ROSTOV-ON-DON: They came as a blue tide, marching across the Voroshilovskiy Bridge on the Don river as though a fabled journey of lore undertaken by their Viking ancestors.
The 8,000 Icelanders were headed for the Rostov Arena, where they watched their best footballing gladiators do battle against chequered Croat enemies on Tuesday (Jun 26).
This was do-or-die; a must-win for Strákarnir okkar (Our Boys) to stand any chance of advancing to the World Cup knockout stage.
They lost, 2-1.
Yet it seemed like Iceland would at least equal their feat of cancelling out Argentina, in the first game of their first-ever World Cup.
Outside the stadium, fans insisted their team had “a very good chance”. Inside, their patented war clap-cry made 8,000 seem like 40,000. Even locals turned out to back Iceland, with three in the squad playing their club football for FC Rostov in the Russian Premier League.
Then there is the rest of the country: All 330,000, as you might have heard by now, offering moral support thousands of kilometres away.
For their opener against Lionel Messi, 99.6 per cent of all TVs in Iceland were tuned in. This time, it would definitely be 100 per cent - at least according to fan Thor Baering.
“The result doesn’t matter. The team will always be very good in my eyes,” he said.
Helena, 40, added: “Yes, we as Icelanders will always support them. It’s unconditional.”
Such loyalty has not gone unnoticed.
After the match, players applauded the fans in the stands and the Icelandic football association tweeted: “We left everything, absolutely everything, on the pitch tonight and will go out with our heads held up high. Thank you to the best supporters in the world.”
“MOVING ON ...”
The better team in the end was a Croatia side that have now beaten Iceland five times out of seven and is quickly emerging as the form side of the tournament in Russia.
After outclassing both Nigeria and Argentina to secure progression, manager Zlatko Dalic could afford to rest five out of six key players on yellow cards, plus the Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren.
Yet Iceland could find no way past custodian Lovre Kalinic for the most part of the game. They were desperate to score but bereft of ideas upfront, lacking the craft and creativity so effortlessly exuded by an opposing midfield marshalled by the superb Luka Modric.
Heimir Hallgrimsson’s men did come agonisingly close on occasion and will look back and feel they should have scored more.
To Iceland’s credit it was through their famed never-give-up ethos that they equalised, pressing to win a penalty then converted by Gylfi Sigurdsson, making amends after missing one against Nigeria.
In the dying minutes, as news filtered through of Argentina leading against Nigeria, Iceland poured forward in search of the match winner that would ensure their advance on superior goal difference.
Then their defence - so often touted for its rock-solid organisation - gave the ball away carelessly and the imperious Ivan Perisic latched on to seal the deal. Croatia and Argentina through to the round of 16; Nigeria and Iceland eliminated.
“Well, I’m depressed,” said Hannes Thor Baldursson, 65, after the game. “That was not good. It was tight, we could have won it.”
Said Benedikt, 58: “We put in so much for a second goal which we really needed, and ended up conceding.
“But it’s already an achievement to get into the World Cup. And the fight they showed in the game today was great.
“It’s just such a waste.”
Pity indeed, for a different result would have led to what Hallgrimsson earlier said would be “the biggest success in the short history of Icelandic football”.
Benedikt, however, dismissed the notion that a chance had passed the team by.
“Making the quarter finals of Euro 2016 was big. Qualifying for the World Cup was big,” he said. “But we keep moving on. Next we win Euro 2020.”