Land of geysers and glaciers can generate footballers too
By John Irish
MARSEILLE, France (Reuters) - Iceland's run to the quarter-finals of Euro 2016 showed that a Nordic island known for its volcanoes and pioneering geothermal power has the potential to generate plenty of its own talented footballers too.
At the start of the 24-team tournament few would have predicted a nation of just 330,000 people, 100 soccer professionals and only amateur clubs, would knock out England on their way to the last eight.
"It is something no one expected us to do, which is good because it gives kids back home hope that this is possible," their Swansea City midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson said.
"We have 10-15 players who are at a really good age. The future will be bright for Iceland."
The performances in France have provided the current squad with a perfect stage to display their talents and Icelandic players will have more opportunities to move to Europe's bigger clubs. Iceland is now firmly on the scouting map.
"Iceland's future looks good," said outgoing Swedish coach Lars Lagerback. "There are some young players here, and if everyone stays in good clubs or even better clubs, the future looks really positive."
Much of the success story has been down to the Icelandic soccer association's decision to create the infrastructure for people to play the game all year round despite the cold weather. More investment is now likely.
To some, Iceland's arrival on the European scene is not a surprise.
The country's youth teams have increasingly qualified for top tournaments. The under 21s are just behind France in current Euro qualifications, having beaten the French 3-2 in September.
"You could see it coming -- maybe not beating England, but you could see they would be competitive and would end up in a final tournament," UEFA's interim General Secretary Theodore Theodoridis said.
As the country starts the next goal of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, some of those younger players will be needed.
Older heads such as midfielder Kari Arnason or defender Ragnar Sigurdsson are likely to have passed their peak by 2018 and others like Eidur Gudjohnsen will have retired.
But the Icelanders have shown their potential in France with a defeat of Austria and draws with Portugal and Hungary in the group stage and a 2-1 knockout victory over England. The run ended with Sunday's 5-2 defeat by the hosts.
None of those results was a fluke for a young team which was solid and organised throughout. In addition to a strong defence, Iceland showed they also had a killer instinct as their eight goals in five games highlighted.
Losing master tactician Lagerback will be a loss. Qualification for the World Cup will be tougher than the Euros with Europe having just 13 spots allocated instead of the 24 for this tournament.
But the bonus of Euro 2016 is that Iceland will not fear a group containing Croatia, Turkey, Ukraine and Finland. While Croatia will be favourites to secure top spot, Iceland ran them close in qualifying for the 2014 Brazil World Cup.
(Reporting By John Irish. Editing by Adrian Warner.)