How on Earth did they do it? A country of 332,000 people – about 10,000 fewer than live in the London borough of Ealing – should not, by rights, expect to reach a major tournament. And yet, after getting to within a play-off of the 2014 World Cup finals, Iceland made history by finishing second in Group A of Euro 2016 qualifying and bloodying big-name noses along the way.
Two victories over the Dutch served particular notice of their quality. Iceland’s slick, mobile, hard-working side proved they’re no flash in the pan, and now their sights are set on making the knockout stage. It’s in no way impossible.
Just how far can this team go?
There is genuine confidence within Iceland’s camp that they will at least reach the last 16, and that seems up for grabs in a tight-looking group that should hold few fears.
Much will depend on how they fare against an uninspiring Hungary side, although Iceland could also have drawn a more fearsome seed than Portugal to face in their first match of the tournament. There’s no need to win Group F anyway: then their likely last-16 opponents would be one of Belgium or Italy, while finishing second would probably pit them against Wales or Russia. A third-place finish would almost certainly bring Spain or Germany, though, which may be too much to ask of them.
Iceland make excellent use of their resources, boasting a superb domestic coaching setup in which every youngster has access to a UEFA ‘A’ or ‘B’ licence coach and can play on pristine indoor pitches during the harsh winter. So, is the structure in place for Iceland to begin a period of sustained success, or has an outstanding group of players simply hit form together at exactly the right time? What’s beyond doubt is that Iceland’s methods and progress put numerous other countries to shame.
What they’ve learned
Keep the intensity going. Iceland had done the job with three matches to spare and it was perhaps understandable that they then won none of them. Even so, home draws against Kazakhstan – a result that confirmed their place at Euro 2016 before every other nation bar England (and France, obviously) – and then Latvia, having led 2-0, showed that Iceland do need to perform with maximum effort if they’re to carry on punching so far above their weight.
They’ll need little encouragement to put their usual energy into this historic championship appearance, but any let-up at all will invite strong opponents to take advantage.
Excepting the outrageous talent of Eidur Gudjohnsen, who’s in the Euro 2016 squad at the age of 37, Iceland have generally been stereotyped as a rugged, physical unit hewn in tough conditions.
This side is undoubtedly sturdy and well-organised, pressing hard whenever the ball is lost, but its technical gifts should not be overlooked: Iceland are perfectly capable of careful, possession-based build-up play and boast some explosive talents going forward. Gylfi Sigurdsson pulls the strings in midfield and is aided and abetted by the talented Charlton winger Johann Berg Gudmundsson, as well as two clever strikers in Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and Alfred Finnbogason. The latter has enjoyed a profitable loan spell in the Bundesliga with Augsburg after an otherwise frustrating period at Real Sociedad.
An unfussy defence gives little away and Iceland’s sheer spirit is a major plus, too. This is a confident, supremely fit team that will run into the ground for one another, and in tournament football that can take you far.
If Sigurdsson is kept quiet, there are question marks over exactly how they will penetrate top-level defences, with quality creative alternatives thin on the ground.
Opponents might think they can expose Iceland’s own backline, even if it was breached just six times in qualifying. Only centre-back Ragnar Sigurdsson, a centre-back with Krasnodar in Russia, plies his trade in a moderately big league and there are concerns about a lack of pace in his partnership with former Rotherham defender Kari Arnason.
Another concern is that Sigthorsson has not exactly thrived in Ligue 1 with Nantes, scoring just four times in 26 appearances. Still, the striker averages a goal every two games at international level and recorded impressive goal returns in five Eredivisie seasons with AZ and Ajax, so Iceland can hope that he is able to recapture that form and hit the ground running at Euro 2016.
Talk to Iceland’s coaching staff and they will tell you that the Swansea playmaker is the hardest-working member of the squad. That makes him some proposition indeed, because the 26-year-old is arguably their one player capable of consistently turning games around on his own.
He has recently been linked with Premier League champions Leicester after shining in a tough season for the Swans, and a starring role at Euro 2016 would certainly enhance his chances of joining a bigger club. Sigurdsson, whose set-pieces also give his team a dimension outside open play, will play in central midfield for Iceland, a position from which he scored six goals in qualifying, including all three in the 2-0 and 1-0 wins against the Netherlands.
He won his first full cap in May 2010 after impressing in the U21 side that went on to qualify for the 2011 UEFA Under-21 Championship. That team has turned out to be something of a golden generation, supplying the nucleus of Iceland’s current senior squad, but Sigurdsson is very much its poster boy and will be expected to lead by example in France.
Lars Lagerback & Heimir Hallgrimsson
Iceland have been co-managed since 2014 when Hallgrimsson, who had assisted the experienced Swede Lagerback since his arrival in 2011, stepped up to take equal billing. Hallgrimsson provides the local knowledge while Lagerback, who managed Sweden for almost a decade before overseeing Nigeria at the 2010 World Cup, has a wealth of experience at this level.
The revered Lagerback will retire after Euro 2016 despite the Icelandic FA's best attempts to persuade him otherwise, and Hallgrimsson – who works in his dental practice on the island of Heimaey alongside his coaching duties – will take the reins alone for the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign.