Lionel Messi placed the ball down and stood over the penalty spot. It was Argentina’s first game of the 2018 World Cup, and with it perhaps Messi’s final chance to get his hands on the coveted trophy. The one accolade that had eluded him throughout his glistening career; the achievement that would finally place him, in the eyes of some, on the same pedestal as Pelé and Diego Maradona.
Two years earlier, at the Copa America Centenario, Argentina had reached their third successive tournament final and, subsequently, their third straight loss. It was the night Messi missed. It was the night he stepped up for his penalty and put it over the bar. When the inevitable occurred, Messi slumped to the ground, and tears began to roll down his face. Now, in Russia, Messi had the chance to banish those demons.
Across from the five-time Balon D’Or winner stood Hannes Þór Halldórsson, the 34-year-old Icelandic goalkeeper making his World Cup debut. Iceland were, phenomenally, still in the game; Sergio Agüero’s opener had been cancelled out in just four minutes by Augsburg forward Alfreð Finnbogason. However, when Messi clipped a ball into the back post and Hörður Magnússon brought down Maximiliano Meza, the referee had no choice but to point to the spot.
Argentina hadn’t played well – they’d looked a shadow of the team they were supposed to be – but winners find a way, and this was that moment. Messi had to be the one to take it: he’s widely considered the greatest on the pitch and a fine dead-ball player too.
The odds were stacked against Halldórsson. But the odds have always been against Halldórsson, and so he took the dive to his right once more, he outstretched his arms, and he hoped.
Situated on the west coast of Sweden lies the city of Gothenburg, with Oslo to the north-west and Copenhagen to the south. It makes quite the claim to lie at the heart of Scandinavia. Recently, Gothenburg, forever Sweden’s second city, has made a play to be the cultural hub of the country; events such as the Göteborg Film Festival were created to showcase Nordic films. Almost three years off the back of the World Cup in Russia, Halldórsson was in attendance of the 2021 online event – not as a special guest, but as a director.
It’s well documented that Halldórsson is a filmmaker, similarly to how Heimir Hallgrímsson – the side’s former manager – is a dentist. However, the extent of Halldórsson’s foray into filmmaking is often underplayed.
As a 14-year-old, Halldórsson came off his snowboard and, in the process, dislocated his shoulder. The young goalkeeper had been on the books of Knattspyrnufélag Reykjavíkur (KR), Iceland’s biggest club, since the age of five, but the injury he had sustained threatened to sever that connection.
Throughout his formative years, Halldórsson’s shoulder continued to prove problematic; it popped back out on five separate occasions. And as his peers received opportunities around him in the form of youth team call-ups and transfers abroad, Halldórsson found his calling outside of the game.
Now behind a camera instead of between the sticks, Halldórsson and his friends produced short films – and he loved it. For Halldórsson, goalkeeping was a constant battle against the elements; it meant diving on gravel, destroying his hands and knees until they were unrecognisable. However, filmmaking offered him the chance to be both creative and inside – away from Iceland’s notoriously harsh climate.
During this time, football had taken a backseat. Halldórsson, now no longer at KR, was at his local side Íþróttafélagið Leiknir, a third-tier side on the outskirts of Reykjavik. He was now 20-years-old, working at Sagafilm, an Icelandic production company, and at crossroads in his footballing career. Halldórsson warmed the bench for the majority of the season, playing second fiddle to Valur Gunnarsson. However, when Gunnarsson saw red, it provided Halldórsson with his chance.
There was a slight problem, however, as Halldórsson’s chance came on the final day of the season against Vikingur Olafsvik. Leiknir had experienced a campaign born from their wildest dreams, and now stood a win away from the league title and promotion. Vikingur, on the other hand, were in the same position. The game was effectively a cup final, a straight shoot-out where the winner takes all.
The first time Halldórsson saw himself on TV was that evening, yet it was for all the wrong reasons. With the game in its final act, and Leiknir chasing the game, Halldórsson flubbed his lines. From a routine goal-kick, he kicked the ground and scuffed his effort. The ball landed at the feet of an Olafsvik striker, and all he had to do was roll it in.
Heartbroken and demoralised, Halldórsson quit football.
And he had every reason to: Halldórsson had spent the last season collecting bibs and sitting on the bench as arctic winds battered him. Furthermore, his directing career started to take off; he found his niche in directing pop music videos for Icelandic artists – a journey that would culminate with him directing Iceland’s entry to the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest.
However, when Halldórsson went to direct the video, football was back on the table.
The game was a persistent itch that needed a scratch, and so when the season returned, he decided to give it one more try. Halldórsson’s first hurdle was a club; he couldn’t face the humiliation of returning to Leiknir, but the offers weren’t flying in. Halldórsson took his future into his own hands and called around clubs hoping a goalkeeping spot was available or they hadn’t heard of the now-infamous “Leiknir-kick”. Afturelding took a chance on the young man, and Halldórsson began a domestic nomad career that ended in a return to boyhood side KR.
Aged 27, Halldórsson had banished the memories of the flubbed kick, and he was on the radar of the national side. Like the volcanos for which this North Atlantic island is famed, Icelandic football was about to explode. Halldórsson had received his first national team call-up around the same time he had moved to KR, but this was a completely different side to the one that it would soon become.
This was an Iceland that was ranked 104th in the world behind the likes of Uzbekistan, Qatar and Kuwait. This was an Iceland that was placed in Pot 5 for the Euro 2012 qualifiers, where they finished with one win and one draw, both against Cyprus. That dismal qualifying campaign resulted in the arrival of Lars Lagerbäck, the final piece in the jigsaw.
In Iceland, football is primarily a summer sport; the days are so brief in the depths of winter that the sun is little more than a soft orange hue in the sky for a few hours. As a result, developing young footballers such as Halldórsson was almost impossible for a third of the year.
The Icelandic FA (KSI) recognised a change needed to made and took inspiration from the Norwegian side Bodø/Glimt, who in 1991 had developed a revolutionary “football hall” – an indoor heated arena – so they could play all year round. The first Icelandic hall popped up in 2000 in Keflavik and six more soon followed. Half-size halls were built and made accessible for children to play in, alongside 140 outdoor 3G mini-pitches with underfloor geothermal heating.
The halls were just the start. Iceland invested heavily in coaches. As of 2018, it had 669 UEFA B License coaches, and 240 held a UEFA A License. That’s one UEFA level coach per 384 people.
Kids now had access to football year-round and, more importantly, UEFA-standard coaching. This new generation of Icelandic talent was beginning to break through into the national side when Lagerbäck, an experienced international coach, took over.
Things were looking up for Halldórsson, too. He had impressed during his return to KR and, in doing so, attracted suitors from across the Arctic Sea. Sandnes Ulf of Norway’s Tippeligaen landed the 29-year-old, becoming Halldórsson’s first professional club. Now, for the first time in his career, Halldórsson was a professional football – and playing full-time meant putting his film career on hold.
Iceland came within 90 minutes of reaching the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Instead of resting on their laurels, they doubled down. Hallgrímsson was promoted to co-manager, and fresh young players were brought into the fold. The national team was now primarily filled with players from the halls, with two notable exceptions: Halldórsson and Eiður Guðjohnsen.
They cruised through qualification for Euro 2016 in a tricky group that contained the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Turkey. For the first time in their history, Iceland had qualified for a major tournament, becoming the smallest European nation to do so. They then shocked the world – again – progressing from the group stage into the knockouts. A date with England awaited.
That night in Nice was Halldórsson’s magnum opus.
Iceland’s plan was three-fold: don’t lose your duels, no stupid mistakes, and don’t fall behind early. It was a simple plan, one that on paper appeared easy to execute. However, the reality of the situation is their plan required discipline for the whole game.
That game plan hurtled out the window four minutes in. A wayward ball into the box, aimed at Raheem Sterling, culminated with Halldórsson bringing down the winger. It was his only mistake all game.
Iceland rallied, and with goals through Ragnar Sigurðsson and Kolbeinn Sigþórsson, they flipped the game on its head. For the next 70 minutes, Iceland held on. As the game waned and the English onslaught became more and more desperate, Halldórsson stepped up. He was called into action on multiple occasions, and each time he was up to the task.
To the beat of their own drum, Iceland downed England. It was a monumental moment, not only for the nation, but for Halldórsson. It is often overlooked how tough Scandinavian footballers are: football, for them, is an act of defiance. And Halldórsson embodies this ethos more than most.
With a European quarter-final added to his CV, Halldórsson kicked on. Spells at NEC, Bodø/Glimt and Randers followed as the national side went from strength to strength and qualified for their first World Cup.
After being drawn into a group with Argentina, Nigeria and Croatia, the Icelanders weren’t exactly fancied. Yet, this was a misfiring Argentina, and there began murmurs of a possible result. The opening minutes went to the script: Argentina dominated as they launched attack after attack at the Icelandic defence, which resolutely refused to budge.
The elastic had to snap soon, as La Albiceleste threw the proverbial kitchen sink at the game, and it did, resulting in a penalty. Argentina had thrown everything at Iceland, and the minnows had emerged without a chink in their armour. There was a sense of inevitability that Messi would miss; for a nation that has spent so long in the cold, it felt it was their turn in the sun.
Halldórsson later revealed he had prepared for a Messi penalty to The Times: “I actually did a lot, the last thing I did before I went to sleep [the night before the game] was to say with the assistant coach, ‘I’m going to my right if [Messi] shoots.’”
So he did. And so did Messi.
Iceland held out for the draw. Their World Cup never really took off the same way their Euros had two years beforehand, but Halldórsson will always have that moment with the expectations of 350,000 people on his shoulders when he stopped the world’s best player.
He slowed down after the World Cup. A return to Iceland beckoned, where he joined current champions Valur and shortly relinquished Iceland’s number one shirt. Returning to semi-professional football has allowed Halldórsson to focus on filmmaking again, and his first feature film, Cop Secret, is due out in 2021.
This is the norm for Halldórsson. For a career that borders on the realms of fiction, he will accept a bit of normality every now and then.
By Will Schofield @TheWSchofield