The largest contingent by far of Liverpool players at the Euro 2016 tournament is within Roy Hodgson's England squad. On Monday, those players will attempt to propel England past Iceland and into a place in the quarterfinals, where they will face either France or the Republic of Ireland. Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana are looking like good bets to start, while Nathaniel Clyne has presented himself as a more than viable option to Kyle Walker. James Milner and Jordan Henderson may have roles to play but will likely begin on the bench.
If and when these players take the field on Monday, there will be an ardent Liverpool supporter watching them from the opposing technical area. But far from being a starstruck devotee, happy just to be there, Heimir Hallgrímsson - Iceland's co-manager, practicing dentist, former coach of the Vestmannaeyjar women's and men's football teams, and longtime Sammy Lee fan - will be plotting to bring an early end to the tournament for Messrs. Sturridge, Lallana, Clyne and Co.
The odds will be firmly stacked against Hallgrímsson's squad. In fact, the odds were firmly stacked against Iceland being at this tournament in the first place. But they somehow finished ahead of the Netherlands in qualifying. Then the odds were stacked against Iceland getting out of the group stages. But they somehow frustrated Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal before delivering a knockout blow to David Alaba's Austria. Now, just four years removed from being ranked 131st in the world, they'll face Roy Hodgson's England.
As has been noted, Iceland are thoroughly familiar with English football. The Premier League is probably the most closely followed league by football fans in Iceland. Their most famous footballing export, Eiður Guðjohnsen, plied his trade with Bolton Wanderers before a glittering run with Chelsea and Barcelona. Co-manager Lars Lagerbäck favors a very quaint and English 4-4-2, arguably popularized in Scandinavia by none other than his old friend Roy Hodgson.
For Hallgrímsson, the contest against England will represent an opportunity to face a distant relation of the all-conquering Liverpool sides of the 1970s, an echo from a time when English football first made its appearance on Icelandic airwaves.
I am a Liverpool supporter so those days were quite good. My favorite player was Sammy Lee. I liked Sammy Lee best probably because of the qualities we like in Iceland – he was hard-working, honest and a good player with a good spirit. Maybe being blond had something to do with it as well. As a kid I could identify with that guy.
Fate is a funny thing. Just days after much of England voted to sever ties with the European Union, their national squad will come up against a team that is in some ways a bizarre simulacrum of a stereotypical English side from days gone by. A step or two behind in terms of technique, but well-organized, physical and willing to expend vast amounts of energy in the service of the collective. Listen to Lagerbäck talk about his philosophy when he managed Sweden, and you can almost hear the faint echoes of Bill Shankly.
"It is extremely important that every single player follows our plan. The more organized the team is, the bigger the chances to win. That is why football is the only team sport where a third division team can beat a first division team. The more the players work together and know what they need to do in different situations, the more things they can do automatically and I think a lot of people underestimate how valuable that is."
But wait, there's more. Here's Hallgrímsson, the Liverpool supporter, who has continued to work off and on as a dentist while juggling his coaching responsibilities, talking about getting superstars and multi-millionaires to buy into what he and Lagerbäck are building:
If you look at our team, we have guys like Gylfi Sigurdsson at Swansea, who is probably our highest-profile player, but he's the hardest worker on the pitch. If that guy works the hardest, who in the team can be lazy? We have a guy like Eiður, who has won the Champions League and played for Barcelona and Chelsea. He's more or less been a substitute for the last three years, but if he can be a supportive guy on the bench, then who cannot behave in the same way?
A talented England side that bumbled through the group stages without yet finding its best form will provide a stern test for Hallgrímsson and Lagerbäck's men. The last time the two sides met was in a 2004 friendly, when talisman Wayne Rooney (plus ça change, as they say) scored twice in leading England to a 6-1 rout. If England are to replicate that feat, they'll have to beat a team that thrives on the counterattack, is feeling no pressure whatsoever, and perhaps most dangerously for England, absolutely means business.
Guðjohnsen, who captained the 2004 side that was steamrolled by England, described a message he received, right after Iceland bundled Austria out of the tournament, from a former Chelsea teammate who was on the opposite side of the 6-1 scoreline: "Frank Lampard sent me a text, laughing at the fact we are facing England. In what sense he found it funny, I’m not sure." If England wake up on Monday expecting to stroll to another 6-1 victory, they also might not find the match very funny at all.