The 2016 European Championship finally gets underway this weekend, with the new-look 24 team format being tested out for the first time. Whilst some remain sceptical about the expansion of the competition, it has been hailed by many as a fantastic opportunity for some of Europe’s smaller nations to enjoy a rare experience of tournament football this summer. The unexpected qualifications of Northern Ireland and Wales, in addition to the presence of England and Republic of Ireland, mean that the tournament will be followed closer than ever by many around Britain this summer. But, however miraculous the efforts of both Michael O’Neill and Chris Coleman’s men were during qualifying, the fairy-tale story of Iceland’s qualification for France takes some beating.
With a population of just over 330,000, similar to that of Leicester, Iceland are the smallest nation ever to qualify for a major tournament. Four years ago they were ranked 131st in the world, behind such footballing backwaters as Burundi, Tajikistan, and even near-neighbours Faroe Islands. On top of this, prior to the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign they had never won two matches in a row in any competition. To say that the recent success has come out of nowhere would be an understatement. Well, to most people, that is.
In 2011, the Icelandic FA announced that the experienced Swede, Lars Lagerbäck, would be their new joint national team manager, alongside Heimir Hallgrímsson. Lagerbäck had previously guided his homeland to five international tournaments in a row, and upon beginning his new challenge declared that he expected Iceland to qualify for the upcoming World Cup. Although they would eventually miss out on that particular objective, a play-off defeat to Croatia putting an end to their hopes, the Swede’s confidence was not misplaced, as his side began Euro 2016 qualification in style, with a spectacular 3-0 home win against Turkey. This was followed, in October 2014, by victory away in Latvia by the same scoreline, before the famous 2-0 vanquishing of The Netherlands a few days later left Lagerbäck’s side top of the group after three games, with eight goals scored and zero conceded. Iceland were now a force to be reckoned with.
After a home victory over Czech Republic, and yet another famous win over the beleaguered Dutch, this time courtesy of a Gylfi Sigurðsson penalty in Amsterdam, Iceland were somehow on the cusp of booking their ticket to France with two games remaining. Now ranked 23rd in the world, Lagerbäck and his men secured qualification with a rather underwhelming 0-0 draw against Kazakhstan in Reykjavík last September. The final whistle sparked wild celebrations around the island, certainly the only time a nation has gone crazy over a 0-0 goalless home draw with Kazakhstan, as people came to terms with the magnitude of their team’s achievement. The party continued long into the night, as players and coaches celebrated with supporters in downtown Reykjavík.
The euphoria was then followed by the inevitable hangover, as Iceland took only one point from their remaining two games against Latvia and Turkey, meaning they would eventually slip behind Czech Republic into second position in the group.
Nine months on, this doesn’t appear to have had any effects on optimism within the squad, with the players arriving at their Annecy base, at the foot of the French Alps, confident that they have an excellent chance of going far in the competition.
In last December’s draw, Iceland were placed into probably the most favourable group on paper, featuring Portugal, Austria, and Hungary, and according to Swansea City midfielder, Sigurðsson, they have been inspired by the efforts of Leicester City in this year’s Premier League. If the Nordic nation were to go on to win the competition it would even trump Leicester’s triumph, and become the biggest shock in footballing history. Greece and Denmark may have shocked the footballing world by winning the European Championships in 1992 and 2004, but for a country without a professional league to win it would be an even more remarkable achievement.
Of course, it is extremely unlikely that Iceland will win the competition, but how far can they really go? Can they continue their rapid rise and impress on the biggest stage, or will the step up be too much for them to handle?
Iceland’s main strength is their team spirit. One of the advantages of being such a small nation is that most of the current squad grew up playing together in the youth teams. This togetherness and understanding is apparent in their play, and they are able to count on a disciplined defence, keeping six clean sheets during qualifying, in order to stifle their opponents.
There are certainly no egos in this team, although Iceland do possess some talented players who will be looking to show they can perform on the big stage following years in the international wilderness. The star man is undoubtedly Sigurðsson. Lethal from dead ball situations, and possessing the quality to dictate play and conjure up goalscoring opportunities for his teammates, the 26-year-old has been involved in 41 of Swansea’s goals in the 86 league games he has played for the club,as well as scoring six goals during qualifying for his country.
Lagerbäck is also able to call upon the attacking talents of Nantes forward Kolbeinn Sigþórsson, and Real Sociedad’s Alfreð Finnbogason. Although both were fairly prolific in the Dutch Eredivisie in seasons gone by, scoring 39 goals between them in 2013-14, they have struggled to recapture this form at club level over the past two years. Nevertheless, they are both a threat for any team in Europe on their day. The pair will be assisted by probably the most recognisable name within the Icelandic squad, in 37 year-old Eider Guðjohnsen. That it has taken Guðjohnsen until this stage in his career to play in a major international competition must be a source of some frustration for the former Chelsea and Barcelona man, and although he is now reduced to a bit-part role within the side, his leadership and top-level experience will certainly be invaluable to his teammates.
In midfield, Sigurðsson will be supported by a cast which includes Aron Gunnarsson, Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson, Emil Hallfreðsson, and Birkir Bjarnason. Whilst the Swansea man is the glue that holds things together, Cardiff City man Gunnarsson, the team’s captain, is always the next name on the teamsheet, and can be relied on to carry out the dirty work in the middle of the park, enabling his more talented compatriot to express himself. On the wing, Charlton Athletic man Guðmundsson is expected to feature, with either Hallfreðsson or Bjarnason lining up on the opposite flank of a conventional 4-4-2 formation. Guðmundsson’s performances were one of few bright points in an otherwise truly dismal season for Charlton Athletic, who were relegated from the Championship, and he will be hoping to perform this summer in order to impress scouts from across the continent.
As mentioned previously, Iceland’s miserly defence has been the bedrock to their recent success, and they will need to be on their game to keep Cristiano Ronaldo and his Portugal teammates quiet in their opening game in Group F. One man who will be relishing the prospect of facing Ronaldo is centre-back Kári Árnason, who was playing for Rotherham United in League Two four years ago. Now playing in Sweden for Malmö, the 33-year-old’s partnership with Ragnar Sigurðsson is one of the best in European football and will be crucial to any hopes of getting out of the group stage.
Between the sticks, Lagerbäck and Hallgrímsson will be relieved to be able to call on first choice goalkeeper, Hannes Þór Halldórsson, who only returned from injury in March, after a shoulder injury picked up at the end of last year had threatened to rule him out of the tournament. In complete contrast to many of his well-paid opposite numbers in France this summer, Halldórsson also works as a film director in his spare time and shot the video for Iceland’s Eurovision song contest entry four years ago.
Lagerbäck and Hallgrímsson are unlikely to instruct their team to attempt to dictate possession in France, something they struggled to do during qualifying. Across the two victories against the Dutch, Iceland managed an average of 30% possession, but whilst some teams may have become frustrated at not being able to control the game, Iceland’s patience paid off as they focused on keeping their shape before picking off their opponents when the opportunity arose. This is a tactic that many pundits are expecting Iceland to persist with during this tournament as they attempt to suppress their more skilful opponents.
Iceland’s biggest test is undeniably their opening game against Portugal on Tuesday. The Portuguese are no longer the threat that they once were, with all of their golden generation now either retired, or in the twilight of their careers. They are, however, still able to call on the tournament’s most gifted footballer in Cristiano Ronaldo, and although they will be heavily reliant on him if they are to go far in the competition, he is supported by some talented youngsters in midfield, such as William Carvalho, Manchester United target André Gomes, and recent Bayern Munich signing Renato Sanches. If Lagerbäck can get his men to repeat their performances against the Dutch then they could well pull off a huge upset on Tuesday. Saying that, anything other than a defeat would come as a huge bonus for Iceland, and would provide them with a fantastic platform for reaching the knockout stage.
Iceland will expect to pick up three points in their next game, against the Hungarians in Marseille, who finished third in their qualifying group behind Northern Ireland and Romania, and only really look a threat from set piece situations.
Then comes Austria, who against all odds, won their qualifying group at a canter, dropping just two points in the process. Like Iceland, Austria are a tight-knit unit whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In David Alaba, Marc Janko, and Stoke City’s Marko Arnautovi?, who is one of the most talented players in the Premier League on his day, this Austrian team is also blessed with some genuine quality going forward. This game could well turn out to be a key battle to finish second in the group, should both teams lose to Portugal and beat Hungary as expected.
This year’s format means that 16 of the 24 teams will make it out of the group stage. Therefore, Iceland may well qualify for the knockout rounds anyway, as one of the best third placed teams. In order to go any further than this it is important to avoid any injuries or suspensions to key players, particularly their talisman Sigurðsson, as a lack of strength in depth could ultimately prove to be Iceland’s downfall.
Lagerbäck will step down from his role at the end of this summer, leaving Hallgrímsson in sole charge of future operations. Now 67, the Swede’s retirement will bring an end to a 39-year managerial career, and he will be hoping to ride off into the sunset after experiencing one final fairytale with the nation that has taken him in as one of their own. The revolution that Icelandic football has undergone in recent years has been mostly attributed to the professionalism and management expertise of Lagerbäck, and there has even been talk of him becoming the country’s president at some point in future.
Around 8% of Iceland’s population applied for tickets to this summer’s finals, and with around 30,000 (roughly 10% of the population) expected to head to France this summer, they will not be short of support. A country best known for its breathtaking landscapes, most notably its hot springs and active volcanoes, Iceland will be hoping they can keep their cool and light up this year’s tournament, and who knows, maybe they can go all the way.
Featured Image: All Rights Reserved by Helgi Halldorsson