NICE, France (AP) — After voting to leave the European Union last week, the English left the soccer European Championship in similarly surprising fashion on Monday in what will go down as their most embarrassing loss in a generation.
Iceland, whose population of 330,000 makes it the smallest nation ever to compete at the tournament, pulled off one of the biggest shocks in European Championship history by beating England 2-1 in the round of 16.
“This is probably going to be a day that we will talk about for the rest of our lives,” said Iceland joint-coach Heimir Hallgrimsson, who runs a dentist surgery in his spare time.
Iceland’s players danced and sang in front of their joyous fans after earning the biggest victory in their small nation’s history. Next up is an even bigger challenge — host nation France on Sunday — but nothing may top beating England, a team Iceland always used to support in major tournaments.
As for England, the defeat meant more humiliation on the big stage and surely another inquest into why a team of supposedly talented players failed again.
David Cameron stepped down as British Prime Minister after the result of last week’s referendum that unsettled the country and the whole of Europe. England coach Roy Hodgson did the same after overseeing yet another humiliating campaign in a major tournament.
“Now is the time for someone else to oversee the progress of this young, hungry and extremely talented group of players,” Hodgson said. “They have been fantastic.”
The England fans who jeered the team off the field at halftime and fulltime at the Stade de Nice will likely have a different opinion. This unexpected result for the country that invented the game came two years after England exited the World Cup in disgrace at the group stage.
It all started so well on the French Riviera for England, with captain Wayne Rooney putting the team ahead from the penalty spot in the fourth minute after Raheem Sterling was clipped by Hannes Halldorsson as he prodded the ball past the goalkeeper.
Crucially, Iceland struck back within two minutes through Ragnar Sigurdsson, who volleyed in at the far post after Kari Arnason’s flick-on from a long throw. It is the third time Iceland has scored a goal from a long-throw routine this tournament.
Kolbeinn Sigthorsson then took advantage of more slack defending by England, getting time and space to shoot from just inside the area after intricate build-up play. England goalkeeper Joe Hart got a hand to the effort but the ball squirmed over the line.
Iceland was relatively untroubled in the second half as England’s passing and touch deserted its team of supposed Premier League stars, with Rooney especially culpable. The catcalls from England supporters were at their loudest when Harry Kane miscontrolled a pass in the last minutes.
England’s players slumped to the ground in front of their jeering fans after the final whistle, crestfallen and their heads in their hands.
For a soccer nation of England’s standing, its record in major tournaments is woeful. The English have still never won a knockout-stage game abroad in the European Championship in eight attempts and haven’t won a match beyond the group stage of a major tournament since 2006.
This defeat will probably go down as England’s biggest humiliation since losing 1-0 to the United States in 1950 World Cup.
“It’s embarrassing for us,” Rooney said. “We know we’re a better team. You can’t explain it.”
Iceland’s reaction at the final whistle was so different.
Its squad and backroom staff raced onto the field in pure joy to celebrate with the team. Iceland captain Aron Gunnarrsson, who plays for Cardiff in the second tier of English football, tore off his shirt off and ran over to fans, leading his teammates in dancing and singing.
Almost 3,000 kilometers away, in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik, an estimated 10,000 people watched the match on a giant screen downtown in daylight. Fireworks erupted and residents danced on their balconies.
The ease with which Iceland saw out the game was surprising, another ignominy for an England side that finished the match with four strikers on the field but didn’t seriously test Halldorsson.
Hodgson harbored hopes of staying on after Euro 2016. After this exit and England’s group-stage elimination from the last World Cup without winning a game, his legacy will be seriously tarnished.
“I’m a bit lost for words. Just very disappointed, upset, sad for England, Roy and us as a team,” Hart said.
“We’re going to have to watch this tournament through our fingers.”