Iceland won hearts and minds all over the world when a 94th-minute winner sent the Vikings into delirium and into the round of 16 at the expense of their more illustrious opponents, Austria. The Austrians are ranked 10th in the world, ahead of Italy and France, while the Icelanders qualified this year for their first ever European Championships.
After their last-gasp victory, Iceland were being billed as the Leicester City of UEFA Euro 2016, and why not. They’re a small nation that defied all the odds in an extremely tough group containing Portugal, Austria and Hungary, to qualify for the round of 16. The feat was so momentous that the Iceland coach, Lars Largerback remarked ‘I think we’ll need to change our national holiday after this win’.
Iceland’s next hurdle was against England, the perennial underachievers. The scene was set, the minnows up against the chokers. Whatever happened, the game was surely going to throw up a lot of talking points. Roy Hodgson fielded almost the same starting 11 that beat Wales, except for Daniel Sturridge, who replaced Adam Lallana. Raheem Sterling was also back in the team after being dropped against Slovakia.
England had the best possible start, after they were awarded a penalty in the 3rd minute of the game. Wayne Rooney, the captain, stepped up and converted the penalty. It didn’t take long for Iceland to hit back. Iceland flung the ball into the box with a long throw, the ball was flicked on and Ragnar Sigurdsson was there to smash the ball into the net. Barely two minutes had elapsed, and Iceland were level.
Raheem Sterling tried to influence proceedings as the game wore on, but wasn’t getting much joy. Then came Iceland’s sucker punch. Kolbein Sightorsson made room for himself on the edge of the box and fired a shot towards Joe Hart’s goal. The ball hit his hand and rolled into the corner of the net. Iceland had turned the game on its head, and we were just 18 minutes into the first half.
The English couldn’t believe their luck. Iceland had been notoriously tough to break down all tournament, and that was one of the keys to their success. England knew they had a tough task on their hands. As the first half came to a close, Roy Hodgson had more questions than he had answers.
The England manager brought on Jack Wilshere at the break in place of Eric Dier, presumably to help England control more of the ball. 15 minutes later, Jamie Vardy was brought on to stretch the game, as his team was unable to make any clear openings whatsoever. Vardy’s presence helped England a bit and they had about 20 minutes of sustained pressure towards the end of the game. Marcus Rashford came on for a 5-minute cameo and looked the most likely to create something.
As the final whistle blew, the premier league stars were left holding their heads in their hands, while the joyous Icelanders were ecstatic by their momentous achievement. They were in the quarterfinals of Euro 2016. The commentator summed up the stark difference between the two footballing nations succinctly. ‘The England manager Roy Hodson gets paid 4.5 million a year, while Iceland’s coach is a part-time dentist’. This was being called the most shocking result in the history of the European Championships.
The other part of Iceland’s story that was similar to Leicester City was the fan support. There were around 33,000 fans supporting their team at the Euros, which means 1 in every 10 Icelander on the planet was in France supporting their team. There was a close-knit, homely feeling about every football game and the players relished playing with that support and atmosphere. If you still haven’t seen the Iceland fans doing their ‘Huh chant’, you must.
Iceland’s story sadly didn’t end like Leicester’s, as they were unable to go all the way and win the championship. They were beaten 5-2 by France in their quarterfinal game on Sunday. The hosts were heavy favorites for the game and this time their quality was far too superior for the humble Icelanders. From a neutral perspective, it was a pleasure to see a nation of a meager 330,000 people, achieve such lofty heights at the Euros.
The other team still vying to pull off the underdog story is Wales, who face Portugal in their semi-final match on the 7th of June. They’ve also qualified for their first ever European Championships and have reached the semis in their first attempt. Can we call them dark horses even though they have the most expensive player in the world, Gareth Bale, in their ranks? He squares off against his Real Madrid team-mate, Cristiano Ronaldo and it will be interesting to see who comes out on top. As always, I’m rooting for the underdogs.