Iceland's Soccer Sojourn: Humble Origins and Near Misses

Updated on June 19, 2020
Antonio Martinez1 profile image

Antonio Martinez graduated from Montclair State University with a BA in History and a double minor in Journalism and Russian Area Sudies.

Iceland players following a 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying match against Norway on Oct. 13, 2013 at Ullevaal Stadium in Oslo. Iceland recorded a 1-1 draw, and coupled with Switzerland's 1-0 win agaisnt Slovenia, to reach the playoffs.
Iceland players following a 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying match against Norway on Oct. 13, 2013 at Ullevaal Stadium in Oslo. Iceland recorded a 1-1 draw, and coupled with Switzerland's 1-0 win agaisnt Slovenia, to reach the playoffs. | Source

Over a century of football is a long time for a nation seeking to participate in the world's prestigious events. Iceland's national team is Strákarnir Okkar, which in Icelandic means "Our Boys." It was not until the late 1990s when Iceland first attempted to qualify for a major tournament.

However, despite a tiny population, Iceland began to win when it mattered. Though it missed out on the 2014 World Cup, Iceland drew its inspiration and defied the odds to qualify for both Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup, the former for which it reached the quarterfinals. Understanding Iceland's successes during the 2010s involve delving into a near-century of struggles and disappointments.

Commentator's Note about Icelandic Names

Many of Iceland's players have names whose letters include the letters eth (Icelandic: Ðð) and thorn (Icelandic: Þþ). The letter eth is transliterated as d, and the letter thorn is transliterated as th. As many Icelandic players share the same last name, they will be mentioned by their first names to avoid confusion.

The Pioneer Who Cultivated Talent

Several players attempted to make their respective marks across the decades in Iceland. More notable is that football is family in Iceland, and many players' would also represent Iceland when the opportunity arose. Iceland's only player to reach 100 caps, midfielder Rúnar Kristinsson played for 17 years between 1987 and 2004. Rúnar had a hand in helping Iceland's significant journeys during the 1990s. In 2017, Rúnar's son, Rúnar Alex Kristinsson, earned his first cap.

The late Atli Eðvaldsson had been the nation's most capped player when he last played in 1991. By 1999, Atli would manage Iceland for five years. Atli's soccer lineage includes many other people who played soccer, including his older brother Jóhannes Eðvaldsson.

Iceland's most notable familial duo made history on Apr. 24, 1996. First appearing for Iceland back, Arnór Guðjohnsen earned 73 caps and scored 14 goals, including four in an exhibition game against Turkey in 1981. His son would come in as a substitute on that Apr. 24 match against Estonia as Eiður Smári Guðjohnsen earned his first cap in what became a two-decade journey in representing Iceland.

However, Iceland's notable player only represented Iceland in six matches. However, Albert Sigurður Guðmundsson is Iceland's first-ever professional player. Albert Sigurður established a legacy that also included opportunities to play abroad, having done so with Glasgow Rangers, Arsenal, and AC Milan. His grandson is Guðmundur Benediktsson, having become a renowned commentator that proved significant later on Iceland's journey. Rounding out this lineage is Albert Sigurður's great-grandson is Albert Guðmundsson, having earned his first cap in 2017.

Iceland's familial lineage would come handy.

Albert Sigurður Guðmundsson is shown here while at Arsenal in 1946. Iceland's first professional football player, Albert Sigurður's footballing lineage includes his grandson and famed Icelandic commentator Guðmundur Benediktsson.
Albert Sigurður Guðmundsson is shown here while at Arsenal in 1946. Iceland's first professional football player, Albert Sigurður's footballing lineage includes his grandson and famed Icelandic commentator Guðmundur Benediktsson. | Source

Generations Setting the Pace

Iceland's first international game occurred in 1930 - 18 years after the nation's domestic league, known as Úrvalsdeild, contested its first season. After being rejected to play at the 1954 World Cup qualifiers, Iceland waited until June 2, 1957, to debut in the World Cup qualification phase. Attempting to reach the tournament in Sweden, Iceland lost all four qualifiers, conceding 26 goals while only scoring six against both France and Belgium. The opening qualifier saw Iceland lose 8-0 in Nantes, France. Three days later, Iceland scored its first World Cup qualifying goal. Forward Þórður Þórðarson became the first Icelandic player to scoring in a World Cup qualifier, doing so after Iceland trailed 5-0 to Belgium.

Also scoring during the inaugural qualification phase was Ríkharður Jónsson, who also scored against Belgium. It was one of 17 goals Ríkharður scored for Iceland between 1947 and 1965, and he would remain his nation's top scorer for 42 years.

Iceland proceeded to lose all six 1974 World Cup qualifying matches, allowing 29 goals and scoring only twice in the process. It would not be until 1977, when at its 13th attempt, Iceland finally avoided defeat. A 33rd-minute goal from Ingi Björn Albertsson against Northern Ireland gave Iceland a first World Cup qualifying victory. Ingi is the son of Albert Sigurður Guðmundsson. He was not the only son to make history.

Two years earlier, Jóhannes Eðvaldsson (Atli's brother and the father of Evald Mikson, a former Estonian goalkeeper), scored the opening goal in a Euro 1976 qualifier against East Germany. One of Iceland's first players to play abroad, Ásgeir Sigurvinsson, doubled the lead for Iceland. Despite allowing a late goal, Iceland earned its first qualifying victory in the European Championships. Later becoming Iceland's national manager, Ásgeir became Iceland's "Golden Player" in 2004.

Iceland was still seeking to make its mark.

From the Struggles to a Near Shock

It would not be until the 1994 World Cup qualification campaign when Iceland had its first legitimate attempt at reaching a major tournament. Iceland hired Ásgeir Elíasson to become the manager in 1991, an individual who played football, volleyball, and handball in his day. More significant for Iceland was the group reduction from six to five nations. FIFA suspended Yugoslavia as part of United Nations sanctions stemming from the Yugoslav Wars.

However, Iceland won only one of its first six qualifiers, with the notable disappointing result coming in a 1-1 draw away in Luxembourg. Hlynur Birgisson scored a 70th-minute own goal to cancel out Arnór's 40th-minute goal. After drawing 1-1 draw against Russia to send its opponents to the World Cup, Iceland won both remaining qualifiers against Hungary and Luxembourg coming at Laugardalsvöllur, Iceland's national stadium.

Iceland reached a then record-high of 34th in 1994 but struggled during Euro 1996 qualifying. Switzerland and Turkey proved too much for Iceland, the latter whom Iceland lost 5-0 on Oct. 12, 1994. Iceland's only goals during that qualifying campaign came during two games in 10 days. Arnar Bergmann Gunnlaugsson had put Iceland up after only three minutes against Sweden in a 1-1 draw in Stockholm's Rasunda Stadium on June 1, 1995. Guðni Bergsson and Sigurður Jónsson each scored goals ten days later to help Iceland come from behind to win 2-1. Iceland finished last in this five-team group

When the Father Passed the Torch to the Son

Nearly Reaching Euro 2000

The 1998 World Cup qualifying campaign also proved disappointing. Iceland did not win a qualifier until Aug. 20, 1997, away in Eschen when Iceland won the first of two 4-0 victories against Liechtenstein. Nevertheless, Iceland still achieved a vital away scoreless draw in Dublin against the Republic of Ireland back on Nov. 10, 1996. Following the 1998 World Cup qualifiers, Iceland began its Euro 2000 qualifying campaign in Reykjavik, its opponent being the recently-crowned World Cup champions France.

Though a daunting task, Iceland went up after 32 minutes with a goal from Ríkharður Daðason. Although Christophe Dugarry replied only three minutes later, Iceland hung in throughout the match. Goalkeeper Birkir Kristinsson withstood the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Robert Pires, and then captain Didier Deschamps to held pull out a stunning result.

The 1-1 draw initiated a surprising run during that qualification campaign. Following its draw against France, Iceland won against Russia, courtesy of a Yuri Kovtun own goal three minutes from time. On Mar. 31, 1999, Iceland recorded a valuable away draw in Kyiv - defender Lárus Orri Sigurðsson scoring the tying goal in a 1-1 draw. After defeating Andorra 3-0 in its eighth qualifier, Iceland amassed 15 points and stood in contention with Ukraine, France, and Russia.

However, Iceland allowed a penalty kick against Ukraine at home at lost 1-0. With France and Russia securing victories that same day, Iceland was all but mathematically eliminated as it had to play in France, while Ukraine and Russia met. The player who scored Iceland's goal against France a year ago, Ríkharður had put Iceland down due to an own goal. Iceland came back from 2-0 down to tie the match, but in the end, lost 3-2 to conclude what had been a hopeful campaign.

Located in the capital city Reykjavik, Laugardalsvöllur is the national stadium of Iceland's football team. It was a 2004 friendly that saw the largest attendance when Iceland upset Italy 2-0.
Located in the capital city Reykjavik, Laugardalsvöllur is the national stadium of Iceland's football team. It was a 2004 friendly that saw the largest attendance when Iceland upset Italy 2-0. | Source

Another Chance, Another Near Miss

Atli became Iceland's next manager as the nation debuted in the Nordic Football Championship, a regional tournament that featured Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Ríkharður emerged as the tournament's top goalscorer as his four goals helped Iceland finish second in the competition. The first of the four goals Ríkharður scored was against the eventual champions Finland in La Manga, Spain, on Feb. 1, 2000.

Two days later, Ríkharður scored both goals as Iceland overcome a 2-0 deficit against the Faeroe Islands before Bjarki Bergmann Gunnlaugsson scored the winning goal. Iceland's final tournament match came against Denmark on Sept. 2, 2000, which also functioned as the teams' opening 2002 World Cup qualifier. Iceland opened the scoring 12 minutes with a goal from Eyjólfur Gjafar Sverrisson, but could not hold the lead. Goals from Jon Dahl Tomasson and Morten Bisgaard gave Denmark the 2-1 victory.

Eyjólfur scored three of Iceland's 14 goals during qualifying, with the other two coming on Sept. 1, 2001, in a 3-1 victory against the Czech Republic. Lamentably, Iceland crashed in their final two qualifiers, the latter being a 6-0 loss at Denmark to conclude the campaign. Atli remained on for Iceland until a 2-1 loss during Euro 2004 qualifying in Scotland in March 2003. Two months later, Ásgeir Sigurvinsson and Logi Ólafsson jointly took over as the manager - the latter returning after previously managing Iceland during the 1998 World Cup qualifiers. For the first time in 67 years, Iceland had joint managers.

Their presence helped Iceland win three straight Euro 2004 qualifying victories. After a goalless draw against Germany in Reykjavik on Sept. 6, 2003, Iceland stood atop its group. However, Germany won four days later against Scotland, meaning that Iceland had to win Hamburg. Goalkeeper Árni Gautur Arason nearly allowed an early goal to Germany's Michael Ballack, but Ballack eventually scored. Iceland's Hermann Hreidarsson had not played a match following the teams' last meeting but nearly provided Iceland with its pivotal moment.

Hermann nearly scored, only for Germany's goalkeeper Oliver Kahn to prevent the shot. Herman even had an opportunity on goal, only for the referee to call a four on Iceland. Following that, Iceland's momentum vanished as goals from Fredi Bobic, and Kevin Kuranyi confirmed Germany's qualification for Euro 2004. Iceland's elimination followed due to Scotland's 1-0 win against Lithuania.

An Opportunity Awaits in Hamburg

Struggling to Make a Scene

Iceland recorded another victory at Laugardalsvöllur with a 2-0 win against Italy on Aug. 18, 2004, a match which remains the highest-attended match in the stadium's history. This victory hoped to give Iceland confidence ahead of the World Cup qualifying campaign where four former FIFA World Cup semifinalists. Unfortunately, Iceland faltered throughout the 2006 World Cup qualifiers. Eiður scored six goals, including the opening goal against Croatia in September 2005. However, Iceland won only one of the ten qualifiers, with Iceland's scoreless draw in October 2004 being a low point - that draw having occurred in Ta'Qali, Malta. Iceland's defense proved porous as the nation allowed at least three goals in the eight losses.

Last playing for Iceland 2001, Eyjólfur became the manager ahead of Iceland's qualifying campaign for Euro 2008, which featured four nations (Spain, Sweden, Denmark, and Latvia) that played at Euro 2004. It would be this campaign that Eiður became Iceland's all-time scoring leader. Nonetheless, Iceland languished to a sixth-place finish. The nation's notable draw came against the eventual champions Spain in Reykjavik as Emil Hallfreðsson put Iceland up after 40 minutes. Iceland hoped for a similar result nearly 16 years ago when Eyjólfur scored in a 2-0 Euro 1992 qualifying victory against Spain on Sept. 25, 1991. Iceland almost handed Spain a third qualifying loss, only for Andres Iniesta to salvage a vital point.

If the 1-1 draw in September 2007 was a notable result, then Iceland sunk into ignominy on Oct. 17, 2007. In a road qualifier in Vaduz, Iceland allowed a pair of second-half goals to Thomas Beck, and the 3-0 loss to Liechtenstein cost Eyjolfur his job. The pair of qualifying victories against Northern Ireland was the only wins Eyjólfur achieved in his two-year managerial stint.

More Failures Despite Some Results

Iceland finished its Euro 2008 qualifying campaign with Ólafur Davíð Jóhannesson, also a carpenter, with a 3-0 loss in Denmark. Despite never representing Iceland as a player, Ólafur Davíð had modest success in his 39 games, the most for an Iceland manager in a single period. Nevertheless, the wins still did not come when it mattered.

As was the case in the 2006 World Cup qualifiers, Iceland won only one game during the 2010 World Cup qualification campaign, coming on Oct. 15, 2008. Veigar Páll Gunnarsson scored the lone goal 16 minutes into the match against FYR Macedonia. Eiður added another three goals in the campaign, including tying goals against Norway. The second came in a 1-1 draw in Reykjavik that, after it ended, made Iceland the first European nation to finish its World Cup qualifying campaign.

Ólafur Davíð remained as Iceland's manager throughout the Euro 2012 qualification campaign. More disappointment and heartbreak unfolded there, including twice during qualifying in which Iceland lost matches in regulation on late goals. These goals came at both Denmark (on Sept. 9, 2010) and Norway (Sept. 2, 2011), after Iceland held both opponents scoreless. Once again, Iceland won only one game, with Kolbeinn Sigþórsson scoring the lone goal against Cyprus five minutes in Iceland's penultimate qualifier in September 2011.

Iceland even showed spirit in its final Euro 2012 qualifier in Porto, Portugal, where along with two goals from Hallgrímur Jónasson, a midfielder scored a consolation penalty kick. That midfielder was Gylfi Sigurðsson, and the penalty kick is the first of 22 goals he has scored for Iceland. The 5-3 loss to Portugal ended Ólafur Davíð's stint, and for the first time in two decades, Iceland went abroad for the next manager.

Iceland's Emil Hallfredsson battles with the Netherlands' Dirk Kuyt during a 2010 FIFA World Cup qualification match in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Iceland lost the match 2-0, one of five it suffered in the five-team group
Iceland's Emil Hallfredsson battles with the Netherlands' Dirk Kuyt during a 2010 FIFA World Cup qualification match in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Iceland lost the match 2-0, one of five it suffered in the five-team group | Source

Calling Abroad to Get Back on Track

He guided his native Sweden to the 2002 and 2006 World Cups. After coaching Nigeria at the 2010 World Cup, Lars Lagerback became Iceland's first foreign-born coach since Sweden's Bo "Bosse" Johansson managed Iceland in 1991. Lagerback's stint with Iceland began with losses against Japan, Montenegro, France, and Sweden. After the Sweden loss, Iceland sunk to its worst ranking to date. Ranked 131st in June 2012, Iceland had nowhere to go but up with the manager the nation hired not even a year earlier. A 2-0 victory against Faeroe Islands provided Iceland with something to look forward ahead of the 2014 World Cup qualification phase that included Switzerland and Slovenia.

Before qualifying, Kári Árnason scored only one goal for Iceland, coming during a 2006 World Cup qualifier in Solna, Sweden. Kári scored the opening goal against Norway on Sept. 7, 2012, as the goal helped Iceland achieve its first victory over Norway since Sept. 23, 1987. That momentum was short-lived, as Norway's trip to Cyprus was another disaster - not in the capital Nicosia, but Larnaca. A 1-0 loss happened as in the first six qualifiers, Iceland alternated victories and losses. Along the way, Iceland scored goals as it never had in previous campaigns. Gylfi scored one of his four qualifying goals in Tirana, Albania - an 81st-minute goal to break a 1-1 draw on Oct. 12, 2012.

After a 2-0 home loss to Switzerland four days later, Iceland trailed in Ljublijana 1-0 in March 2013 against Slovenia. That was until Gylfi scored both goals, with the second being the game-winner 12 minutes from time. Iceland looked for the sweep against the Balkan nation and overcame an early deficit with two goals in four minutes. However, Iceland lost 4-2. Another campaign seemed to derail in what became Europe's most competitive qualifying group.

On the Precipice

Iceland's men's team hoped to emulate the women's success earlier in 2013, which came courtesy of quarterfinal run at the Women's European Championships. The notable result was a 1-0 victory against the Netherlands in Vaxjo, Sweden to send the nation to the quarterfinals.

The men hoped for something notable, beginning at Stade de Suisse in Berne; there, Iceland had a dream start in a vital qualifier in Switzerland. Having scored his first goal against Andorra in 2012, Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson scored a third-minute goal to put Iceland ahead. The 1-0 lead did not last as Iceland struggled to contain Switzerland. After a penalty kick, Switzerland scored the fourth unanswered goal. Iceland's chance at a playoff seemed in jeopardy. That was until Kolbeinn quickly responded with a goal before Jóhann Berg added a second goal 12 minutes later. With stoppage time and Iceland staring at a catastrophic defeat, Jóhann Berg capped off a memorable night with the hat trick.

Iceland's 4-4 draw proved crucial for second place and a possible playoff berth. With home victories against Albania and Cyprus, Iceland stood to reach the playoffs in its final qualifier in Oslo, Norway. As long as they matched or bettered Slovenia's result against Switzerland, Iceland would qualify for the playoffs. Iceland only managed a 1-1 draw in Oslo. With Switzerland defeating Slovenia 1-0, Iceland had reached the playoffs.

Only Croatia stood between Iceland and the 2014 World Cup. In the first leg against Croatia on Nov. 15, 2013, Iceland suffered a vital setback. During that match, Ólafur Ingi Skúlason, a former captain of Iceland's under-21 team, received a red card and was ineligible for the second leg in Zagreb. Iceland held Croatia scoreless in the first leg. Four days later, Iceland trailed after 27 minutes on a Mario Mandžukić goal. However, a crucial opportunity came after Mandžukić received a red card three minutes later on a reckless tackle on Johann Berg. In the end, Dario Srna's early second-half goal proved to be the insurance goal, and Croatia knocked Iceland out of the World Cup.

The nation stood on the precipice. It would not be long until Iceland knocked on the doors of opportunity.

An Epic Coming Out Party in Berne

We did not lose anything tonight, but to think we dropped all those points against Scotland is severely disappointing in retrospect. We must now look at the big picture. We took on the World Cup finalists on their own patch and it was not an easy job.

— Eiður Smári Guðjohnsen, speaking to UEFA.com following Iceland's 3-0 loss to Germany in 2003.

© 2020 Antonio Martinez

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