Iceland are heroes, Ronaldo's a sore loser
Minnows do so well that Ronaldo turns into a boor
REPORTING FROM ST ETIENNE
When Uefa decided to expand the 2016 European Championship Finals to 24 teams, there were those who sneered scornfully and said another eight nations would diminish the tournament.
Too many minnows, not enough quality, a purely money exercise were three of many criticisms.
Yet, with the first round of group matches complete, there is a case for saying the decision was totally justified.
Okay, Northern Ireland seemed to freeze somewhat against the Poles, but 10-man Albania deserved at least a point against Switzerland.
No story has been bigger than what Iceland, the smallest nation ever to reach the Finals and roared on by around two per cent of their 330,000 population, achieved here yesterday.
Of course, one round of games means little in the scheme of things.
But what Iceland proved is that with prodigious homework, a bit of luck and a good dose of canny tactical planning, anything is possible.
You can have all the individual stars in the world but if you don't put them together as a team, you will often struggle.
Which makes Cristiano Ronaldo's churlish comments afterwards all the more disappointing.
Yes, Portugal had 27 goal attempts - 10 on target - to Iceland's four.
Yes, on the balance of play they should have won easily. Yes, Iceland rode their luck.
But how were they supposed to approach it?
They are not the first team to defend deep and snatch a goal on the counter-attack.
Didn't Greece at times do likewise in 2004 and go on to win the tournament?
"Iceland didn't try anything," moaned the Portuguese captain afterwards, with the petulance of a child.
"They were just defend, defend, defend and playing on the counterattack. It was a lucky night for them. I thought they'd won the Euros the way they celebrated at the end. It was unbelievable."
No it wasn't.
Iceland simply played to their strengths: Endeavour, spirit and organisation.
And despite having just 27.7 per cent of possession overall, they took their chance against a defence that has traditionally been Portugal's weak point, when Birkir Bjarnason caught right back Vieirinha hopelessly out of position and lashed home Johann Gudmundsson's cross to cancel out Luis Nani's opener.
Just in case Ronaldo had forgotten, Iceland reached the Finals with two games to spare and in the process ensured that Holland, one of the traditional giants of European football, missed out.
Was it pretty?
But the fact is that the gap is narrowing, in Iceland's case largely because of a highly intensive coaching set-up back home of which many established European teams would be envious.
"Our defending was fantastic: We were really organised and worked really hard.
"Apart from one or two situations, we were really focused and it was a total team victory for us," said Iceland's joint coach Heimir Hallgrimsson, whose team in the main reined in Ronaldo just as the Republic of Ireland had done with another world superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic 24 hours earlier.
"You can't ask one player to stop guys like Cristiano Ronaldo. It's unfair to put a player to mark him, so it has to be a team effort.
"There were a lot of players that were responsible for Ronaldo, and luckily he didn't have many chances."
And that's what it's all about - teamwork. Which is exactly what Portugal, so talented individually, need to focus on if, as expected, they are to go deep into the tournament.
In all probability, the great man, who now shares Luis Figo's record of 127 caps, will come good in the coming days.
A Euros or World Cup medal is the only thing missing from Ronaldo's bulging trophy cabinet.
But this was Iceland's night - complete with their wondrous, scary Viking chant - and no one should begrudge them their moment of history.
'Ron is a sore loser'
(Above) Cristiano Ronaldo's post-match comments that Iceland have a "small mentality" did not go down well with many.
The Portugal skipper's remarks - that Iceland celebrated the 1-1 draw with Portugal as if they had won the Euros - saw him lambasted on social media, with some saying such lack of grace is why the World Player of the Year has so many detractors.
Iceland centre back Kari Arnason labelled him a sore loser, goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson called him disrespectful, while co-coach Lars Lagerback simply said Portugal must "play better".
Said 33-year-old Arnason, who plays for Swedish club Malmo: "(Ronaldo's) comments are the reason (Lionel) Messi is always going to be one step ahead of him.
"It shows we got under his skin...You wouldn't expect Messi to have said that.
"He didn't really get a chance today, he got one and he couldn't put it away. What can I say? He's just a sore loser."
Arnason added that Iceland co-coach Lagerback gave no specific instructions on handling Ronaldo (right), other than to watch him closely.
He said: "Obviously, everyone knows how good he is, so you have to know where he is at every moment, but there was nothing in our game plan to specifically close him down.
"We just knew we had to be close to him at every moment and it worked perfectly."
Goalkeeper Halldorsson, who plays for Dutch club NEC, said: "I think that's a bit disrespectful to what we have done as a team and our achievement of being at the Euros.
"I guess he's just irritated because he didn't win against Iceland, who are only 330,000 (people)."
Co-coach Lagerback, who will retire after the Euros to leave his counterpart Heimir Hallgrimsson in sole charge, simply told the Real Madrid star to pull up his socks.
He said: "You can choose to play the football you like. They have to play better if they want to beat Iceland, simple as that for me."
Former Iceland international Herman Hreidarsson criticised Ronaldo for his work rate.
The 41-year-old former Portsmouth defender said: "He thought he could have goals handed to him on a plate.
"If he would have worked as hard as every Icelandic player, he wouldn't have had to say anything because I'm sure he would have got his rewards." - Wire Services.
NICE: Iceland’s Birkir Bjarnason (No. 8) celebrating after equalising against Portugal. PHOTOS: AFP, REUTERS
By the numbers
2: About 7,000 Iceland fans, more than two per cent of the country's population, were at the St Etienne Stadium, backing their country to a 1-1 draw with Portugal. Iceland has a population of 330,000, about 0.008 per cent of the number of followers Cristiano Ronaldo has on his official Twitter account.
(Ronaldo’s) comments are the reason (Lionel) Messi is always going to be one step ahead of him. It shows we got under his skin... You wouldn’t expect Messi to have said that.
— Iceland defender Kari Arnason, on Cristiano Ronaldo’s comments about Iceland having a “small mentality” by defending throughout the game