Those amongst us who had sleptwalked their way through the UEFA qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil might have been forgiven for not quite picking up on the full implications of such a story, but perhaps the big surprise of the group stages anywhere in the world came right here in Europe, where Iceland has qualified for the play-offs for a place at next summer’s jamboree. Last Tuesday evening the streets of Rekjavik fell silent as the Iceland national team took on a challenge that it has never faced before. A win in Oslo against Norway would have been enough to guarantee the team a place in the play-offs regardless of anything that happened elsewhere, but a draw would also have been enough should Slovenia not better their result in their match against Switzerland.
As things turned out, Iceland were a little dependent on the munificence of others to reach their place in the play-offs. They drew one-all in Oslo, but the Swiss – who had already comfortably qualified for the finals and will be one of the top seeded nations when the draw for them is made – did them a favour by beating Slovenia by a single goal in Berne, meaning that Iceland would go on to take part in the play-offs for a place in Brazil. And this afternoon the Icelandic Football Association, the KSI, perhaps received another drop of good luck from Switzerland when the play-off draw saw them avoid Portugal, Ukraine and Greece, drawing a Croatia team that has seemed a little out of sorts of late for the right to play in in next summer’s finals.
Iceland’s World Cup qualifying campaign had started about as successfully as could have been hoped for, with a comfortable two-nil win against Norway in their opening match. There then followed a mixed bag of results – defeat in Cyprus, a win in Albania, a home defeat at the hands of Switzerland and an away win and home defeat against Slovenia – but a run of results at the start of this season, a draw in Switzerland and narrow wins against Albania and Cyprus, before that draw in Oslo that took the team the furthest it has ever been in an international tournament.
International football in Iceland began unofficially with a one-nil win against the Faroe Islands in the summer of 1930, but it would be a further seventeen years before the formation of a football association of its own. The KSI’s attempt to qualify for the 1954 World Cup finals was not permitted by FIFA, and an attempt to qualify for the following finals in Sweden in 1958 ended in four defeats out of four and twenty-six goals conceded. Iceland didn’t attempt to enter the next three competitions, and their next attempt at qualification, for the 1974 finals in West Germany, ended in another six successive defeats. This time, however, Iceland were in for good and on the eleventh of June 1977, at their thirteenth attempt, they finally won a World Cup qualifying match, one-nil against Northern Ireland in Rekjavik, with the winning goal coming twelve minutes from half-time thanks to Ingi Björn Albertsson.
What progress the nation has made since then has been slow. In attempting to qualify for the 1982 finals in Spain, Iceland finished off the bottom of their group for the first time, with a creditable two wins and two draws from their eight matches meaning that Turkey finished in bottom place and eight years later, whilst Iceland finished bottom of their qualifying group for the 1990 World Cup finals, they did only finish three points – albeit in an era during which only two points for a win were awarded for World Cup matches – behind second-placed Austria. Four years later they finished in third place in their group, four points behind Russia, but the move towards bigger groups has not been particularly kind to Iceland and by 2006 Iceland were back to second from bottom place in their qualifying group, with just four points from their ten matches, and they finished at the bottom of their group last time around.
Such a record should hardly be surprising when we consider that the total population of Iceland numbers just three hundred and twenty thousand people, of whom almost two-thirds live within easy touching distance of its capital city. The domestic league system, however, demonstrates the depth of interest in the game on the island, with a league system which comprises four national divisions with a fifth level of three provincial leagues below it. League football in Iceland celebrated its centenary two years ago, but in its one hundred and two year history only ten clubs have lifted the title, and of those ten clubs four of them – Knattspyrnufélag Reykjavíkur (KR), Knattspyrnufélagið Valur (Valur), Íþróttabandalag Akraness (IA) and Fram Reykjavík (Fram), of whom only IA don’t come from the capital city – have lifted the league title eighty-two times between them.
The current team has a sprinkling of celebrity, in the form of Gylfi Sigurdsson of Tottenham Hotspur, Aron Gunnarsson of Cardiff City, Kolbeinn Sigþórsson of Ajax and a now thirty-five year old Eiður Guðjohnsen, now of Club Brugge but not so long ago a European champion with Barcelona, but of the twenty-two players called up for the team three – including two of their goalkeepers – still play their domestic football in Iceland, whilst a further four players play in Denmark. It is all overseen by coach Lars Lagerbäck, who spent nineteen years working for the Swedish Football Association, including nine years as the head coach of the national team. To write this team off as no-hopers, then would certainly seem to be somewhat premature, and a team that is relatively young in some of its contituent parts still seems to be at that stage in its development when it is enthused by the pressure of a big occasion rather than being cowed by it.
They will take on a Croatian side that will start the two-legged tie as firm favourites to win, but who are now undergoing an unexpected period of transition after their coach Igor Štimac resigned following their recent defeat against Scotland. Croatia finished in their group with an identical record – five wins, two draws and three defeats – from their ten matches, but if the contents of a footballer’s head do count for anything ahead of such a high-profile two-legged tie, then it is quite possible that a psychological advantage of sorts may well rest with the underdogs ahead of this play-off match. Even in the event of defeat in this tie, the relative youth of this Icelandic team – only five of the current twenty-two are over thirty, whilst five are under twenty-five year of age – means that this team’s performance may well not be a flash in the pan.
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