Why everyone should have a soft spot for Iceland
Argentina 1 -1 Iceland – another landmark day for Icelandic football and another excuse for wild celebrations in Reykjavic as Iceland’s success story keeps on growing. Not only are they the smallest nation ever to play at the World Cup, but they are arguably the most improved International Football side of the modern era. They are everyone’s second team and regardless of what happens from now on in Russia, they already have a great result to their name.
Incredibly they survived wave after wave of Argentine attacks, even surviving a spot kick as Hannes Halldorsson saved a Lionel Messi effort just after the hour mark. A credible draw with Argentina now goes up there with a draw against Ronaldo’s Portugal and a famous win over England in Euro 2016. These results are staggering and really go to show just how far this island nation of basalt rock has come in such a short time.
Minnows no more
The above results, coupled with their staggering romp to World Cup qualification shows that this is no longer a nation to be disregarded. Their rise from obscurity is more staggering when you consider they didn’t even enter a qualification campaign until the qualifiers for the 1974 tournament.
As recently as 2012 they were ranked 133 in FIFA’s listings and were seen as easy fare by most serious nations on the football world stage. Slowly though, a revolution was taking place and the seeds for success were sown by a few pioneers, led by a dentist of all people.
More than Astroturf
Much has been made of the nation’s investment into indoor football pitches as they hope to encourage and promote the sport to the country’s small population. However, there is a lot more to their success than the construction of better facilities. They are a genuinely enthusiastic nation for the Beautiful Game, and despite only being home to 329,000 people, there are over six hundred coaches with a UEFA B license.
They have also been boosted by the number of their available players operating in better leagues. A significant number still ply their trade in obscure backwaters such as The Bulgarian and Norwegian leagues. Crucially however there are ten members of their squad plying their trade in better European Leagues – including six in the top tiers of England. Gylfi Sigurdosson remains their star player and emits an obvious pride in his nation’s rise.
The Everton midfielder has been playing with his Icelandic compatriots for over ten years now. This highlights yet another feather in their cap, as they clearly benefit from a togetherness and camaraderie that other national teams may not enjoy. They are often in siege mode, defending deep in numbers. This takes not only great concentration, but also trust in your colleagues. Perhaps the togetherness of their squad is the key factor to their rise to the big time. There is no room for egos or passengers in their hardworking unit.
Confidence going forward
Heimuir Hallgrimsson, the former dentist and Icelandic footballer, has worked wonders with his mixed bag of players from all corners of the European leagues. On paper they have no real right to be where they are. When you consider the likes of Italy and the Netherlands, with their rich reserves of talent, coaches and academies, are sat out of this year’s tournament, Iceland really are exceeding all expectations.
Hallgrimsson has managed to assemble a group that is stronger than the sum of its collective parts. They are not easy on the eye, but they know their strengths and play to them. Some of their direct, attacking balls are a real nightmare to deal with, as seen today with Argentina’s failure to deal with the initial cross, leading to Iceland’s equalizer.
Their fans are on board big time, adding real passion and colour to the last two tournaments with their thunderclap becoming a football feature over the past two years. Whatever they go on to do now in Russia, they have already given their fans something to remember and cherish. Perhaps more excitingly for the beautiful volcanic nation, there is now a real football infrastructure in place and a generation of kids inspired to get into the game. They could be here to stay on the world stage.