moscow, Russia, Friday, June 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Iceland charms before World Cup debut against Argentina

June 15, 2018 - 9:37 am
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MOSCOW (AP) — Iceland is showing the charming, funny, friendly style that has won friends worldwide before the team's World Cup debut against Argentina.

In a witty meeting with international media Friday, Iceland coach Heimir Hallgrimsson began by welcoming the room in Russian, praised his team's hosts and its first opponent, then disarmed his inquisitors by heading off the usual question about his day job.

"I am still a dentist and I will never stop being a dentist," the coach said in Icelandic.

Hallgrimsson acknowledged his coaching staff has a "headache" preparing to face Lionel Messi on Saturday in "the biggest game in the history of Icelandic football."

He also knows the Nordic island of 330,000 people has global support from its fairytale run to the 2016 European Championship quarterfinals.

"It's a pretty little nation and pretty people in general. You can't but love us," the coach said at a packed news conference at Spartak Stadium.

A reporter from Colombia, which is also at the World Cup, told Hallgrimsson and captain Aron Gunnarsson they had "many supporters" in his country and across South America.

"People like that such a sparsely populated nation is in the World Cup," the coach said. "We feel it, not just from Colombia, but all over the world."

If peace-loving Iceland really is every neutral's favorite, it might be the only army it needs.

"We haven't attacked anyone. We haven't been at war with anyone," Hallgrimsson said, before citing a 1970s fisheries dispute with Britain. "We have only had the Cod War and nobody got hurt there."

One obvious question that did get asked arises before every game involving Messi — how to stop the five-time world player of the year.

Argentina stumbled through the 18-game South American qualifying group and needed Messi's seven goals in a relatively low tally of 19 to advance to Russia.

"I don't have any magic formula," Hallgrimsson said. "Everybody has tried everything against him and he always managed to score."

It would be "not fair" to assign one player to stop Messi, he said, so Iceland will take a collective approach as a team that served it well in recent years.

Gunnarsson said there was no pressure on the players, who have landed in a tough Group D which also has Nigeria and Croatia.

"We have nothing to lose. We feel good," said the midfielder, who will lead the postgame clapping ritual that closely bonds fans and players.

The so-called Thunderclap helped define the team at Euro 2016 in France where Iceland stunned at its first tournament appearance.

"We went on adrenalin in everything we did," said Hallgrimsson, who was assistant coach two years ago. "In all meanings of the word, we are (now) better prepared."

Iceland's fans in Moscow, however, might be less prepared. They won't get their typical meeting in a bar with the coach to discuss his team selection and tactics before the 4 p.m. kickoff (1300 GMT; 9 a.m. EDT).

"The game is too early," Hallgrimsson said. "I probably won't go to the pub before the game."

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