Iceland Euro 2016

Here's how Iceland qualified for Euro 2016 with a population of just 330,000, and why nobody should take them lightly.

Last October Iceland made history by qualifying for Euro 2016, becoming the smallest nation ever to qualify for this tournament. Now the question is: can they make it even further?

Let's start with a few facts that show how amazing it is that they've made it this far.

North Atlantic Minnows

Three years ago Iceland was down at 133 in the Fifa rankings, lower than nations like Luxembourg and Liechtenstein. Those are teams that dream of winning one match in their qualifying groups, let alone actually making the final tournament.

The Icelandic Premier League is modest to say the least. Many players are part-timers with day jobs. Even the national team joint-coach, Heimir Hallgrímsson is a qualified dentist.

Before this year  they had never qualified for a major tournament. And this is understandable when you see that the country has a population of less than 330,000.

This is smaller than a mid-sized European city like Bilbao, Leicester or Nice. It's smaller than a London borough.

Iceland also play their matches at the Laugardalsvöllur stadium, a tiny single-tier ground with a pitch that even members of the public can get onto.


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So How Did They Manage It?

The seeds for this sudden rise were actually sown 15 years ago.

Iceland's climate makes outdoor football difficult or impossible for much of the year. And the thinking was that standards were suffering because kids couldn't get enough game-time.

The solution was to build full-size indoor artificial pitches, and now there are 30 around the island. Every major  town has one, so youngsters can play whenever they like.

This new generation has been called the "Indoor Kids". Current squad members like Hjörtur Hermannsson, Sverrir Ingi Ingason and Arnór Ingvi Traustason have learned the game this way.

This was just one part of a top-down overhaul by the government, focussing on schools,  to improve the national team's results and raise the standard of coaching and development in the country.

The next piece of the puzzle was when Lars Lagerbäck was appointed co-head coach in 2011. Lagerbäck brought decades of qualification experience with him from his time as Sweden coach and demanded full professionalism.

This meant hiring a private chef and other support staff for the team, chartering flights for the first time, while Lagerbäck started to build a winning culture within the group.

The Road to Qualification

After narrowly missing out on the World Cup, Iceland set their sights on the expanded Euros format and hit the ground running.

Their campaign began with a comprehensive 3-0 home win against Turkey, and from there the surprises kept coming. Gylfi Sigurðsson scored a brace as they beat the Netherlands 2-0 with just 26% of the ball, and they breezed past Latvia and Kazakhstan.

Their only slip came away to the Czech Republic in a 2-1 defeat but remained unbeaten for the next five matches until the final fixture away to Turkey, by which time they had already qualified.

But the night that will live long in every Icelander's memory was the 1-0 win in Amsterdam on September 3 2015. 3,000 away fans attended that fixture, almost one percent of the country's population.

And How Far Can They Go?

A team without a superstar, Iceland's strength comes from its collective spirit. The decorated former Chelsea and Barcelona star, ‎Eiður Guðjohnsen made the squad but probably won't be a starter.

They'll be relying on a solid defence and team ethic, but the player who made the difference in the tighter qualifying matches was Swansea midfielder Gylfi Sigurðsson. Iceland rely on set-pieces for openings and will try to make the most of his dangerous deliveries.

If there's something to learn from Iceland's road to the Euros it's that they won't rest on their laurels. They find themselves in a group with Hungary, Austria, and Portugal.

And while Austria and Portugal may be strong, Iceland will be happy to have avoided one of the tournament favourites. They'll be optimistic about getting out of their group in second or third, and from then on anything can happen in knockout football.

We All Love an Underdog

Whatever happens, Iceland have already upset the odds. And for this reason they'll have the support of a lot of neutrals who will want the fairytale to continue. After all, they may need some extra fans to make up the numbers.

Header image credit: Páll Stefánsson

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