Iceland gone but never forgotten

Euro journey ends vs. France, but its luster will endure

- Martin Rogers @mrogersUSA­T USA TODAY Sports

The rain had been steady all night, but as the masses piled out of Stade de France it now positively teemed, pooling in every crevice of the pedestrian­ized street alongside this grand facility. It was incessant, driving, far beyond drizzle, yet utterly incapable of spoiling anyone’s fun.

For this was the kind of party that maybe only sports can provide, the perfect mix of a joyous victor and a loser that went home defeated yet still feeling just as much a champion as whoever lifts the European Championsh­ip trophy next Sunday.

That France was here, on this night, in its national stadium for a quarterfin­al, was no surprise. That was the route destiny held for it from the moment the draw was made, provided it won Group A, which it did, and survived the Round of 16, which it did.

Yet the occasion was made by Iceland, the underdog of all underdogs in a tournament that will be known for its run. A 5-2 defeat? Certainly not enough reason to stop celebratin­g a journey as remarkable as it gets amid soccer’s harsh realities.

“Some people have called it a miracle,” Iceland coach Lars Lagerback said. “It is not a miracle, but it is something very special. You only have to look at how it affected the people, how much they loved it, how much support they gave us.”

Last year, Iceland staged an event called the Games of the Small States of Europe. It is a kind of an Olympics for tiny nations. Other competitor­s hailed from Monaco, Malta, Liechtenst­ein and San Marino. That is where Iceland is supposed to stand on the world sporting stage.

Not in major tournament­s of the world’s most popular sport. Not frustratin­g Portugal, battling Hungary, beating Austria and humiliatin­g England. Not rubbing shoulders with the tournament co-favorite, on its own soil, three weeks and change into the event and with 19 nations having already gone home.

But thank goodness the Icelanders were here, to add color and excitement to this competitio­n and hope and promise to others. Because soccer is starting to wake up to a new reality, one that, a century and a half after the game was codified into an organized structure, is finally being properly understood. It is a team sport. Sounds simple, right? But Iceland showed what can be done by brotherly togetherne­ss and a desire to scrap for your national pride, just as Wales continues to do, just like the Hungarians, Irish and Northern Irish before them.

It looks like France gets the value of it, putting aside personalit­y clashes and ugly controvers­ies in the build-up and realizing there is value in fraternity.

The French will be tough to stop, and Thursday’s semifinal vs. Germany in Marseille brings delicious anticipati­on. A rampant host with the weight of public support behind it — or the current world champion feeling it has escaped its biggest hurdle in the quarterfin­als? Pick ’em.

Or don’t, not if you don’t want to. Just enjoy it instead, this tournament with three games left, for all it has been and what it still is.

Save for the scourge of hooligan idiots early on, it has been a good one, one of the best soccer events of recent times, full of flourish and color and all those story lines.

Iceland’s departure, set up Sunday when Olivier Giroud and Paul Pogba struck before the first half had reached its midway point and Dimitri Payet and Antoine Griezmann added a pair more just before halftime, cost us one of those ongoing smiley tales.

Quite simply, France was too good. How good we will only know once it takes on an opponent of the same stature, a challenge that will be provided next. In just a few days it won’t have the luxury of easing off in the second half, a response that allowed the proud Icelanders two consolatio­n goals.

By then Iceland’s players will be at home, the team having departed for a heroes’ welcome in Reykjavik on Monday and all the thousands that came to cheer them trickling back to the island in the hours and days that follow.

The journey will have ended, but the story will remain, for us and them to reflect on and regale and most of all enjoy.

 ?? PHILIPPE LOPEZ, AFP/GETTY IMAGES ?? Iceland’s Birkir Saevarsson, left, defends against France forward Olivier Giroud during Sunday’s match.
PHILIPPE LOPEZ, AFP/GETTY IMAGES Iceland’s Birkir Saevarsson, left, defends against France forward Olivier Giroud during Sunday’s match.

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