Iceland has become the smallest country to ever qualify for the European Championship. The island nation of roughly 330,000 has been the big surprise during the qualifiers.
They almost made it to the 2014 World Cup but were knocked out by Croatia in the qualification playoffs. Now they have written history by securing an automatic spot at Euro 2016 in France with two games remaining.
Iceland tops Group A on 19 points, level with second-placed Czech Republic. Third-placed Turkey sits at 12 points, so both Iceland and the Czech Republic can start looking at hotels in France for next summer. This tiny nation has made some incredible strides in their development since Lars Lagerback took over as national team head coach in 2011. The 67-year-old Swede spent nine years coaching the Swedish national team and took them to three straight European Championship tournaments and two World Cups.
Now he’s turned Iceland into a real force on the European international scene. Icelandic journalist Tomas Thor Thordarsson told ESPN FC that the whole Icelandic Football Association (KSI) has matured into a proper and professional entity.
“Earlier, players had to fly to international games taking a couple of connection flights and wait in the airports for long hours like regular tourists,” Thordarson said. “Now the federation organises special flights. Players come from professional environments in their clubs to matching ones in the national team.”
Iceland has only suffered one loss in the eight qualifications games, and that was a close 2-1 defeat on the road against the Czech Republic. They have scored 15 goals while only allowing 3, keeping six clean sheet in the process. The team is now made up by players playing in some of Europe’s best leagues, such as Swansea midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson who scored the only goal in Iceland’s 1-0 win over the Netherlands on Thursday in Amsterdam. Sigurdsson also scored both goals in the 2-0 over the Netherlands in the first meeting in Reykjavik.
They also have players like Kolbeinn Sigthórsson (FC Nantes), Birkir Bjarnason (FC Basel) and Ragnar Sigurdsson (Krasnodar). Lagerback has done an amazing job to get the players to work well as a unit, while still allowing some of the more creative players like Sigurdsson to shine.
Iceland was ranked 23rd in the latest FIFA rankings that were released last week. With the win over the Netherlands and the draw against Kazakhstan they might climb even higher when the next rankings come out. Iceland was ranked 131st at one point in 2012, so that shows you just how far they have come.
The team goes for the win, no matter the opposition, something that didn’t use to happen just a few years ago.
“Earlier, our objective when playing top opposition was to try and get a 0-0 draw,” Thordarson said. “Now, under Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson, we plan to win every single game, no matter who the opponents are. There is a pure winning mentality in this team. Ahead of Thursday’s game in Holland, the Iceland players were presented with the game plan of getting the three points.”
And they did get the three points. Winning twice in the qualifications over the 2014 World Cup bronze medalists is a huge accomplishment and a statement that they are a team to be reckoned with. Iceland broke the Dutch and surely played a part in their collapse against Turkey in the following game.
Iceland “only” got a 0-0 draw at home against Kazakhstan on Sunday, but that was all they needed. Euro 2016 will be the first ever major international tournament that Iceland will take part in since the founding of the national team back in 1921.
Iceland has their “Golden Generation” coming through right now, and under the guidance of coach Lagerback they have achieved something truly amazing. But don’t think that they will be satisfied just making it to the tournament. Next summer, Iceland will be going for the gold in France.