Seen as rank outsiders before the tournament, the team from the rugged North Atlantic island have thrilled neutral fans as much as their own. What is the secret of their surprise success in their debut major tournament?
“We want to get past the group stage,” was how Gylfi Sigurdsson defined Iceland’s goal for Euro 2016 two weeks ago. And even that would generally have been seen as wildly optimistic.
“We can just let ourselves go, we have already achieved so much,” added the Swansea midfielder.
The fact that they are even at the finals was already a huge surprise to Icelanders and experts alike after they managed to finish second in qualification Group A behind the Czech Republic and ahead of Turkey and the Netherlands.
Now after three matches unbeaten at Euro 2016 they are through to the last 16 to face England, a success that is anything but a random piece of luck.
Qualified Coaches, Better Pitches
They are reaping the benefits of intensive investment in football halls and artificial grass pitches since 2000.
Where previously football could only be played during the short summer season or on ice and snow, regular leagues could be organized.
“Before I played on gravel and now there are AstroTurf pitches in halls,” Iceland’s most famous footballing export Eidur Gudjohnsen, a former Chelsea and Barcelona forward and the nation’s record scorer, says.
On top of that comes the decision to professionalize youth coaching.
“The youngest players are now coached by qualified people, which is often not the case even in England or Germany,” Augsburg forward Alfred Finnbogasan said in a recent interview with ‘11 Freunde’.
“You have to have done your coaching badge. Before it was often football-mad parents in charge of teams. Now a certain standard of coaching is assured right from the start.”
One result of the improved facilities and youth coaching is the emergence of a “Golden Generation” which makes up the core of the current national side.
Lagerbäck Rejects Hero Tag
Sigurdsson, who previously played for Hoffenheim, fellow midfielder Aron Gunnarsson of Cardiff City, wide man Birkir Bjarnarson from FC Basel, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, who plays up front for Nantes and Finnbogason are all players who can compete with Europe’s best.
It’s the first time Iceland’s national team has been blessed with such a rich crop of talent. They are also benefiting from the fact that the players have been team mates for years and know each other perfectly.
“The majority of the current national team played together in the youth ranks,” Finnbogason told ‘11 Freunde’. “In 2010 we beat favorites Germany 4-1 in a European Under-21 Championship qualifier. That was the moment we became fully aware of our potential.”
That potential has finally been realized by coach Lars Lagerbäck. The Swede, Iceland boss since 2011, is the father of their success.
Lagerbäck, who works closely with co-trainer Heimir Hallgrimsson, a dentist, remains modest.
“I wouldn’t say I am a national hero,” says the 67–year-old, who will make way for Hallgrimsson after Euro 2016. “People like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King are heroes.”
There is nonetheless something heroic about Lagerbäck’s achievements.
The typically calm and relaxed footballer professor has given his team a stable 4-4-2 formation. He gives his players a great deal of confidence, which they repay with intense commitment on the pitch. A tight defense gives Iceland the freedom to sparkle in attack and their tally of 17 goals in qualifying tied for second-most in the group, with only six conceded.
One result of Lagerbäck’s work is that Iceland have surged from 131stplace in the FIFA world rankings to 34thin a mere four years.
The ‘Blue Wall’ Lifts the Team
Beyond their technical qualities and fighting spirit, Iceland are also being carried along on a wave of enthusiasm in France.
Some 30,000 of their fellow countrymen and women are in France to cheer their heroes and at every match a blue wall roars them on. Many neutrals have also been seduced.
The players’ ability to excite ecstasy in the normally reserved Icelanders was evident in the reaction of television commentator Gudmundur Benediktsson after the winning goal against Austria this week.
“Yes! Yes! Yes! We going to win here! We’re in the last 16. We’re in the last 16. We have beaten Austria!” was his distorted, high-pitched scream as he lost control of himself for several minutes. He became a star on social media and millions called up the video.
England Await in Dream Matchup
So now it’s on to England and Monday’s last-16 clash in Nice. For many Icelanders, who like many northern Europeans follow English football closely, it’s a dream match.
“When I watch them on TV I am an England fan,” says midfielder Kari Arnason. “So it’s really something special.”
Iceland should have recovered from their exertions against Austria by then and hopefully the TV commentator will have his voice back. Then, at least theoretically, there’ll be nothing standing in the way of Iceland’s next footballing miracle.