Following the conclusion of the group stages, it would be fair to say that Euro 2016 has been something of a mixed bag, so far. There have been spectacular moments—like Luka Modrić’s stunning volley against Turkey, Daniel Sturridge’s stoppage time winner for England against Wales, and Marek Hamšik’s outrageous strike as Slovakia conquered the Russians. And yet, the overwhelming sense is that despite these singular moments of brilliance, and the abundance of late drama, this has been a tournament which has fallen short of genuine thrill thus far.
This could be down to the new 24-team format that was introduced for the tournament. It has been subject to much debate, the main point of contention being that playing 36 group-stage games for the sake of eliminating just eight sides is somewhat arduous—even tedious—and moreover, wholly unnecessary. When some sides qualify for the last 16 by finishing third in a group of four, without winning a single game, you have to question the format of the competition.
And yet, when Croatia earned a magnificent victory over Spain on Tuesday night, it provided a much-needed injection of life into the tournament—the strongest indication yet that traditional expectations simply don’t apply this year. There’s no clear favorite. Germany have been lacklustre; France have yet to click into gear. Belgium are full of individual talent, but appear to lack the cohesion you’d expect from a top international side. The tournament remains wide open and there for the taking—and the expanded tournament format means there’s no shortage of new blood vying for the opportunity.
The European spotlight
One side, in particular, have caught the eye so far, not only for the surprise of their maiden qualification, but also for the quality of their football. Iceland’s journey has been nothing short of remarkable. After reducing Cristiano Ronaldo to the verge of tears with a well-earned 1-1 draw in their opening game, they only just missed out on victory against Hungary by virtue of a cruel, late own goal. Two draws left Iceland in need of just a point against Austria to secure qualification for the last 16 and a chance to propel themselves into the European football spotlight. But, arguably, Lars Lagerbäck’s men have managed that already.
Iceland have captured the attention of the continent with their story so far. When Arnor Ingvi Traustason’s coolly executed finish completed a dramatic counter-attacking goal in the 94th minute to secure both a victory and a second-place finish in Group F, it was simply impossible not to relish this historic moment. Iceland is the smallest nation ever to qualify for the European Championships, and the 10,000 blue-clad supporters erupted in a melee of sheer jubilation. The Icelandic-language commentary on the goal, a video of which has since gone viral, captures the emotion of the moment perfectly.
The Icelanders have earned the admiration of millions, and rightly so. For a nation of 329,000 people to have qualified for the Euros—let alone to progress into the knock-out stages—is as astounding as it is well-deserved.
Iceland is a country which has been engaged in a perpetual battle with the elements throughout the duration of its existence. A harsh climate, varied terrain and months of constant darkness are among the factors that shape the lifestyle of this remote European nation. Put in a sporting context, the resulting challenges are obvious.
Nevertheless, Iceland have risen from 131st to 31st in the FIFA world rankings between 2012 and today. Their rise from unknown minnows to a source of inspiration for grassroots football worldwide can only be described as meteoric. The factors behind this staggering progress are numerous and complex, but the construction of thirty full size all-weather pitches (including seven indoor arenas), overseen by KSÍ (the Icelandic FA), have underpinned the revolution in infrastructure and facilities which has allowed football to be played year-round.
The number of UEFA qualified coaches in Iceland is also extraordinary: 639 UEFA B License coaches, 196 UEFA A license coaches and 13 UEFA Pro License coaches. To put that in context, this equates to one UEFA qualified coach for every 500 people. In the UK, there is one for every 5000 people. The contrast, therefore, is stark, and it should come as little surprise to see new Icelandic talent emerge as steadily as goods off a conveyor belt. Gylfi Sigurðsson may be the star man to the UK audience, but members of the Icelandic national team play for a host of well-established European clubs, including Krasnodar, Udinese, Augsburg and FC Basel.
The Icelandic first division, Úrvalsdeild, is a semi-professional league where the average annual salary is around £23,000—around the same amount as James Milner earns every day. Many players also work in other occupations. So in Iceland, football is different by nature. The lavish lifestyle of the Premier League is a world away from the Úrvalsdeild, where football is a supplementary form of income for its players, not a golden ticket.
This fosters a different outlook towards the game. Success isn’t handed out on a plate—it can only be achieved through sheer hard work and dedication. The financial awards are minimal, relatively speaking. Yet what this foundation provides in the national team is a collective sense of pride and unity that can’t be matched by the majority of the other competing countries. We see it on the pitch, reflected in their performances and results.
Defensive discipline, rapid counterattacks
Operating in a traditional 4-4-2 system, Iceland’s success has been founded on a pragmatic approach, characterised by highly impressive defensive discipline, an outstanding work ethic and ability to hit teams on the counter with smooth and rapid transitions. The style is not dissimilar to Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City side—shock winners of the 2015-16 Premier League—and it’s a system that England will find difficult to break down on Monday night.
And the Icelandic fans will be in full voice. With around 10% of the entire population present to support their team in France, Iceland’s presence in Euro 2016 has been inspiring and refreshing. Every single supporter is right behind their players, bound to them by the powerful mutual desire for success. It’s a sharp contrast to the bitter, fractured England fans, who loudly abuse and chastise individual players for their every error. Iceland have shown Europe how international football should be done.
A personal dilemma
All of which puts me in a personal dilemma. Quite frankly, I feel emotionally detached from England under Roy Hodgson. The football is turgid, lethargic and uninspired. A squad of such rich talent should be capable of so much more, but England’s tactics show a manager woefully out of his depth. Along with overpaid players who don’t deliver maximum effort, the familiar taste of disappointment and false hope has resurfaced at a major tournament for England once again.
But make no mistake—it will be a national disgrace if England fail to to beat Iceland in the last 16. So I will, begrudgingly, get behind my country—and especially those Liverpool players who I want to see succeed. But, if Iceland were to pull of an iconic victory, I must admit that I wouldn’t be too upset.
In fact, I’d be pleased for them. Firstly, it will undoubtedly signal the end of Hodgson as England manager, and allow the national side to enter a new era—hopefully under a more progressive manager. Secondly—and above all—it will serve to continue the wonderful Icelandic story of a nation who’ve succeeded against the odds, through hard graft and determination, providing a model for other footballing nations to aspire to.
Whatever the result, Iceland have already surpassed all expectations. It’s about time we started thinking of them as a nation renowned not only for volcanoes, geysers, quaint fishing villages and colourful matchbox houses—but a nation which has developed a unique and successful approach to the beautiful game, in its purest and finest form.
Joel is a guest writer who’s also a Liverpool FC supporter and blogger. His work has also appeared in the Liverpool Echo. Follow him on Twitter here.
— Reykjavík Grapevine (@rvkgrapevine) June 24, 2016