Euro 2016: Iceland's story of reaching the surface
The Iceland football team lost the tournament but won our hearts. The run worth watching.
Iceland. The team which lost the football game against the French but they stole our hearts. Despite not having qualified for 23 major tournaments, the Iceland football team qualified for UEFA Euro 2016. Pure determination or sheer luck? Maybe both. The team's success in France can probably be attributed to the close bond between their players and the fans.
The players and fans share a bond of bonhomie, impressing the world; their impressive conduct means they might just steal the Irish green army’s position and become recognized as the best supporters in the world of football.
Their signature Viking roar is intended to drive their team, rather than the pointless pop of the flares and hooliganism that serve to just upset matches and incite further disruption. A number of the players have come through the Under-21 side together, and the way that the men in the blue shirt share a connection that stretches out past the white lines of a football pitch implies they will remain united in critical moments.
From being ranked No. 104 in the world five years ago, the national team have risen 70 places under Lars Lagerback, the progress was shaped by the care and money poured into the grassroots level before the recession years when the country had more cash than it could spend. Iceland is the smallest nation ever to reach a major tournament and is certainly surprising people who are not even aware of this existing lump of volcanic rock halfway between the Artic with a population the size of Wellington in New Zealand.
This was the team which handed out defeats to the Netherlands, Turkey, and the Czech Republic to qualify for the tournament. And if that wasn’t enough they stole hearts from across the continent with their wins over England and Austria; along with stealing 1 point off their matches with Portugal and Hungary. This “dark horse” exceeded our expectations, bringing happiness to thousands of fans and disappointment to a million others. Sure, they were disappointed, but there’s something fulfilling about having an underdog succeed that our own minds cannot quite unravel. Though their fairytale run ended on their fifth match in the Euros, against France in a 5-2 defeat, it was their tactics and togetherness which got them to this point.
Fun fact: There was a practice where the co-manager, Hallgrimsson would reveal their lineup before each Iceland match to 200 fans before the media got an opportunity to see it and those fans kept the lineups a secret. The tradition has now been stopped due to their popularity.
Breaking down their tactics:
The team sits behind the ball and waits for the opportune moment. This was called out by Ronaldo in their 1-1 draw with Portugal. Considering the poor international experience of the team, it was perhaps a wise choice.
The strength of the team lies in the knockdowns and utilization of set pieces. There isn’t much of a choice here, as the players are less on the technical ability and more on the brutish force on the ball. Exactly why even with a 33% possession in their match with Hungary, it was a win. Any other team would probably have succumbed to a loss but it’s their incredible patience which makes them so resilient in matches. This is exactly why teams who have more pace tend to grow weak as they play. Taking Portugal for example, it’s one of the teams where you’d see a great deal of running across the field and there’s no saying it’s bad, just that it’s the way they play. Iceland tends to slow down on the ball and wait until they can seize it, when most of the team would go all guns blazing.
Eidur Gudjohnsen has two very interesting facts about him, first, he’s the most celebrated Icelandic player, second, he’s the only one in the squad whose name does not end with “son”. He is the one in the team lending maturity to the play and understanding its flow.
Swansea's Gylfi Sigurdsson is the central point of the Iceland national team and a superior example of his country's youth football development policy. He is the primary playmaker and once in position, an absolute beast, what us folk call, an expert at “dead-ball duties”.
Bjarnason and Skulason are the other plays who mix with Sigurdsson in the central midfield, creating chances, marking the man being few of all the work he did. Certainly, it’s their contributions which allows the team to subsist throughout the match. Gunnarsson leads the team in priceless tackles and interceptions, not to mention, watching him get the ball through the field is beautiful.
The team is certainly not composed of just these players, but their key abilities are what deserves special mention.
The tactics did not come into play as well as expected in their last match, which was reflected in the outcome. But even though France might have won the match, Iceland certainly did not lose.
To end, let’s remember that a part of the country's culture is to work hard and take care of themselves, so it's not a surprise the squad was what it was. The team had come from its underdog status to serious contenders. And needless to say, their unity will carry them far.