Iceland's success: A tutorial on silencing doubters
On October 9th, 2017, a small piece of World Cup history was made, the key being in the word “small”. Iceland defeated Kosovo 2-0 in Reykjavik to win their UEFA qualifying group, sending them to 2018’s World Cup in Russia as the smallest nation to ever qualify for football’s greatest and most storied competition.
It was a remarkable achievement, given Iceland’s total population of approximately 335,000 – far smaller than the previous smallest country to have reached the finals in Trinidad and Tobago – a country consisting of 1.3 million people.
So how exactly did Iceland manage to achieve such a huge milestone, qualifying top of a group that also contained Croatia – World Cup semi-finalists in 1998 – and Turkey, semi-finalists in 2002, as well as a perennially dangerous Ukrainian side?
It’s a fascinating story that dates back to October 14th, 2011, when Swedish manager Lars Lagerback was brought in as the national team’s new manager.
Prior to that point, the Nordic island’s team had been largely diabolical in the realm of international football. Their first attempt at qualifying for a World Cup came in an attempt to make the 1958 tournament – Iceland finished bottom of their qualifying group with zero wins, having conceded 26 goals.
It was a pattern that would last for the remainder of the 20th century; despite taking place in every subsequent qualifying campaign, they never came close to qualification.
Lagerback, though, had plenty of experience in World Cups and European Championships, and so it was a major boon when the Icelandic Football Association brought him aboard as their manager.
Sweden: The blueprint
Lagerback had been with the Swedish national side since 1990, when he took a job with their youth side. From there, he progressed up the ranks and was named manager of the senior team in 2000, a dual-coach responsibility alongside Tommy Soderberg.
It’d be hard to claim that Sweden saw any real success during this period, but it’d also be a mistake to simply overlook it. Despite the existence of some great individuals like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrik Larsson, Sweden never had one of the strongest squads in world football, nor did they strike fear into the hearts of their opponents in the way that Germany or Brazil would.
But, during Lagerback’s reign, the side qualified for five straight major tournaments, a record unheard of in Swedish football. The 2002 World Cup even saw them top a group that also contained hot favourites England and Argentina, as well as dark horses Nigeria.
The key to Sweden’s strong run during this period was never individuals like Zlatan, but more a strong sense of organisation, each player always knowing their exact role in the side, a willingness to fight for one another on the pitch, and the ability to stick to a gameplan.
It’s telling that in the 2002 World Cup, an Argentina side featuring the likes of Gabriel Batistuta, Claudio Lopez and Juan Veron were unable to escape the group stage, while Sweden’s side – filled with journeymen like Olof Mellberg, Teddy Lucic and Marcus Allback – prospered.
Lagerback’s reign as Sweden boss eventually came to an end when he failed to get his side to the 2010 World Cup. It was always a tough ask given their qualifying group contained both Denmark and Portugal, however.
A brief reign as manager of Nigeria followed, but he never really fitted in with the African side and so the Iceland job clearly made sense to him. It was clearly a tough task, too – during the 2010 World Cup qualifiers Iceland had been as bad as ever – they finished bottom of a group that also included Scotland and Macedonia.
Early progression - Euro 2012 and World Cup 2014 Qualifiers
Instant success for Iceland under Lagerback was realistically never going to happen, as little to no improvement – in the results at least – was seen during the qualifiers for Euro 2012. This time Iceland won a game – at home against Cyprus – but could only finish one place above bottom once again.
However, conceding 14 goals in 8 games wasn’t that bad, and it could be argued that they were no longer whipping boys as they’d been for years until then.
The qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup, on the other hand, was far better. This time, Iceland finished second behind Switzerland in a group that also contained Slovenia, Norway, Albania and Cyprus. They were beaten just three times during qualifying, won five games, and their total points of 17 put them into a play-off against Croatia.
They weren’t too far from making it, too – a 0-0 draw in Reykjavik was followed by a 2-0 defeat in Zagreb that ended their dreams. But there was no denying now that progress was being made.
It was after the Croatia game that assistant manager Heimir Hallgrimsson was elevated into the role of dual coach alongside Lagerback. A practising dentist in his home village, unlike Lagerback, Hallgrimsson had practically zero experience of managing top level football, but it was his appointment as a dual coach that coincided with Iceland taking their next big step – qualifying for a major tournament for the first time.
The tournament in question was of course Euro 2016, taking place in France. Drawn in a qualifying group alongside the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Turkey – as well as lower-level sides Kazakhstan and Latvia – nobody could’ve seen Iceland’s success coming.
And yet, they got through the qualifying stages, unbeaten in home games – defeating the Dutch, the Czechs and the Turks along the way. They defeated the Dutch in Amsterdam, only conceded six goals in the whole campaign, and finished second in the group behind the Czechs to seal their place in France.
Even in a tournament that also contained the likes of Wales, Albania, Northern Ireland and Hungary – sides who hadn’t made it to tournaments in years, if ever – Iceland were the biggest underdogs heading in.
They were drawn in a group with Portugal, Hungary and Austria, and the odds against them making it through seemed astronomical, even if three teams would qualify from some groups due to the odd 24-team format.
A 1-1 draw against Portugal in their opening game of Euro 2016 was celebrated hugely by neutrals, but Cristiano Ronaldo, for one, wasn’t impressed.
He railed against Iceland’s supposed “small mentality” – basically unable to understand why the Nordic side wouldn’t go toe-to-toe with his team of far more proven international stars, instead, choosing to pack their defence and counter-attack whenever possible.
If anyone had a small mentality that night it was Ronaldo – Iceland were doing the same thing that Lagerback’s Swedish side had done for years, and it was paying dividends.
Another 1-1 draw with Hungary followed, and the other results in the group meant that Iceland would likely qualify for the second round – a monstrous achievement given expectations – if they could avoid losing to Austria in the final game.
Sneaking through in that fashion, though, wasn’t this side’s style. They beat Austria 2-1 – scoring the winner in injury time – to set up a second-round tie with England.
As a proud Englishman, it’s tough to write about what happened next. The whole of England expected Iceland’s side of journeymen and nobodies to practically roll over for the Premier League’s megastars – although, why that was common perception, is unknown, given Iceland’s form in the group stage – and after an early Wayne Rooney goal, it seemed it would be business as usual.
But, Iceland simply didn’t falter, and – again – stuck to the gameplan. They outworked and outfoxed England, and after scoring two first half goals, England just had no answer.
Lagerback departed following the tournament, leaving Hallgrimsson in sole command. Fans would’ve been forgiven for thinking that the bubble would probably burst for the small nation in their attempt to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, especially given their tough group, which contained Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey.
Evidently, though, the dentist had been paying close attention to the work of his more experienced co-manager over the past few years.
Once again Iceland got through the qualifying group, this time going one better than the previous – winning the group after again going unbeaten in home games, not even dropping a point this time – and although they were beaten away in Croatia and Finland, it didn’t matter.
Following the Kosovo win this month, Iceland officially joined the likes of Germany, Spain, and – yes – England as the earliest sides to qualify for the tournament in Russia next summer.
Iceland literally have no big name players – even their star man Gylfi Sigurdsson didn’t make a huge impact during his time at Tottenham when the spotlight shone most heavily on him, and he’s failed to make an impact since his big-money move to Everton this summer – and the majority of their squad are spread across Europe at mostly smaller clubs.
This isn’t a “golden generation” like Portugal’s in the early 90s or Croatia's in the late 90s. Nor are they being carried by one outstanding player, as Sweden were by Ibrahimovic in the post-Lagerback years, or as some would argue Gareth Bale has carried Wales.
So how have they done it? Well, it’s pretty simple when you step back and look at it. It comes down to the same principles that Lagerback used with Sweden, and the same ones that evidently, Hallgrimsson has kept for his Iceland side. No player has ideas above his station, not even Sigurdsson.
It’s a case of placing round pegs in square holes – organisation, not individualism rules for this side – and they continue to prove that the idea of sticking to a gameplan can work.
Today’s top international sides are full of talent, but often – too often in the case of England – we see teams of individuals, with coaches attempting to play to their best players’ strengths, with less emphasis on the idea of the team and a strong gameplan.
Iceland represents the antithesis of this. It was this difference that allowed Iceland to defeat England last summer and it’s this that allowed the Nordic side to qualify for Russia in 2018.
So where now? Simply put, Iceland are too small to ever win the World Cup, nor the European Championships for that matter. But stick to their current mentality – whether or not Cristiano Ronaldo thinks it’s a small one is up to him – and embrace it, and there could be at least one more big upset in store in Russia.
And who would bet against them qualifying for more tournaments now? It’s not like they’re waiting for the current batch of talent to fade away. If anything, due to this success, even better talent could be developing right now.
Who would bet against them? Only a fool.