IIt’s a storyline that wouldn’t look out of place on the big screen. The hapless goalkeeper who couldn’t play the sport he loves as a youth due to persistent injuries suddenly finds himself face to face with a global icon. But when Icelandic goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson slammed his gloves to prepare to face a penalty from Lionel Messi, it was not a plot imagined by a great director. It was the 2018 World Cup and most definitely real life.
Messi’s penalty was the perfect height for Halldorsson, who dived to his right and parried the shot to safety. Messi had been defeated. “My story – going from a lower league goalkeeper in Iceland to a penalty against the best soccer player in the world – sounds like something out of a bad Hollywood cliché sports movie,” says Halldorsson. “I’m probably not going to do this one myself.”
Halldorsson represented Iceland at Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup, but a series of shoulder dislocations during his teenage years left him wondering if he would ever play football. While coping with those injuries, he spent his time editing shorts, which is far from the usual basis for a player who would win 77 caps.
“I didn’t play football between the ages of 15 and 19,” he recalls. “When I was 20, I was at a crossroads and had surgery to repair my shoulder. But at that time the local club I was playing for [Leiknir Reykjavik] were in the Icelandic third division. You don’t get much lower than that in world football. When I decided to give football one last chance, I had to start from the bottom. At the same time, my filmmaking career was starting to advance a bit, so I really didn’t think football would get me anywhere. I wanted to play in the Icelandic Premier Division. That was my goal at the time. “
It did not start well. Halldorsson was fortunate enough to shine for Leiknir when first-choice goalkeeper Valur Gunnarsson was sent off in a late-season promotion decision, but he suffered from stage fright. He gave a goal kick to the opposing striker, who scored the decisive goal. Leiknir missed a promotion and it was undeniably the goalkeeper’s fault. The obvious scapegoat, Halldorsson was released and struggled to find a new club until his compatriot Third Division Afurelding finally gave him a chance to redeem himself.
There would be no more bumps in the road. In less than two years, Halldorsson was playing in Iceland’s highest level for Fram. He won his first international cap in 2011, coinciding with a golden period for his country as they transformed from runners to qualifying challengers as well. After losing to Croatia in the play-off to reach the 2014 World Cup, Iceland advanced to Euro 2016, where they beat England en route to an unlikely quarter-final appearance.
“It all started with Lars [Lagerback], says Halldorsson. “He arrived as a manager in 2011 and at the same time we had our best generation. It all happened and we started to win. We had perfect coaches, the stadium was packed and we had the confidence in ourselves and the team chemistry. Everything just clicked. For six to eight years, we were almost impossible to beat at home. We took part in four competitions, we qualified for two and reached the play-offs for the other two. Before that, no Icelandic team had ever reached the play-offs. We had an incredible race. It’s going to be hard to repeat, but it was one hell of a trick.
During this trip came this meeting with Messi. It would have been a historic occasion regardless of the outcome, as Iceland made their debut at the World Cup, becoming the smallest nation to make the final. Halldorsson and his teammates had taken pride in coming back from 1-0 to equalize but, when Hordur Magnusson brought in Maximiliano Meza to give the penalty midway through the second half, most people thought Messi would put him away. Not the man between the sticks, however.
“I watched a lot of penalties the night before and decided to dive properly. He had shot in exactly the same spot for his last penalty and we came to the conclusion that this would again be the most likely scenario. I did something right before he kicked. I don’t know if it had any effect but I let out a quick noise and clapped my hands, and tried to disturb him a bit. He didn’t fire the perfect shot and I was lucky enough to save him. You need a lot of luck just to save a penalty, not to mention a penalty from the world’s best footballer in your little nation’s first game at a World Cup. Having been a lower league goaltender 15 years ago, it’s an incredible scenario.
Halldorsson’s save gave Iceland a momentous point in their World Cup debut. Yet despite being the hero of the hour, it was not his highlight as a player – having come to France two years earlier. “The Euro is the highlight of my career. The Euro was the first. Everything went well for us there. We didn’t lose a game before the quarter-finals [5-2 against hosts France] and we were experiencing it all for the first time. We were in a fantastic hotel that we had to ourselves. It felt like we were in a hotel with a bunch of friends, hanging out, in fantastic weather, having a vacation, but playing a huge game every five days.
“It was the moment of our lives and things went well – it culminated in beating England. Iceland had been hoping to play England for decades and we never did, so to finally play England under these circumstances, when we had achieved our goal through the group stage, was amazing. It was the time of our lives. I think everyone can agree.
Now in the twilight of his playing career at Valur in his homeland, his aspirations have shifted to the big screen. He has directed films throughout his football career, working on the video of Iceland’s entry into Eurovision 2012 and a Coca-Cola commercial that aired during the 2018 World Cup. His latest project is the release of their first feature, Cop Secret, an action comedy centered on a police officer who falls in love with his new partner as the couple investigate a series of bank robberies where nothing appears to have been stolen. It’s as crazy as it sounds and was shortlisted for the London Film Festival in the laughter category.
“My inspiration comes from all kinds of classic action films: Tango & Cash, Die Hard and Lethal Weapon, as well as more recent films,” says Halldorsson. “There is a big resemblance to Hot Fuzz where you have the best cop in London and put him in a small town in England where nothing is happening. It’s similar in many ways to having an action movie in Reykjavik, where nothing happens. Obviously nobody talks in an ocean liner, we don’t have supervillains and the cops don’t even carry guns in Iceland, so it’s the heart of the movie’s comedy that all of these over-the-top things are happening in our peaceful city. “
Halldorsson promises great ridiculous stunts and extreme scenarios in a “film with soul and real characters”. In the final sequence, there is a nod to his other footballing life, with a high octane scene set against the backdrop of a fictional match between Iceland and England at the stadium Reykjavik National Park. Halldorsson says this is not an attempt to make fun of his English viewers. Honest.
“When we started writing these 10 years, we decided that the final streak would take place at the national stadium, where Iceland play against England. It was a funny coincidence because, at the time, the Iceland had never played against England, and it was always the dream of the Icelandic nation to face England, so that’s the most important thing we could imagine at the time, if we played in England with all these superstars and there was a full stadium – everyone would focus on this game.
“And that leaves everything clear for any plan we have for the supervillain.” It would have been easy to pull it off, with the budget and everything, but we decided to keep it. We wanted it to be big and to have a subtext, so we decided to go for it.