Euro 2016: How Iceland achieved the impossible
Let's take a look at the extraordinary journey of Iceland, how they defied the odds and qualified for Euro 2016.
Iceland can arguably be dubbed as Leicester City of international football. The tiny nation, compromised of a population of just 330,000, stunned the football world when they became the smallest country to ever qualify for a major international tournament.
The nation which missed out narrowly on the qualification to the last FIFA World Cup after they lost to Croatia in the playoffs, qualified for the upcoming European Championships in style.
They finished second in their qualifying group behind the Czech Republic, and above much superior teams like Turkey and European giants, Netherlands. They were defensively solid, conceding just six goals in 10 games qualifiers.
Of the ten games played, they won an astonishing six of them, drew two and lost just two matches. They also finished as the side with the best goal difference in Group A.
The side started off their qualifying campaign on a high note, with resounding 3-0 wins over Turkey and Latvia. The highlight of their qualifying campaign was beating one-time European champions, Netherlands, home and away without even conceding a goal.
They beat the Orange 2-0 in October 2014 at their home stadium Laugardalsvollur, and repeated the feat, beating them 1-0 at Amsterdam Arena in September 2015.
The Nordic Island nation secured its passage to the Euros finals with a goalless draw against Kazakhstan at home on 6 September 2015 and thus created history.
The duo of Lars Lagerback & Heimir Hallgrimsson had achieved the impossible, guiding Iceland to a major international tournament, the nation's first in 24 attempts and that too in a fashionable manner, giving the world a football fairytale much before Leicester City gave one.
Lagerback took charge of the Iceland squad in 2011. The 67-year-old had already proved his capabilities as a manger as evident from his stints with the national teams of Sweden and Nigeria. The Swede brought with himself a winning mentality and quickly transformed the team in a short period of time.
In six short years Iceland went from 131 to 34 in the world rankings, only because of the football revolution taking place in the country under the watchdog of Lagerback and then his assistant and now partner in crime Heiimr Hallgrimsson
Under his tutelage, Iceland qualified for the play-off stage of the qualification tournament for the 2014 World Cup, but Croatia were the victors over two legs. Shortly thereafter, the 67-year-old signed a new contract with his trusted former Iceland assistant Heimir Hallgrimsson, both operating as joint managers of the Iceland national football team.
Gylfi Sigurdsson played a huge role in the country's qualification. The 26-year-old finished as the top scorer of the qualifying group A with 6 goals and was at the double in his side's famous win over Netherlands at home in October 2014 and again scored the only goal in their 1-0 away win over the same opponents almost a year later.
The dead ball specialist just had a wonderful second half season for Swansea City in the Premier League, finishing with 11 goals, his best ever tally in a season.
The technically gifted midfielder continued his fine form as evident from his side's recent warm up games. Though they lost 3-2 to their Nordic rivals Norway, they eased to a 4-0 in their last pre-finals friendly against Liechtenstein.
Iceland's captain Aron Gunnarsson remains ever present in the midfield, defending and covering his centre-backs and provides ideal support to Sigurdsson up in the attacking play as well. Birkir Bjarnason who played in all the qualifiers has been in good form this season.
The midfielder won the league title with Basel and finished with 13 goals in all competitions .The team's vice captain Kolbeinn Sigthorsson remains their first choice striker. The-26 year-old Nantes talisman, is already Iceland's second top scorer of all time with 20 goals in 39 internationals. The fans will be hoping that Alfero Finnbogason repeats his goal scoring exploits in Netherlands and Germany with the national team in the upcoming Euros.
Iceland fans were overjoyed with the return of Eidur Gudjohnsen. The country’s most iconic player and also their top scorer of all time, returned to international football in March 2015 scoring in his side’s 3-0 win over Kazakhstan. He also scored his 26th goal in his 86th cap in the recent warm up game against Liechtenstein.
The veteran striker may have his best years behind him but he will play the role of a mentor for the team. This Iceland team needs someone to inspire them to make them believe that they are capable of continuing their astonishing journey and who better than the Ice Man (as he was fondly called during his playing career) himself. The players will be willing to perform their heart out to give the best farewell possible to the legendary 37-year-old.
The stage for Iceland to shine
It is absolutely remarkable for a nation like Iceland who doesn't even have a fully professional league and were languishing in 131th place in the FIFA rankings a few years ago to have qualified for the Euros in France. They face Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal, an emerging Austria side spearheaded by dynamic left back David Alaba and Hungary . Sigurðsson is certainly their main man as they will look to prove that their fairytale qualification was no fluke.
Strakarnir okkar (Our boys) will hope to reach the Round of 16 and even go beyond that. A good performance in their first ever international tournament will surely be the best parting gift to one of their outgoing managers i.e Lars Lagerbäck ,who is leaving after the Euros.
This Iceland team looks to defy odds at the Euros 2016 and may pull off a Cost Rica of 2014 WC or who knows even a Denmark of 1992 Euros.