All footballers fear this moment.
Gylfi Sigurdsson knew something was amiss. A sharp pain in his knee began in the first half and had only increased by the time the whistle blew on Everton’s 2-0 home victory against promoted Brighton & Hove Albion on March 10.
The club-record, £45 million (Dh212.7m) purchase from Swansea City in August 2017 had lasted all 90 minutes. But something had gone wrong just at the point a mixed debut season started to come good – four of his six goals had arrived once ex-England boss Sam Allardyce answered the Toffees’ emergency call in November.
One date played on his mind: June 16 – the point when Iceland’s celebrated underdog story will reach its zenith.
The smallest nation to ever qualify, their population last counted at 335,000, would on that day run out for World Cup 2018 at Moscow’s 45,360-capacity Otkritie Arena and face down Lionel Messi’s Argentina.
However, would the undoubted star of Strakarnir okkar (Our Boys) be among their ranks?
“I was panicking a little bit, of course,” playmaker Sigurdsson tells Sport360° near the end of his successful two-month recuperation at the Toffees’ USM Finch Farm.
“Being a knee injury, you automatically think about the worst. But luckily, it wasn’t too serious and now I should be fine.
“It’s not ideal. There is never a good time to get injured.
“If you are looking at the World Cup, it’s better to get injured sooner rather than later.
“I probably would have been ruled out of the World Cup if I had gotten injured a month or so later. It was tough to take.
“I was outside for the last two weeks at Everton, running with the ball and doing some passing. There was a lot of treatment, a lot of stuff in the gym and swimming pool.
“I was just doing everything I could possibly do to get back as soon as possible.”
Upon their major-tournament debut at Euro 2016, Iceland’s supporters provided the soundtrack with their sonorous ‘Viking thunderclap’. Plus, the biggest shock when they fought back from Wayne Rooney’s fourth-minute penalty to defeat sorry England 2-1 in the round of 16.
Growing up in an isolated, rock-strewn Arctic outpost best known for puffins and Bjork, such occasions felt a world away for Sigurdsson.
The now 28-year-old has been at the vanguard of startling progression. Intelligent investment at the turn of the millennium in full-size indoor pitches and extensive coach training schemes bore fruit with entry to the 2011 European Under-21 Championship.
‘The Indoor Kids’ – as Sigurdsson’s generation has been fondly nicknamed – have not looked back.
Wounds caused by play-off defeat for World Cup 2014 were swiftly cauterised on the way to quarter-final elimination by hosts France at the Euros.
They then bested Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey to top a strong Group I and ensure no heartbreak was suffered along the Road to Russia.
They were ranked 112th in the world by FIFA in 2010. They head into this event at 22nd.
“We were so far off getting to the World Cup or the Euros,” says the ex-Tottenham attacker, who boasts more than 50 international caps. “I didn’t really expect it to happen.
“It was only a couple of years ago that things started to change, and we actually started winning games, that I realised it was a possibility to make it.
“People almost expect us to win these days. It doesn’t matter who we are playing.
“I think it is ourselves, as well. We go into every game expecting to win it. It doesn’t matter who we are playing. The confidence within the team shows with what we have done during the last few years.
“Especially with the World Cup 2018 qualifiers.”
Eidur Gudjohnsen was the sole projection of Icelandic football to the rest of the globe for much of his celebrated career. Those days were long gone by the time the ex-Chelsea and Barcelona forward performed a bit-part role two years ago in France.
Sigurdsson is now the team’s star. But he’s flanked by the likes of dangerous Augsburg striker Alfred Finnbogason, valued Burnley winger Johann Berg Gudmundsson and long-haired Aston Villa midfielder Birkir Bjarnason.
They’ve ensured the current talisman does not feel the sense of isolation endured by his lauded predecessor.
Sigurdsson says: “I have felt it for the last four or five years, now. I am one of the guys who has to lead the team on and off the pitch. I feel there are a few players who have been doing that.
“Now, it is down to us to make sure the team is doing the right things.”
Long-term assistant manager Heimir Hallgrimsson has excelled in sole control since the Euros. The succession plan with Lars Lagerback has been seamless – now, comes the true test.
After their Group D-opener with contenders Argentina, Iceland face improving Nigeria on June 22 at Volgograd Arena. If they, once again, then best qualifying opponents Croatia on June 26 in Rostov Arena, the road to the round of 16 should open.
There are no illusions about the task ahead, though.
“It is such a tough group – it could go either way,” he explains. “We could finish first, or rock bottom. It is one of the toughest groups, I think.
“It will be very tight with who goes through and who goes out. We want to get to the last 16. Realistically, we know it will be tough and we have to play our best football, if we want that to be possible.”
No matter what happens, Iceland will count on the loyalty of their fans. For Sigurdsson and his side, this wall of noise could be key to another intoxicating summer for Strakarnir okkar.
A seven-year-old child watches transfixed at his family home that is packed full of life and excitement.
This sense of wonderment cannot be diminished by a sizeable time difference pushing several kick-offs beyond even Scandinavia’s endless daylight hours at that time of year.
Almost 8,000 kilometres away, Sweden’s unlikely heroes are lighting up a sun-kissed summer at World Cup 1994.
This ‘Golden Generation’ of eccentric goalkeeper Thomas Ravelli, forward Tomas Brolin – possessed of infamously ephemeral talent – and long-limbed centre forward Kennet Andersson were supposed to have spurned their best chance of success at Euro 1992.
They instead embarked on a remarkable run in America only ended at the semi-final stage by striker Romario’s late, unmarked header for Brazil – the eventual champions. Back home, life was never to be the same for Marcus Berg.
Those memories act as fuel for a journey that sees the now 31-year-old poised to lead the line for Blagult (The Blue-Yellow) at his first World Cup after a prolific and trophy laden debut campaign in the UAE at Al Ain.
“It was something that is so special to my generation,” the centre forward exclusively tells Sport360. “Everyone remembers that World Cup.
“It was in the United States, so it was [shown on television] in the night in Sweden. “We woke up and had friends or family over every night. They made a really good World Cup, so of course we hope and dream to have another World Cup like them.
“I was seven-years old. At that time, Sweden were not favourites and had players who were struggling a little bit.
“But they did a very good World Cup and this is something we must also believe in that we can do.
“I had a dream to become a footballer when I was young and to see that Sweden could make good results in the World Cup, it was a fantastic moment. It was also something that stayed in the memory, all days since I grew up.
“I hoped and believed that I could play a World Cup – and now I will. This is a very, very fantastic thing.”
Berg arrives in Russia this month as a striker who has come into his own. The false starts experienced at Hamburg and PSV Eindhoven after his Golden Boot success at 2009’s European Under-21 Championship are consigned to the past.
So is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. One of the 21st-century’s giant sporting figures will definitely not be present, despite months of characteristic flirtations.
This decision by Sweden’s 62-goal record scorer has ensured Berg will no longer be a mere foil. In Ibrahimovic’s absence throughout qualifying, a vital eight goals helped set his nation on a course to defeating Italy in the play-offs. This result ended the Azzurri’s continuous 60-year record of participation, plus their Scandinavian opponent’s 12-year disappearance from the tournament.
For Berg, it is vital the likes of himself and emerging RB Leipzig winger Emil Forsberg embraced responsibility by emerging from the great man’s shadow.
“I think it was expected,” he says of Ibrahimovic’s teased decision. “He said ‘no’ and didn’t play in the whole of qualifications.
“He had made some interviews in the last months that maybe indicated that he wanted to come back. But I think it was more like a show from his side.
“It is sad for all who love football, because he’s still a fantastic player. He is also a big role model and inspiration for a lot of kids in the world.
“A lot of games we could just rely on him that he would make it for us. Sometimes, that is not only positive for a team.
“When he quit, a lot of players took steps forward and took more responsibility. That is normal.”
Berg was lured away last June from Greece’s Panathinaikos, where he’d struck 95 times in 151 matches. The Boss’ €3 million (Dh12.9m) investment was rewarded by 34 goals in 31 matches, plus a club-first double of the Arabian Gulf League and President’s Cup.
This move to the Middle East in a World Cup season led to inevitable dissenting voices about a drop in competitiveness. Berg insists he couldn’t have provided a better retort.
He says: “What more can I do apart from scoring goals and working hard? That is what I tried to do.
“Always, people will speak. But in Europe, people don’t know the league here [UAE] or the AFC Champions League.”
Head coach Janne Andersson’s current crop have been placed into Group F.
Holders Germany should storm into top spot, yet little separates Sweden, Mexico and South Korea.
Enthusiasm moulded by cherished memories forged 24 years ago, Berg unsurprisingly believes “everything can happen” in the coming weeks.
“It is a tough group, of course,” says Berg. “But it could be more difficult.
“Our first game is against South Korea and that is a very crucial game.
“In a World Cup, you have to aim to pass the group. After that, everything can happen.”
With little movement in the upper echelons from the last time FIFA published its rankings, Joachim Low’s side – bidding to become the first back-to-back winners in 56 years – remain ahead of Brazil at the top.
Belgium, Portugal and Argentina complete the top five while the only change in the top 10 sees Poland up two places to eighth in a straight swap with Spain.
Russia’s slide will be partly due to not playing competitive matches during the qualifying process and they are down four places since the last update, dropping them below 67th-ranked Saudi Arabia and down to 70th.
Australia and South Korea have climbed four places each and Uruguay three for a pre-tournament boost, but Tunisia drop seven places to 21st.
Chile, in ninth, are the highest-ranked team not involved in Russia this summer.
— FIFA World Cup 🏆 (@FIFAWorldCup) June 4, 2018