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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Gonzaga alumnus to take on world’s best soccer player at World Cup

Iceland national team defender and former Gonzaga star Kari Arnason rejoices with fans during the European championships in 2016. (Aberdeen Evening Express)

Soccer fans of the Inland Northwest: Iceland needs you.

On Saturday morning, Lionel Messi of Argentina will be streaking toward goal at the World Cup in Moscow.

Standing in his way will be 35-year-old Iceland defender Kari Arnason, who once played at Gonzaga for a coach from Iceland who still lives in Spokane.

The odds aren’t good. Messi is a five-time world Player of the Year.

Arnason once made the West Coast Conference all-league team – honorable mention.

But he did it in a Gonzaga uniform. That should be reason enough for local soccer fans to buy a Viking helmet, a red-white-and-blue Icelandic flag and get behind one of the most improbable success stories in sports history.

Iceland – which, with a population of 330,000, is smaller than Spokane County – is playing on the sport’s biggest stage for the first time since the World Cup began in 1930.

While the United States national team stumbled in Trinidad on the final day of qualifying last year, Iceland played with icewater in its veins for two solid years to reach the World Cup.

Now they’re in the 32-team finals, which begin Thursday. Iceland opens Saturday at 6 a.m. Pacific Time at Spartak Stadium in Moscow against Messi and powerful Argentina.

Some Icelanders have waited a lifetime for this moment.

“I’ll be watching on TV,” said Einar Thorarinsson, who retired last fall after 23 seasons as head coach at Gonzaga.

Thorarinsson will also be watching the realization of a dream that seemed ridiculous during a youth spent practicing on snow-covered fields just south of the Arctic Circle.

A contender to play midfield for the national team, Thorarinsson left his native Reykjavik at 17 to play collegiately in the United States.

He returns to his native country regularly, unable to miss the progress of Icelandic soccer – in facilities, coaching and opportunity for every child who wants to play.

“All the kids are exposed to sports, and they have the best coaches,” said Thorarinsson, who in recent years has marveled at the rise of indoor practice facilities around the country.

“And when it’s nice outside, they can play in the midnight sun,” he said.

They also get to learn the Viking War Chant, a symbol of Iceland’s recent success. Before, during and after matches, fans chant and raise their hands to the heavens before clapping in unison.

However, coaching and facilities and Nordic karma only go so far. Iceland is enjoying a golden age of soccer talent, but should give Thorarinsson and GU some props.

Arnason arrived in Spokane in fall 2002, the product of Thorarinsson’s Icelandic ties.

“I saw him play when he was very young,” said Thorarinsson, who stays in touch with Arnason via email. “He was a very good ball-handler – you could tell he was a very good ball-handler.”

A midfielder at GU in 2002 and 2003, Arnason played 26 matches before transferring to Adelphi University in New York.

Now a central defender, the 6-foot-2 Arnason went pro in 2005, playing in Iceland, Denmark, Cyprus, England and most recently with Aberdeen in the top Scottish league.

Arnason also made his national debut in 2005, and has been a fixture since, with 67 appearances and five goals.

Success didn’t come until the 2016 European championships, when Iceland reached the quarterfinals after a shocking 2-1 win over England.

Iceland took that momentum into World Cup qualifying, where it finished atop a group that included Turkey, Ukraine, Croatia, Finland and Kosovo.

Next up is Argentina, a two-time world champion with aspirations of winning another.

No worries.

“It’s a team effort,” Arnason told the BBC earlier this week. “If you get singled out by (Messi), then just about any defender in the world knows how that is going to end up.”

“He can make you look silly, like an absolute amateur,” Arnason said.

However, a loss to Argentina wouldn’t end the dream, as Iceland need only finish in the top two in a group that also includes Nigeria and Croatia.

“Everyone in the group can steal points from anyone,” said Arnason. “It will go down to the wire to see who qualifies.”