By Patrick Vignal
PARIS (Reuters) – Iceland wrote the most glorious page in their sporting history when a stoppage-time winner gave them a deserved 2-1 victory against Austria for a place in the knockout stages of Euro 2016 on Wednesday.
The tiny country, making its first appearance at a major tournament, will go to face England in the round of 16 and the team’s spirited performance at the Stade de France on a stormy evening suggested they could give them a hard time.
“Our national holiday is on June 17,” said Iceland coach Helmir Hallgrimsson. “I guess we need to change it now. That’s what this means to us”.
Substitute Arnor Ingvi Traustason scored from close range deep into added time after collecting a through ball from Elmar Bjarnasson following a swift counter-attack.
The last-gasp goal secured Iceland second place in Group F, level on five points with Hungary, who drew 3-3 with Portugal in an action-packed encounter in Lyon.
The Hungarians clinched top spot on goal difference while Portugal finished on three points and went through as one of the best third-placed teams.
Austria, who had come to France as dark horses after a qualifying campaign featuring nine wins from 10 games, finished last and will go home with just one point after a 2-0 defeat by Hungary and a 0-0 draw with Portugal.
The smallest country to qualify for a European Championship, Iceland had started the tournament by holding Portugal and Hungary to 1-1 draws through resilient displays.
They started well against Austria with forward Jon Dadi Bodvarsson putting them ahead with an angled shot from inside the box following a long throw-in from the right on 18 minutes.
Austria, needing a win to survive the group, levelled the tie on the hour mark when substitute Alessandro Schoepf raced into the box and surprised Iceland goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson with a low shot.
The Austrians had missed a great chance to equalise in the first half when they were awarded a penalty after David Alaba appeared to be held back in the box by left back Ari Skulason.
Aleksandar Dragovic sank to his knees in despair after hitting the post from the spot, allowing Iceland to hold on to their lead until the break.
Austria, who went into their final group game after a defeat by Hungary and a draw with Portugal, were hoping to survive the opening stage of a major tournament for the first time since the 1982 World Cup but it was not to be.
They again lacked firepower and their key player, Alaba, who is used to a more defensive role, looked lost in the playmaker position, which he occupied throughout the tournament.
“In the first half, we didn’t play well and like in the two games before, we committed too many errors,” said Austria coach Marcel Koller. “It got better in the second half, when we played like in the qualifiers, but it wasn’t enough to play just one half”.
Iceland, by contrast, again showed plenty of fighting spirit and took their chances resolutely.
With a population of about 330,000, which is roughly the size of English city Leicester, home to the newly-crowned Premier League champions, Iceland were cheered on by a strong contingent of passionate fans wearing the side’s blue colours.
“It’s extra fun to do this beside my best friends and with all the supporters, 10,000 of them”, said man-of-the-match Kari Arnason. “It’s unbelievable. It’s like having your family at the game. It’s extra sweet for us.”
(Additional reporting by John Irish and Matt Smith; Editing by Toby Davis and Julien Pretot)