Iceland draws with Argentina in World Cup debut

Iceland's Alfred Finnbogason, left, and Argentina's Nicolas Otamendi compete for the ball during their World Cup match Saturday at Spartak Stadium in Moscow.

MOSCOW - The World Cup rookies from the tournament's smallest nation are suddenly legitimate contenders for the knockout stage.

Two years after reaching the quarterfinals at the European Championship, Iceland earned its first point in its first World Cup match, holding two-time champion Argentina to a surprising 1-1 draw Saturday.

The round of 16 could be beckoning, whether or not Iceland's players want to discuss the possibility right now.

"Ah, you're not going to get me to say that when we play in a group with Nigeria, Croatia and Argentina," said Iceland goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson, who stopped a penalty kick by Lionel Messi in the 64th minute. "You also saw the game tonight. They had a lot of possession. They had more shots than us."

Spoken like a veteran.

They may not be cocky, but after passing one of their first competitive tests against a top-ranked side from outside Europe, the Icelanders aren't short on confidence, either. They know no one wants to play them.

"This is a typical game for us: We defend well, we get the opponent impatient and then, when we attack, we are fast and we have quality," Halldorsson said. "So we are a nightmare to play against, and we can beat anybody when we have our day."

You're not likely to get an argument from Messi, who will be dogged by visions of Halldorsson blocking the penalty that could have given Argentina three points instead of one in the Group D standings. Messi, who has missed four penalties in his past seven attempts for his club or his country, took 11 shots against Iceland, with just three on goal.

"It hurt missing the penalty. It could have given us the lead, and that could have changed the match," said Messi, who placed his shot to the right of Halldorsson, who got both hands behind the ball after diving. "It would have changed their game plan, too. They probably would open a little bit more, and we could get more space."

Besides its run to the quarterfinals of Euro 2016 - which included a win over England and a 1-1 draw with Portugal and star Cristiano Ronaldo - Iceland also won its World Cup qualifying group. The team has earned its reputation as an organized, stout defending side that's dangerous on set pieces.

"We have a clear identity, and everybody is on board how we should play," Iceland coach Heimer Hallgrimsson said.

And his players don't just dig into the trenches, either. Alfred Finnbogason, who scored Iceland's goal Saturday, noted the team has moved from a traditional 4-4-2 lineup to having five midfielders, which bolsters their marauding ranks on the counterattack.

"We are more unpredictable now, and hopefully we'll show that in the competition," he said.

They could have taken an early lead, but Birkir Bjarnason side-footed a shot wide of goal when goalkeeper Willy Caballero was exposed. Sergio Aguero scored for Argentina in the 19th minute, and Finnbogason equalized four minutes later.

Confident though they are, the Icelanders don't need to be reminded that they are from the smallest country every to qualify for the World Cup.

"Deep down, we know that we come from Iceland. And we are very outnumbered if you look at population numbers," Halldorsson said. "So there's always this thought that maybe we are tiny Iceland and maybe they are going to crush us. So maybe that's also what keeps us on our toes, that we are always a bit worried that we might get smacked."

For now, the team and its Viking-helmeted fans will continue to make the most of their first time on soccer's biggest stage.

"When you go to the World Cup as a goalkeeper, you have certain dream scenarios. There are some things you hope or wish for, and saving a penalty from Messi in the first game is definitely one of them," Halldorsson said. "When the penalty was given, I felt, 'OK, this is going to be my moment.'"

The whole team - maybe the whole country, which marks its independence day Sunday - is probably feeling the same way.

France 2, Australia 1

KAZAN, Russia - Technology twice helped France at the World Cup as the 1998 champion labored to beat gritty Australia 2-1 in their Group C opener.

The French team was given a controversial penalty kick, eventually converted by Antoine Griezmann in the 58th minute, after the referee watched the replay of a foul on the sideline. Paul Pogba later scored the winning goal in the 81st minute, and goal-line technology was used to confirm the ball had crossed the line after bouncing down off the crossbar.

"I'm not going to complain about the use of video today," France coach Didier Deschamps said. "It helped correct a mistake."

Pogba had been unimpressive until the goal, but the Manchester United midfielder set up a 1-2 with substitute Olivier Giroud and beat Australia goalkeeper Mat Ryan to give France the victory.

Australia captain Mile Jedinak had briefly equalized from the penalty spot in the 62nd minute after France defender Samuel Umtiti handled the ball in the area.

Denmark 1, Peru 0

SARANSK, Russia - Kasper Schmeichel's slew of saves made Yussuf Poulsen's opportunistic second-half goal stand up for Denmark as it won its Group C opener.

Poulsen squeezed his goal between charging Peru goalkeeper Pedro Gallese and the left post in the 59th minute after collecting a pass from midfielder Christian Eriksen.

At the World Cup for the first time in 36 years, Peru had overwhelming fan support in the Mordovia Arena and the bulk of scoring chances, including a late first-half penalty shot that Christian Cueva sent sailing over the crossbar.

Peru finished with 17 attempts to Denmark's 10, and many of the Peruvians' shots were of the point-blank variety, forcing Schmeichel to dive or extend whatever limb he could in the ball's path.

Croatia 2, Nigeria 0

KALININGRAD, Russia - Even in a more defensive role, Luka Modric can still lead the attack.

The Croatia midfielder scored one goal and set up the other as his team won its Group D opener to move directly to the top of the standings.

Modric sent in a corner that was headed by two teammates and then deflected into the net by Nigeria midfielder Oghenekaro Etebo in the 32nd minute. Modric later converted a penalty in the 71st after William Ekong held onto Mario Mandzukic.

With Modric and Ivan Rakitic controlling the midfield, Croatia dominated most of the match and rarely allowed Nigeria to get close to goal. It took nearly an hour for the Nigerians to have a shot on target - a header by Odion Ighalo straight at goalkeeper Danijel Subasic.