ICELAND hero Hannes Halldorsson could not have written a better script as his tiny nation took their fairytale saga on to the biggest stage of all.The film director goalkeeper saved a Lionel Messi penalty to make sure the smallest country ever to qualify for a World Cup made history in Moscow.
Halldorsson, who plays his club football in Denmark for Randers, directed Iceland’s
Eurovision Song Contest entry in 2012. But he has a bigger claim to fame now.
Manchester City star Sergio Aguero had fired two-time winners Argentina into an early lead with his first career goal at the finals.
But Augsburg striker Alfred Finnbogason equalised – and Halldorsson helped the tiny island nation of just 334,000 people hold on in the biggest game of their lives.
Halldorsson said: “It’s a dream come true for me to have saved that penalty, especially as it helped us gain a point that could be very important for us in trying to qualify from this group.
“I did a lot of homework, watching a lot of penalties from Messi. And I also looked back at some of the penalties I had faced and what he might be expecting from me.
“I had a good feeling he would put it that way. It is a big draw for us, we felt at the last Euros how important it is to get on the board right away if we are going to reach our goal to qualify.”
All the pressure was on Messi to deliver after his big rival for the monicker of the world’s best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, scored a hat-trick against Spain.
But he failed miserably, has now missed four of his last seven penalties for club and country, and still only has five goals in World Cups – the same number as Lukas Podolski and Sir Geoff Hurst.
The scale of the task facing Iceland was enormous. They topped their qualifying group and were unbeaten at Euro 2016 until hosts France beat them in the quarter-finals.
But Argentina had won their six previous opening games – and since 1978 only Germany have reached more World Cup finals.
And it was no surprise when Aguero broke the deadlock. The City ace spun away from Ragnar Sigurdsson to collect Marcos Rojo’s cross-shot and smashed one into the top corner.
Their lead did not last long. Iceland needed just four minutes to equalise, with Willy Caballero unable to properly deal with a Gylfi Sigurdsson cross and Finnbogason scrambling it in.
Messi then went to the spot when Maximiliano Meza took a tumble under a challenge from Hordur Magnusson in the 64th minute – but his effort was poor and Halldorsson turned it aside.
Substitute Cristian Pavon then had a penalty appeal of his own turned down, before Halldorsson denied him with a wonderful full-stretch save after Aguero got a toe to his shot.
Messi even had his shot at a Ronaldo moment deep into stoppage time – but his free-kick cannoned off an Icelandic wall.
Iceland coach Heimir Hallgrimsson said: “This is a great success for Iceland. I think my players had fun. Some of them at least. Argentina have superior individuals with superior skills.
“If we go one on one around the pitch you don’t need to ask who wins that game. To get points against them we have to play our own special way, and everybody is on board with that.
“For everyone, it’s more enjoyable to play this way and achieve something than to play another way and achieve nothing. It’s a milestone for this team. Argentina have world-class players, they have been successful in World Cups before. They are part of the history of the World Cup. I think that they will go far.
“This is why this is a great success. It was very important for us to get a point against them.”
Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli said: “Messi was in a very uncomfortable situation because Iceland played very defensively. He couldn’t find the space he needs.
“That led to Leo’s mistake. But it is another statistic, it’s in the past. We need to be strong now, believe in ourselves and know we have all the tools to beat anybody and continue forward.”