It’s a storyline that would not look out of place on the big screen. The down-on-his-luck goalkeeper who could not play the sport he loves during his younger years due to persistent injuries suddenly finds himself going head-to-head with a global icon. But when Iceland goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson clapped his gloves together in preparation to face a penalty from Lionel Messi, this was not a plot dreamed up by a bigwig director. It was the 2018 World Cup and most definitely real life.
Messi’s penalty was at the perfect height for Halldorsson, who dived to his right and parried the shot away to safety. Messi had been vanquished. “My story – going from a lower-league goalkeeper in Iceland to saving a penalty against the best football player in the world – sounds like something from a bad cliché Hollywood sports movie,” says Halldorsson. “I’m probably not going to make that one myself.”
Halldorsson represented Iceland at Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup but a series of shoulder dislocations in his teenage years left him wondering if he would ever play football at all. While dealing with those injuries he spent his time editing short movies, hardly the usual grounding for a player who would win 77 caps.
“I didn’t play any football from the age of 15 to 19,” he recalls. “At 20, I was at a crossroads and had surgery to fix my shoulder. But at that time, the local club I was playing for [Leiknir Reykjavik] were in Iceland’s third division. You don’t get much lower than that in world football. When I decided to give football one last go, I had to start from the bottom. At the same time, my film-making career was starting to roll a little bit, so I really didn’t think football would get me anywhere. I wanted to play in Iceland’s top division. That was my goal at the time.”
It did not start well. Halldorsson was given his chance to shine for Leiknir when first-choice keeper Valur Gunnarsson was sent off in an end-of-season promotion decider, but he suffered from stage fright. He scuffed a goal kick to the opposition striker, who scored the decisive goal. Leiknir missed out on promotion and it was undeniably the goalkeeper’s fault. The obvious scapegoat, Halldorsson was released and struggled to find a new club until fellow third-tier side Afturelding finally gave him a chance for redemption.
There would be no more bumps in the road. Within two years, Halldorsson was playing in Iceland’s top tier for Fram. He won his first international cap in 2011, coinciding with a golden period for his country as they transformed from also-rans to qualification challengers. After losing to Croatia in a play-off to reach the 2014 World Cup, Iceland qualified for Euro 2016, where they beat England on their way to an unlikely appearance in the quarter-finals.
“It all started with Lars [Lagerback],” says Halldorsson. “He came in as manager in 2011 and, at the same time, we had our best generation. Everything came together and we started winning. We had the perfect coaches, the stadium was packed and we had the self-belief and chemistry in the team. Everything just clicked. For six to eight years, we were almost impossible to beat at home. We entered four competitions, qualified for two and reached play-offs for the other two. Before that, no Iceland team had ever reached the play-offs. We had an unbelievable run. It’s going to be difficult to repeat, but it was one hell of a ride.”
Along that journey came that meeting with Messi. It would have been a landmark occasion regardless of the result, as Iceland played their first game at a World Cup, becoming the smallest nation to appear at the finals. Halldorsson and his teammates had done themselves proud by coming back from 1-0 down to equalise but, when Hordur Magnusson hauled down Maximiliano Meza to give away the penalty midway through the second half, most people assumed Messi would tuck it away. Not the man in between the sticks, though.
“I looked at a lot of penalties the night before and decided I would dive right. He had shot in exactly the same spot for his last penalty and we came to the conclusion this would be the most likely scenario again. I did something right before he kicked. I don’t know if it had an effect but I let out a quick noise and clapped my hands, and tried to disturb him a bit. He didn’t shoot the perfect shot and I was lucky enough to save it. You need a lot of luck just to save a penalty, let alone saving a penalty from the best footballer in the world in the first game your tiny nation is playing at a World Cup. After being a lower-league goalkeeper 15 years before, it’s an unbelievable scenario.”
Halldorsson’s save helped Iceland secure a memorable point on their World Cup debut. Yet, despite being the hero of the hour, this was not his highlight as a player – that came in France two years earlier. “The Euros is my career highlight. The Euros was the first one. Everything worked out for us there. We didn’t lose a game until the quarter-finals [5-2 against hosts France] and we were experiencing it all for the first time. We were staying in a fantastic hotel we had to ourselves. It felt like we were in a hotel with a bunch of friends, just hanging out, in fantastic weather, having a vacation, but playing a huge game every five days.
“It was the time of our lives and things just worked out well – it climaxed by beating England. Iceland had been hoping to play England for decades and we never had, so to finally play England in those circumstances, when we had reached our goal by going through the group stage, was unbelievable. It was the time of our lives. I think everybody can agree.”
Now in the twilight of his playing career at Valur in his homeland, his aspirations have tipped back towards the silver screen. He made films throughout his football career, working on the video for Iceland’s 2012 Eurovision entry and a Coca-Cola advert that aired during the 2018 World Cup. His latest project is the release of his first feature film, Cop Secret, an action-comedy centring around a policeman who falls in love with his new partner as the pair investigate a string of bank robberies where nothing seems to have been stolen. It’s as bonkers as it sounds and has been selected for the London Film Festival in the laugh category.
“My inspiration is all sorts of classic action movies: Tango & Cash, Die Hard and Lethal Weapon, also some more recent ones,” Halldorsson explains. “There’s a close resemblance to Hot Fuzz where you have the best cop in London and place him in a tiny town in England where nothing happens. It’s similar in many ways to having an action movie in Reykjavik, where nothing happens. Obviously nobody speaks in one liners, we don’t have supervillains and cops don’t even carry guns in Iceland, so that’s the core of the comedy of the movie to have all these over-the-top things happening in our peaceful city.”
Halldorsson promises big, ridiculous stunts and extreme scenarios in a “movie with a soul and real characters”. In the final sequence, there is a nod to his other life as a footballer, with a high-octane scene taking place to the backdrop of a fictional match between Iceland and England at the national stadium in Reykjavik. Halldorsson says it’s not an attempt to poke fun at his English viewers. Honest.
“When we started writing this 10 years, we decided to have the final sequence taking place at the national stadium, where Iceland are playing against England. It’s a funny coincidence because, at the time, Iceland had never played England, and it’s always been the dream of the Icelandic nation to face England. So that’s the biggest thing we could imagine at the time, if we were playing England with all those superstars and there’s a full stadium – everybody would be focusing on that game.
“And that leaves everything clear for whatever scheme we have for the supervillain. It would have been easy to take it out, with budget and everything, but we decided to keep it in. We wanted it to be big and it has some subtext in it, so we decided to go for it.”