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Burnley winger Johann Berg Gudmundsson set to make history with Iceland at World Cup

Burnley's Johann Berg Gudmundsson is expected to start Iceland's first ever game in a World Cup finals.
Burnley's Johann Berg Gudmundsson is expected to start Iceland's first ever game in a World Cup finals.

Johann Berg Gudmundsson is expected to become the first Burnley player to make an appearance at a World Cup Finals since 1982 on Saturday


And the Iceland wideman hopes to leave Lionel Messi and Argentina as frustrated as five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo at Euro 2016.

The Real Madrid man didn’t react well to the 1-1 draw in the group stages against Portugal two years ago that thrust Iceland into the spotlight – before they knocked England out in the last 16.

“I thought they had won the Euros the way they were jumping around at the end,” Ronaldo said.

“It was unbelievable. When they don’t try to play and just defend, defend, defend, this in my opinion shows a small mentality and they are not going to do anything in this competition.”

Gudmundsson would love to draw a similar reaction from Barcelona’s Messi when Iceland take on Argentina in their Group D opener at the Otkrytiye Arena in Moscow.

He said: “Ronaldo was obviously annoyed because they couldn’t score against us.

“It was the first game in a major tournament and they couldn’t beat Iceland, so it was not nice for them.

“He’s a winner so he got a bit angry. It’s nice we didn’t lose against the European champions at least.

“I just thought it was a bit poor from him, but he was angry.

“He didn’t realise Iceland were in their first tournament, with just 340,000 from there. He said Iceland would never win anything, but no one expects Iceland to, so I don’t know where that came from.

“You want to get that same reaction. It will be tough to play against Messi, but as long as he is frustrated and cant’ score, we’re happy.

“Let’s just go out there and try to beat them and make him even more angry.”

Rather than fear Messi and Argentina, Gudmundsson had dreamed of facing La Albiceleste, or their old rivals, five-time winners Brazil: “Before the groups were announced I said that I wanted either Brazil or Argentina, so I got one of them.

“In the first game of the Euros we played Ronaldo and we kept him relatively quiet.

“This time it’s Messi, who is a ridiculous talent, but hopefully we can do the same against him.

“We’ll probably have to have a few players running after him the whole game.

“We know that we’re probably going to be defending for a lot of the time, and he is obviously one of the best players in the world.

“He can really turn it on. We’ve just got to defend well and see where it takes us.

“When we see the ball we’ve got to try and score the goal.

“Attacking wise they are probably one of the best teams in the tournament.

“I wouldn’t say they have issues in defence, but they have a few players who aren’t playing at the highest level, like the attacking players are.

“Hopefully that’s something we can use to our advantage.

“We know they are a great side, and first of all we have to keep them quiet.”

The last Clarets to feature on the biggest stage of all were Billy Hamilton and Tommy Cassidy for Northern Ireland at Espana 82.

Hamilton famously had a hand in Gerry Armstrong’s winner over hosts Spain in the group phase, and netted twice in the second round of group games against Austria in a 2-2 draw.

Gudmundsson is proud to represent the club, and admits playing for Iceland in a World Cup had been nothing more than a pipe dream.

The 27-year-old’s nation was plumbing the depths of the FIFA rankings just six years ago when ranked 131st, and having never qualified for a major tournament.

Iceland, with a population smaller than Manchester, was once more renowned for the Northern Lights and Björk than it was for its football.

But a golden generation has put Strákarnir okkar, which translates to ‘Our Boys’, on the map, and Iceland will head to Russia in 22nd spot, having been ranked at an all-time high 18th earlier in the year.

“When I was younger I never thought I’d play in the World Cup with Iceland,” he said.

“I’ve always dreamed of playing in a World Cup but I never thought it would become a reality. It’s fantastic, for a small nation like Iceland to qualify is a massive achievement.

“I always wanted to play in the World Cup but thought ‘what country can I play for, because it won’t be with Iceland.’

“When I started we were so far off it. My first game we drew against Azerbaijan, lost against Macedonia…it was a struggle. Those were the lower ones when you think it won’t happen.

“To be going is something special. Every single player in the Iceland team is well known now, and everyone will be watching like in the Euros. Back home we’re very well known.

“It’s a good thing, it shows how well a small nation is doing. Everyone knows everyone there. It’s just nice to be recognised because it shows we’re doing something right.”

Gudmundsson believes there’ll be much more expectation on them this time around, having reached the quarter-finals of Euro 2016 in France, and then then topped Group I of the World Cup qualifiers.

The former Charlton Athletic man said: “There probably is greater expectations but we’re still a small nation, we still don’t have players representing the biggest clubs in Europe, so we’re always going to be underdogs still.

“I think people will start looking for us to see how we’re doing, and I think the opposition will give us more respect than they have done in the past.

“People might have a bit more expectation but we know it’s going to be tough.

“It’s similar to the Euros; we want to get out of the group stages and anything after that is a bonus.

“First of all we just want to get through the group phase.”

Capped 67 times for his country, Gudmundsson has earned his stripes alongside a number of British-based players.

Everton's Gylfi Sigurdsson, Aston Villa's Birkir Bjarnason, Cardiff City's Aron Gunnarsson, Bristol City's Hörður Björgvin Magnússon and Reading's Jón Daði Böðvarsson have all helped to engineer the winds of change after rising through the age groups.

He said: "When we played for the Under 21s we reached the European Championships in Denmark so we felt like it was a special group.

"We didn't think we were going to make a World Cup or anything but we knew that we were a good side.

"When we got in to the first team we started doing well and winning games and reached the play-offs of the last World Cup. That gave us huge belief.

"When we drew 4-4 against Switzerland away in the qualifiers for the last WC it made us believe we could do it. There have been a few steps more since then.

"It helped with the Euros having more teams in it, which made it easier to qualify, but to win that tough group we were in for the World Cup is something I never thought was going to happen."

Gudmundsson benefited from the huge investment in facilities and coaches at the turn of the Millennium. He was part of Breidablik's talent factory alongside national gem Sigurdsson, who netted against Norway earlier in the month.

Those coming through now will share the same luxuries but Gudmundsson knows that Iceland, who will become the smallest nation ever to take part in the sporting centerpiece, may never enjoy this type of success again.

"It's something that we can't expect to happen," he said. "It's going to be tough for the next generation, when it comes through, to do this because it's a special group of players. It's always going to be tough for Iceland and it could even be the last time that we make the World Cup.

"Hopefully I'm wrong, hopefully we'll do it more often, but it's such a tough thing to qualify for. Only one team from the group goes through and the play-offs are tough to get through. It's going to be difficult for the next generation but hopefully we can keep making the big tournaments."

He added: "It might not happen again to get that togetherness. Six or seven of the team are my best friends, I speak to them every day. Everyone gets along. It’s a bit like Burnley. There are no big stars or egos, everyone is willing to put a shift in.

"That’s a major factor, and if you don’t get that togetherness in the next generation it may not happen again.

"We are really hard to break down. Defensively we keep quite a few clean sheets and are always dangerous on attack which is a good combination. I’d hate to play against Iceland."