The rational answer to this article’s titular question is, “Probably not, no.” But rational probability has long since ceased to be a factor. Iceland faces Croatia at Laugardalsvöllur on the evening of Friday, November 15, and in Zagreb the following Tuesday, in a playoff for one of the remaining European spots in Brazil next summer. If “our boys” somehow surmount Luka Modric and Mario Mandžukic and company, Iceland would become the smallest country ever to compete at the world’s biggest sporting event—and what’s one more upset, after coming this far?
Iceland’s qualification campaign began in September of 2012 the same way it began for the undistinguished qualification campaigns for the 2012 European Championships and the 2010 World Cup: against Norway. In front of more than 8,000 home fans drinking coffee out of paper cups, eating Domino’s by the slice, and chanting “Áfram Ísland!” Iceland won a scrappy encounter with two slightly fluky goals.
After a frustrating one-nil loss in Cyprus four days later, though, it looked like the same old story: Iceland, as one of the bottom seeds in the group, would show flashes of class just frequently enough to disappoint by inevitably fizzling. But Iceland kept pace near the lead of the group with dramatic wins in Albania and Slovenia, thanks to late goals from Gylfi Þór Sigurðsson, a regular at top London side Tottenham Hotspurs.
Iceland’s style of play lends itself to maddening letdowns and improbable heroics: impetuous attacking covered at the back by a defensive strategy based around wildly improvisatory marking, relieved by hilariously frank fouls. In ten qualifying matches, Iceland scored 17 goals—tied for the most in the group alongside winners Switzerland—and conceded 15—also tied for most in the group alongside last-place finishers Cyprus.
The turning point came this September in Switzerland. Down 4–1 with nearly an hour gone against a notoriously stingy side, Iceland came back to earn a 4–4 tie, left-footed right winger Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson completing a hat-trick with a gorgeous 20-yard curler in injury time. Nervy but efficient home wins against Albania and Cyprus followed, and on October 15, with the pressure on, Iceland drew 1–1 in Norway, ensuring an unprecedented second-place playoff spot in front of an estimated 2,500 travelling Icelandic fans.
The squad that ground out a result in Oslo last month has evolved considerably from the team that sprung a surprise in Reykjavík last fall. Coach Lars Lagerbäck has reintegrated Eiður Smári Guðjohnsen, the most accomplished Icelandic footballer of all time, back from a 2011 broken leg and a winding-down career, and has shown increasing trust in a young core from whom much is expected. The same eleven started the last three qualifiers, and the team is peaking: still going up bravely and brutishly for every header, but also looking patient and incisive in possession, with Eiður tracking back into midfield to play neat triangular passes with teammates a generation younger. Watching Iceland play, the current run seems less and less miraculous. And in a sense, it isn’t.
The beautiful (per capita) game
There was a time when the Icelandic men’s national football team consisted of pioneers carving out careers abroad alongside part-timers plying their trade in the comparatively uncompetitive Icelandic domestic league. But Icelandic footballers, like other creative young professionals, have become a notable export in recent decades: the national side currently has its choice of around 70 players active in foreign leagues.
As the rest of the footballing world’s eyes turn to this underdog story, with foreign journalists cold-calling local sportswriters to uncover the secret of Iceland’s success, the narrative that has emerged is that KSÍ, the Icelandic Football Association, enacted significant changes in 2000, building more artificial-turf pitches for year-round small-side games, and increasing the number of trained coaches. Iceland’s newest stars came up through the youth set-up here, many moving abroad as teenagers to the academies of bigger clubs elsewhere in Scandinavia before graduating to top-tier European leagues.
The captain, Aron Einar Gunnarsson, is also captain of Cardiff City, in the English Premier League, and atop the scoring table for Dutch Eredivisie is the defence-stretching striker Alfred Finnbogason. (Notably, one player who has not followed this path is the goalkeeper, Hannes Þór Halldódrsson, who has spent his entire career in Iceland, and just won this summer’s Icelandic championship with Vesturbær side KR. Rather than play abroad in the off-season when most other European leagues run, Hannes pursues his other career: as a director for the production company Sagafilm, where he has directed a number of commercials and music videos, including for ‘Never Forget,’ Iceland’s Eurovision entry in 2012.)
And so in the summer of 2011, Gylfi Þór, Aron Einar, Alfreð and Jóhann Berg competed at the European Under-21 Championships, for which Iceland was one of just eight teams to qualify. Lagerbäck, who coached his native Sweden to the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, was brought in to guide the “golden generation” in the fall of 2011, months after it was announced that the field for Euro 2016 would be expanded to 24 teams. This tournament was presumably KSÍ’s ultimate goal, and you wouldn’t bet against Iceland, with an improved seeding position, a young team still getting better and a solid, progressive infrastructure. Though Iceland has never qualified for a major international tournament, it’s surely only a matter of time. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: the biggest games in the nation’s history are coming right now.
A Bluffer’s Guide to the Icelandic Men’s National Football Team
Gylfi Þór Sigurðsson, midfielder, age 24
Iceland’s best player, and one of the better central midfielders in Europe. A dead-ball specialist and clever attacker, he has lately sat deeper in midfield, playing defence-unlocking passes into the box.
Eiður Smári Guðjohnsen, forward, age 35
Iceland’s leading scorer with 24 goals in 76 appearances. Won the English Premier League with Chelsea, and the UEFA Champions League with Barcelona. As a teenager, in 1996, in an international friendly against Estonia, he came on as a substitute for his father Arnór.
Kolbeinn Sigþórsson, forward, age 23
Strong, prolific striker who has scored 13 goals in 19 international matches, including one in each of the last four World Cup qualifiers as Iceland went unbeaten. One more goal for Iceland will see him tied for third-most all time, right alongside Arnór Guðjohnsen.
Birkir Bjarnason, midfielder, age 25
A uniquely delightful player, a goal-poaching, ball-winning left-winger. Goes hard into challenges in the air and on the ground—seems, in fact, to spend the entire 90 minutes ricocheting off other players, blonde hair flying behind. To fans of Sampdoria, his club in Italy’s Serie A, he is “il vichingo”—the Viking.
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