How Did Iceland Get So Close?
Iceland's 2014 World Cup qualification campaign ended on a November evening in Croatia. Nevertheless, the ascent was what Iceland sought after missing out on Euro 2000. How does a country foster talent where there are cold, long winters? Training centers were one thing and developing Iceland's youth squads. Since 1998, Iceland reached two UEFA Under-17 Championships (2007 and 2012), with the former seeing Kolbeinn Sigþórsson score Iceland's sole goal.
It was at the 2011 UEFA U-21 Championships that Iceland came of age. During qualifying, Iceland finished second in its group, but on Aug. 10, 2010, the nation issued an emphatic statement - not at the national stadium, but Kaplakrikavöllur. Iceland's 4-1 victory against Germany, where Gylfi Þór Sigurðsson and Kolbeinn scored goals, knocked out the defending champions. Iceland reached the playoffs as the fourth-best runner-up, and Gylfi scored both goals in Edinburgh, Scotland, to land Iceland's maiden trip to the UEFA U-21 Championships in Denmark. There, Iceland came close to reaching the semifinals. Though it won 3-1 against Denmark, Iceland missed out on tiebreakers.
Nevertheless, Iceland's golden generation had been born during that tournament in Denmark.
A Blistering Start in a Major Quest
It had been 19 years since Iceland last faced Turkey when the teams played during Euro 1996 qualifying. Nevertheless, Iceland inaugurated its qualifying campaign with a 16th-minute goal from Jón Dadi Bödvarsson. The critical moment came in the second half when Turkey's Ömer Toprak received his second yellow card. Iceland capitalized on the man advantage with two goals in as many minutes as the 3-0 victory marked Iceland's first victory against Turkey since July 17, 1991.
The same scoreline occurred in Iceland's next qualifier, which banished painful memories of a 4-0 loss in a Euro 2008 qualifier in Riga, Latvia. Once again, Iceland had a man advantage after Artjoms Rudnevs received a dismissal in the 55th minute. Gylfi broke the scoreless tie as it paved Iceland's first win in Latvia since Aug. 19, 1998. Three days later, Iceland made it three straight qualifying victories.
The third occurred against the Netherlands, having finished third at the 2014 World Cup. It was only 10 minutes into the game when Iceland's first opportunity came after the Netherlands' Gregory van der Wiel trips Birkir Bjarnason inside the penalty.
Having scored in both matches, Gylfi converted the resulting penalty kick. As Iceland hung on to the one-goal lead and halftime approached, Iceland maintained another opportunity. In the first half, Iceland's corner kick late became successful as Gylfi a critical goal. As good as Gylfi was in scoring goals, Iceland's defense was impressive.
In a Euro 2012 qualifier against Cyprus, Hannes Þór Halldórsson played 12 matches in Iceland's 2014 World Cup qualification campaign. Hannes maintained early struggles in his early career, including a stint in Iceland's fourth division. Against the Netherlands, Hannes kept the Netherlands offense without a goal.
Iceland's 2-0 victory put the nation atop its qualifying group.
The Ascent Hits New Heights
Hannes's shutout streak ended in Plzen against the Czech Republic when Pavel Kadeřábek capitalized on a free-kick from Ladislav Krejčí late in the first half. Despite losing 2-1, Iceland was still in the driver's seat for a berth at Euro 2016. The nation got a return from a recently retired player.
Sixteen months after retiring in November 2013, Eiður Smári Guðjohnsen returned to Iceland with the team's opening goal in Astana. Two goals from Birkir gave Iceland a 3-0 victory. In June 2015, Iceland overcame an early deficit to defeat the Czech Republic. Kolbeinn scored the winning goal in the 76th minute after Aron Gunnarsson tied the match. In September 2015, Iceland proved that its victory against the Netherlands was no fluke.
Iceland's chances improved, beginning in the 31st minute when the Netherlands' Arjen Robben had to come out of the match due to an injury. Two minutes later, the Netherlands' Bruno Martins Indi received a red card due to an incident with Kolbeinn. Iceland hoped for at least a draw until Birkir set up another Iceland penalty after Gregory van der Weil took the player down. Having scored twice 11 months earlier, Gylfi converted another penalty. With Hannes withstanding the Netherlands' offense, Iceland stood on the brink of history with that 1-0 victory in Amsterdam.
The nation needed a draw three days later against Kazakhstan to qualify. On a torrential night, Iceland struggled to find the breakthrough it needed despite out-shooting Kazakhstan 15-4. Aron, the nation's captain, was sent off late in the match after a second yellow card.
Nevertheless, that ending did not dampen Iceland as the nation completed the mission and qualified for Euro 2016. Gylfi went on to add his sixth goal against Latvia a month later. Iceland finished second in its group; when it announced its squad on May 9, 2016, Eiður would be one of the 23 players to play in France.
We hope to stay in France for a month. If Greece could win it in 2004, Iceland can win it too. There’s always a chance.
— Lars Lagerbäck, speaking in an interview ahead of Euro 2016
Foray into France
Saint-Étienne was where Iceland's journey commenced against Portugal, who nearly took the lead 24 minutes into the match. Despite receiving a 40-yard pass from Pepe into the penalty box, Cristiano Ronaldo missed scoring past the goalkeeper. Iceland kept Portugal at bay for the opening 30 minutes, but a defensive lapse allowed Nuno Gomes to find Nani, who sidefooted his attempt past the goalkeeper.
Portugal took the 1-0 lead into halftime, and Iceland needed an offensive possession to get in contention. In the second half, Birkir made history in the 50th minute when he recorded Iceland's first-ever goal. Now, Hannes needed to withstand Portugal's offense. An 80th-minute attempt from Ronaldo via free-kick saw Iceland's defenders block the ball for a corner kick. Another opportunity came in stoppage time for Portugal, but Ronaldo's free-kick proved ineffective.
Iceland had arrived with a 1-1 draw.
Next for Iceland was Hungary awaited, whom Iceland lasted defeated on June 11, 1995, when goals from Gudni Bergsson and Sigurdur Jonsson helped Iceland win a Euro 1996 qualifier. This time, Iceland took the lead on another Gylfi penalty kick. Iceland hoped to score a famous victory until Birkir Már Sævarsson's own goal denied the win. Still, two 1-1 draws and Iceland remained in contention for a knockout stage berth.
That opportunity came against Austria in Saint-Denis. Having scored Iceland's first goal in Euro 2016 qualifying, Jón Daði put Iceland up after 18 minutes. However, Austria responded with Alessandro Schöpf's 60th-minute goal. Iceland's first foray hung in the balance as Portugal tied Hungary, and the nation needed a goal to stave off possible elimination. Iceland got help from a player who did play during the Euro 2016 qualifiers.
It was on Nov. 14, 2015, when Arnór Ingvi Traustason first debuted for Iceland. The player scored three goals before the tournament, including a goal that helped Iceland overcome a 2-0 deficit against Greece. Arnór Ingvi scored the winning goal four minutes into time, which began with a breakaway run.
Iceland reached the Round of 16, with England waiting.
Fairytale at Nice
Before the Round of 16, Iceland last played England during a mini-tournament on June 6, 2004. Wayne Rooney scored twice during the game, and England cruised to a 6-1 victory before its foray into Euro 2004. Twelve years later, both nations meet again in the knockout stage.
Like Iceland, England finished second in its group, with a 2-1 victory against Wales sandwiched between Russia and Slovakia. England had a fast start, with England's Raheem Sterling drawing a foul on Hannes inside the penalty box three minutes. Rooney converted his goal to put England up, but the lead lasted nearly two minutes. Iceland responded on a throw-in, with Kari's header finding Ragnar Sigurdsson, who took a close-range shot past England's Joe Hart to tie the match.
After England had two unsuccessful corner kicks, Iceland had another scoring chance when Jón Dadi found Kolbeinn. Hart bobbled the ball, and the ball trickled into the net.
Iceland led England at Euro 2016.
Now Iceland had to withstand England's offense for at least 70 minutes. Later on, Iceland swapped two forwards for midfielders. Theódór Elmar Bjarnason, the grandson of KR Reykjavik player Theódór Jakob Guðmundsson during the 1960s, replaced Kolbeinn in the 77th minute. With stoppage time looming, Iceland made another change, with Arnor Igvi, the hero of the match against Austria, replacing Jón Daði.
Stoppage time had arrived, and for England, it was one chance to avoid the ignominy of 1950, the year when the nation lost 1-0 to the United States. It had one last roll of the dice when Harry Kane took a corner kick. It has one final attempt when a header when off-target.
Iceland knocked out England.
England's humiliating exit forced Roy Hodgson to resign; as for Iceland, the victory elevated a nation to new heights, aided with commentator Guðmundur Benediktsson now a cult phenomenon.
Iceland's Road to and at Euro 2016
Sept. 9, 2014
Oct. 10, 2014
Riga: Skonto Stadium
Oct. 13, 2014
Nov. 16, 2014
Czech Republic (A)
Plzen: Doosan Arena
Mar. 28, 2015
Astana: Astana Arena
June 12, 2015
Czech Republic (H)
Sept. 3, 2015
Amsterdam: Amsterdam Arena
Sept. 6, 2015
Oct. 10, 2015
Oct. 13, 2015
Konya: Torku Arena
June 14, 2016
Saint-Etienne: Stade Geoffrey-Guichard
June 18, 2016
Marseille: Stade Velodrome
June 22, 2016
Saint-Denis: Stade de France
June 27, 2016
Nice: Stade de Nice
July 3, 2016
Saint-Denis: Stade de France
One Journey Ends, but Another Begins
Iceland's foray ended in Saint-Denis as France dominated the game. Despite trailing 4-0, Iceland put on a decent second half to leave its indelible mark on Euro 2016. In the previous three years, Iceland had joint managers: Lagerbäck and Heimir Hallgrímsson, the latter also a dentist. Hallgrímsson became the manager following Euro 2016, with his counterpart Lagerbäck taking the same position in Norway.
Another quest began on Sept. 5, 2016, with Iceland opening its 2018 World Cup qualification at Kyiv's empty stadium. Iceland took advantage and went up 1-0. Ukraine tied the match with a goal from Andriy Yarmolenko four minutes into the second half. The momentous event came courtesy of Yevgeny Konoplyanka missing the 83rd-minute penalty kick, and Iceland escaped with a 1-1 draw.
Winning home qualifiers proved vital, particularly in October 2016. Iceland was in jeopardy of dropping points against Finland after trailing 2-1. As stoppage time entered, Iceland had a corner kick that Gylfi shot into the penalty area, finding Alfreð Finnbogason. Iceland seemed to secure at least a draw until Iceland had another free-kick, beginning with Kari and ending with Ragnar Sigurdsson scoring five minutes into stoppage time.
The 3-2 victory proved crucial in Iceland's pursuit of the 2018 World Cup.
Four days after winning against Finland, Iceland secured a 2-0 win against Turkey. Goals three minutes apart from Theódór Elmar Bjarnason and Alfreð gave Iceland confidence ahead of a road qualifier against Croatia, where Iceland's 2014 World Cup campaign ended. As was the case in Kyiv, Iceland faced Croatia at an empty stadium in Zagreb. Nevertheless, the result was also familiar as Iceland suffered a 2-0 loss.
Iceland began 2017 with a runner-up finish in a four-team tournament in China. Two months later, Iceland resumed its World Cup qualifying campaign in Shkodёr, Albania. Iceland went up 2-0 against Kosovo with two goals in 10 minutes. The nation hung to win the match ahead of a critical June qualifier. Iceland hosted Croatia needing a result to keep its qualifying hopes. Similar to November 2013, Iceland kept Croatia scoreless, but a different result unfolded.
In March 2017, he scored his first goal for Iceland in a friendly in Dublin. Hörður Björgvin Magnússon received a Kolbeinn corner kick in the 90th minute and headed in the lone goal, handing Iceland a valuable win in Reykjavik. As important that win was, Iceland suffered a disaster in Tampere, Finland.
Finland led on Alexander Ring's goal eight minutes into the game, and Iceland's chances to earn a point got difficult. Having come on to replace Birkir in the 60th minute, Rúrik Gíslason received two yellow cards in three minutes. Iceland never found the goal to tie the match. Once again, another World Cup qualifying loss put Iceland in jeopardy.
Payback for 2013?
A Small Nations Erupts in Euphoria
Nevertheless, three days after losing in Finland, Iceland recorded a vital 2-0 victory, with Gylfi scoring both goals as Iceland won for the first time against Ukraine. That result came on the same day Turkey won against Croatia, and the group became wide open.
Next for Iceland was a tough road qualifier at Eskişehir. It had been 37 years since Iceland last won in Turkey, but Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson, having last scored in the epic 4-4 draw in Switzerland, put Iceland ahead after 32 minutes. Seven minutes later, Birkir had doubled the lead before Kari's goal had Iceland record an empathic road win. The 3-0 victory came with better news as Finland, thanks to Teemu Pukki, pulled off a 1-1 away draw in Rijeka, Croatia.
Iceland stood on the precipice of a trip to Russia. A win against Kosovo would secure qualification for the 2018 World Cup. Iceland's pursuit of winning began with Gylfi scoring in the 40th minute. After not scoring for Iceland for four years, Jóhann Berg added a second goal in the 68th minute. When full time finished, Iceland made history.
With a population of 330,000, Iceland became the smallest populated country to qualify for the World Cup. Iceland's formula proved to be a testament to seeking talent within its border. Now, Iceland hoped to enjoy a repeat of 2016 in Russia.
Iceland's Road to and at the 2018 World Cup
|Date||Opponent||Score||City and Venue|
Sept. 5, 2016
Kyiv: NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium
Oct. 6, 2016
Oct. 9, 2016
Nov. 12, 2016
Zagreb: Stadion Maksimir
Mar. 24, 2017
Shkodёr, Albania: Loro Boriçi Stadium
June 11, 2017
Sept. 2, 2017
Tampere: Ratina Stadium
Sept. 5, 2017
Oct. 6, 2017
Eskişehir: Eskişehir Yeni Atatürk Stadyumu
Oct. 9, 2017
June 16, 2018
Moskva: Otkritie Stadium
June 22, 2018
Volgograd: Volgograd Arena
June 26, 2018
Rostov-na-Donu: Rostov Arena
Foray into Russia
Despite some struggles leading up to the 2018 World Cup, Iceland was a favorite to advance to the knockout stages. Known as Spartak Stadium during the 2018 World Cup, Moskva's Otkritie Arena was Iceland's World Cup debut. Argentina was Iceland's first opponent surviving a near-miss during qualifying and searching for its first trophy in 32 years.
As was the case against Portugal, Iceland trailed early on a goal from Sergio Agüero only 19 minutes into the game. It would not be long before Iceland experienced another breakthrough moment with Alfreð notching Iceland's first World Cup goal. The essential play came from Hannes (later named Man of the Match) when he saved a penalty kick from Argentina's Lionel Messi. Despite failing to get a shot during the second half, Iceland held Argentina to a 1-1 draw.
Iceland brimmed with confidence ahead of its subsequent match against Nigeria in Volgograd. However, Iceland struggled in the second half, allowing two goals from Ahmed Musa. An opportunity came for Iceland to halve the deficit, only for Gylfi, who had been reliable on penalty kicks, to miss his attempt. Iceland now needed a win and help.
Croatia had already qualified for the knockout stage, but Iceland provided the attacking opportunities. Iceland kept Croatia scoreless until Milan Badelj's 56th-minute goal put Iceland on the brink of elimination. Nevertheless, Iceland Gylfi, having missed his penalty kick against Nigeria, provided Iceland with a lifeline with a tying goal. Iceland experienced favorable results during qualifying, and as its game was winding down, news came that Argentina scored against Nigeria. One more Iceland goal and another elimination match with France would occur.
Having been red-carded when the teams met in November 2016, Croatia's Ivan Perisic ended Iceland's dream on a 90th-minute goal. The rapid exit was not what Iceland expected after having defied odds to reach Russia, but in the end, it still exited the tournament with its heads held high.
Following the World Cup, Iceland struggled in the inaugural UEFA Nations League as it lost all the games it faced between Switzerland and Belgium. In 2019, Iceland hoped for a third straight major tournament. A third-place finish denied Iceland qualification, but the nation has a second chance at reaching Euro 2020. The prize would be a chance at facing three heavyweights once again: France, Portugal, and Germany.
The magic ran out with Iceland as it went through another UEFA Nations League campaign without a single point. On Nov. 12, 2020, two late goals in Budapest meant Hungary, whom Iceland faced at Euro 2016, qualified for the tournament. Despite the disappointment, Iceland achieved a rapid change two decades in the making. Iceland fulfilled its plan first and continued a cherished familial legacy that the first professional player established.
Iceland has become a template for what a small nation can achieve.
We showed we deserve to be here and we can compete against the best. We can look at each other in the eye and say we can carry our heads high. We have showed we belong.
— Heimir Hallgrímsson, following Iceland's 2-1 loss to Croatia at the 2018 World Cup
This One is for Iceland
And the Fairytale Continues!
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© 2020 Antonio Martinez