Always the Underdog
Everyone loves an underdog — unless they’re playing against your own team, of course. At Euro 2016, Iceland became most people’s second team on the back of some wonderful performances and their iconic Viking Thunder Clap. Things haven’t gone too well since then though, so can Our Boys get it together and qualify for the next major international tournament?
The next European Championship will take place across 12 cities in 12 countries with venues including the Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam, Munich’s Allianz Arena and Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, with the semi-finals and final all being held at Wembley Stadium. Four years ago, France did the honours all on their own.
Iceland came into the tournament on the back of an excellent qualifying campaign, as they finished second to the Czech Republic in a group the Netherlands failed to get out of. Despite that, few expected the tiny nation to have any impact on the first tournament they’d ever qualified for.
They soon set about making their mark on the competition though, holding Cristiano Ronaldo and eventual champions Portugal to a 1-1 draw in their opening group game. They repeated that result against Hungary, before securing their place in the knockout stages with a 2-1 victory over Austria.
Not only had Iceland got out of the group in their first ever tournament, they didn’t lose a game and finished above a major footballing nation in Portugal. The best was to come in at the last 16 stage, as Lars Lagerback’s side recovered from the setback of conceding an early goal to England to beat the Three Lions 2-1.
Even as they lost 5-2 to hosts France in the quarter-finals, it was a seismic result for Icelandic football and one that thrust the country into newfound territory. Our Boys built on the success of their memorable campaign by sauntering through qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
They won seven of their 10 fixtures to finish top of a group that included eventual runners-up in Russia, Croatia, as well as Ukraine, Turkey and Finland. They only lost twice — away to Croatia and Finland — and entered the World Cup full of optimism. Everyone who had taken Iceland into their hearts at Euro 2016 were excited to see how they would get on in their second major international tournament.
However, the second time certainly wasn’t a charm as Iceland crashed out at the group stage. Things started brilliantly, and shared a striking similarity to their Euro 2016 campaign as they drew 1-1 with another footballing giant. Lionel Messi couldn’t inspire Argentina to victory, but that was as good as it got for Heimir Hallgrímsson’s side, who bowed out after defeats to Nigeria and Croatia.
The Nations League brought little respite for Our Boys and new Coach Erik Hamren, as they lost all four of their matches against Switzerland and Belgium. It was a tough draw in the top tier of Group A sides, but Iceland conceded 13 goals and scored only one themselves.
After failing to win any of their next three friendlies, it took them to a disastrous record of 15 games without a win, going back to their World Cup warm-up fixtures. Thankfully, that run was finally ended as they got their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign off to a good start in beating Andorra 2-0 away.
Their group isn’t going to be easy though, with world champions France routing them 4-0 in their second match. However, three home games are coming up in June, against Albania, Turkey and Moldova. That run of fixtures will go a long way towards determining whether Iceland reach Euro 2020.
They’re certainly in with a great chance. It’s hard to see France dropping many points at all, so Iceland can rely on Les Bleus taking points from all of their rivals. Win their next three matches, and Our Boys should be in prime position to finish second in Group H.
There’s plenty of experience coursing through the Icelandic ranks, and that could be crucial over the next six months of qualifiers. The 23 players called up by Hamren for March’s double-header with Andorra and France boasted 967 caps.
Only four players were aged over 30, while there’s also young talent coming through in the form of Albert Gudmundsson and Arnor Sigurdsson. More of that’s needed over the coming years, and sustained success in the form of qualifying for tournaments will only help.
That, and continued efforts to get youngsters playing, with every children’s school in Iceland now boasting an artificial five-a-side pitch. It wasn’t too long ago that kids would have to play on gravel during the freezing cold winter months.
There are other factors that could affect this qualifying campaign. The next two matches against Albania and Turkey are in June, which is questionable scheduling following a long and gruelling club season. You might think the players would be given a full summer off, but that’s not the case.
There may be pressure from certain clubs to see their players get a longer rest before the start of the new season. Premier League outfit Everton, for example, could have a Europa League qualifying campaign on their hands starting at the end of July, which would be a nightmare for their pre-season plans, and could throw Gylfi Sigurdsson’s involvement into doubt.
Irrespective of that, there clearly needs to be improvement from Iceland’s players after their lengthy winless run. The evidence from their last qualifying campaign suggests that they’re more than capable of getting back up to speed though.
A tightly knitted group that knows exactly how they’re supposed to play, they were somewhat overmatched in the Nations League. The defeat to Nigeria at the World Cup is the one that really jars, but there have been plenty of results over the last few years that suggests there’s more to come from this golden generation of players before they’re consigned to the annals of time. Don’t be surprised to see them hook things up before 2019 is out, and cause an upset or two next summer.
When Iceland beat England at Euro 2016, it’s estimated that around 27,000 Icelanders were in Nice. That equates to 8% of the country’s entire population. We can only imagine how many people would flock to the English capital if Iceland make it as far as the semi-finals next summer and prove their most famous victory was no mere fluke.