There is an undeniable novelty factor to Iceland’s participation at Russia 2018.
Even their manager, Heimir Hallgrimsson, acknowledged as much after their spot at the FIFA World Cup™ – and place in history as the smallest nation ever to qualify – was secured. “This is really odd,” he said. “I mean, Pele, Maradona… Aron Einar Gunnarsson.”
But don’t be fooled by this light-hearted suggestion that Iceland, and their bearded captain, might seem out of place among the game’s greats on the global stage. For all the focus on their record-breaking population, they were also the smallest country ever to qualify for the UEFA European Championship – and everyone knows how that tale unfolded.
Indeed, while Iceland’s World Cup hopes haven’t been aided by a tough draw that has pitted them against Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria, there is plenty of cause for optimism. And if Lionel Messi, Luka Modric and Co need any reminding, FIFA.com has five reasons why the Nordic newcomers are a team worth fearing.
1. They are serial giant-killers
‘The bigger they are, the harder they fall’ seems to be the motto of a team that, over the past couple of years, has beaten the likes of Croatia, the Netherlands, Turkey, Ukraine, Greece and, most famously of all, England. As midfielder Olafur Skulason said: “I could see the newspapers in other countries talking about how unlucky we are to get that kind of group – but that is exactly what we want. We want those big games. We want to play against Argentina. What an amazing team to play against in the first game ever for Iceland in the World Cup!”
2. They can better EURO heroics
Iceland stunned the football world by qualifying from their group at UEFA EURO 2016, then knocking out England in the last 16. But despite their outstanding results, which also included a win over Austria and a draw with eventual champions Portugal, the players insisted that performance levels were below par. “I strongly believe we’re better than we showed in most of those games,” veteran defender Kari Arnason told FIFA.com. “There were nerves at the EURO but we’re normally better in keeping the ball, working openings.” This was borne out in qualifying, when Iceland impressed en route to topping a group featuring Croatia, Turkey and Ukraine. It also bodes well for Russia 2018. As Arnason said: “It’s nice to say that we did so well [at the EURO] and still have a lot of room to improve.”
3. They have a star No10 of their own
Lionel Messi might be Group D’s headline act, but Iceland also have an influential and highly effective No10 in the shape of Gylfi Sigurdsson. The midfielder is undoubtedly the ace in the debutants’ pack, with vision, shooting ability and set-piece expertise among his most notable attributes. As Sigurdsson’s former manager, Lars Lagerback, pointed out, he also epitomises Iceland’s team-centred approach. “Together with Henrik Larsson, I would say that Gylfi is the best team player I’ve worked with,” Lagerback said of the man Everton paid £45 million for. “He always plays for the team and must be one of the best two-way midfield players out there.”
4. Their team spirit is second-to-none
Though their midfield playmaker stands out, Iceland’s strength lies not in star players, but in unity. Sigurdsson himself acknowledged this when asked about the secret behind their success. “It has a lot to do with the team spirit that we have,” he said. “How we are as a group is unique.” The country’s modest population, and the consequently small pool of players to pick from, ensures that Hallgrimsson’s squad rarely changes, and is largely comprised of close friends who have come through the youth ranks together.
5. They have a special bond with their supporters
In most countries, the idea of the national coach visiting fans in the pub ahead of matches would be unthinkable. Not in Iceland, where Hallgrimsson has maintained this remarkable routine – briefing supporters on tactics, sharing motivational videos – throughout the last two qualifying campaigns. “There’s a closeness there that makes us a little special,” he explained. “We have built a unique relationship with our fans and my visits to the bar have become a sweet Icelandic tradition.” Another tradition, which became famous at the EURO – when almost ten per cent of Iceland’s population headed to France to cheer the team on – is the ‘Thunderclap’. The war cry-like chant drew inspiration from the film ‘300’ and made for an intimidating sight and sound. As one Portuguese journalist wrote at the EURO: “Don’t cross Iceland – their Viking chant is terrifying!”