POSTED BY EDITOR
Iceland has a smaller population than Coventry, so its recent footballing success on the global stage is remarkable to say the least. It reached a zenith in 2016, when Gylfi Sigurdsson and co knocked England out of the European Championship and made it all the way to the quarter-final stage. But they could do even better this summer when they head to Russia for the World Cup, where they have been drawn in a group of death alongside Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria. The likes of Lionel Messi, Luka Modric and Wilfred Ndidi will not relish the prospect of a game against Iceland, as they have been brilliant in recent years. So just how did a country with a population of just 330,000 people make it to the World Cup?
Their achievement is all the more astonishing when you consider the countries that will miss out. Italy, Holland and Chile, all extremely successful footballing nations, failed to qualify, meaning no Gianluigi Buffon, Virgil Van Dijk, Arturo Vidal or Alexis Sanchez at the summer showpiece. Iceland and Panama will be the only two teams making their first World Cup debut this year. It is also a great achievement when you take into account the strength of Iceland’s qualifying group. Croatia was the biggest fish in the group, boasting a midfield of Real Madrid star Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic, with Juventus forward Mario Mandzukic leading the line. But there were another two very strong teams to contend with as well: Turkey and Ukraine. Both teams are blessed with a deep pool of talent, particularly Andriy Yarmolenko of Ukraine.
Iceland won seven, drew one and lost just two out of 10 games, finished top of the group and qualified in supreme style. Kosovo were the whipping boys of the group, and Iceland beat them home and away. They beat a decent Finland side at home and lost 1-0 in Helsinki, but their results against the group’s big teams were fantastic. They beat Turkey – a country with a population of 80 million – home and away. The second game was an emphatic 3-0 victory in Istanbul, where they defied a cauldron of animosity to wrap up victory courtesy of strikes from Johann Gudmundsson, Birkir Bjarnason and Kari Arnason. They beat Croatia 1-0 in Reykjavik thanks to a superbly controlled performance; but lost away in Zagreb. They took four points off Ukraine, drawing in Kiev and securing a comfortable 2-0 home win.
Throughout qualifying, Iceland scored 16 goals and conceded just seven. They are disciplined, diligent and tough to break down. They also have plenty of Premiership flair thanks to the likes of Everton’s Sigurdsson and Burnley’s Gudmundsson. Sigurdsson is the star, and his technical ability convinced the Toffees to pay north of £40million to secure his services from Swansea City. But there is also a strong collective mind-set in this group, and that is down to a combination of factors.
In the past 15 years, no fewer than 800 Icelanders have earned UEFA coaching licences, and youngsters are taught from the age of four across the country. The climate had previously been holding the nation back, but indoor football facilities are now widespread. The majority of their stars now play abroad in countries like England and Germany, which has benefited the national team. Tactically, they have also been shrewd in aping the success enjoyed by Atletico Madrid, a game based on rigorous pressing and using limited possession extremely effectively when venturing forward.
It has catapulted Iceland up to 18th in the world rankings, and it is the smallest country to ever qualify for the World Cup. Trinidad & Tobago, which has a population of 1.3 million, was the previous smallest country to make it. Check 5dimes for latest odds on World Cup and Iceland are the rank outsiders the qualify from Group D, with Argentina favourites, followed by Croatia and then Nigeria. But Iceland have already bettered Croatia in qualifying and should fancy their chances against Nigeria, so they could make another big splash at a major tournament.