Euro 2016: Viking Quest 2.0 - Iceland on the rise
For fans of the TV show Entourage and there are many, the words Viking Quest ring immediate bells. It is the name of a TV show within a TV show that garners the star of said TV show (the one in the TV show, not the TV show itself), Jhonny Drama, some well-deserved snippets of stardom. And while there is no actual silver screen production called Viking Quest, it can very well be the name given to a stunning and scarcely believable on-going real life conquest that has been unfolding dramatically over the last couple of weeks. The sets are the lush green, highly trimmed and pruned football fields of France and our heroes are a bunch of lion-hearted but little-known footballers and their duo of managers Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrímsson who are representing the tiny Nordic island nation of Iceland at the 2016 UEFA European Championships.
Co-coaches Lars Lagerback (left) and Heimir Hallgrímsson lead Iceland’s conquest into uncharted waters. (Source: BPA)
During the qualification rounds for Euro 2016, the majority of the urban populace’s general musings of amazement were directed at Wales, who buoyed by their current crop of footballers (also referred to as the golden generation) had qualified for a major international tournament for the first time in 58 years. Much praise was heaped on their manager Chris Coleman and his predecessor Gary Speed, who are credited with having helped take Wales from a lowly 117th in the FIFA rankings in August, 2011 to an all-time high 8th in October, 2015. However, parallel to all the frenzy surrounding the Welsh resurgence, there was another team that was gaining just as rapidly and just as much but remained far removed from the public cynosure. In the space of the last three years or so, the Iceland national team managed to climbed a total of an astounding 109 places in the FIFA rankings (at their highest ranking of 23; they currently sit at 34) while at the same time constantly staying away from world view, almost MI6 like in their activities. Or maybe nobody just took them seriously.
In the space of the last three years or so, the Iceland national team managed to climbed a total of an astounding 109 places in the FIFA rankings (at their highest ranking of 23; they currently sit at 34) while at the same time constantly staying away from world view, almost MI6 like in their activities. Or maybe nobody just took them seriously.
Either way, the numbers speak for themselves, about 70 years after playing its first international football match (a 1-0 win against the Faroe Islands), one of Europe’s traditional footballing minnows has finally come of age.
Taking on the Oranje can be pretty intimidating for the best of teams. Iceland were slated to do just that having been drawn in the same group as the former European champions for its Euro 2016 qualifying campaign. From a traditional standpoint, this was a mismatch. On one side, the Netherlands, three-time world cup finalists, pioneers of total football and led by international superstars Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder while on the other, in stark contrast, well Iceland, best known for producing Eidur Gudhojnsen, the former Chelsea and Barcelona winger. If the Dutch thought that this was going to be a cakewalk, what they received that cold October night in Reykjavik was a stern reality check.
The Strákarnir okkar notched up a pretty impressive 2-0 victory over the Oranje, just the biggest triumph in the nation’s 70-year history, nothing major, following up on flawless 3-0 wins against Turkey and Latvia, two of the other teams in Iceland’s qualification group. What would have seemed delusional just a few months ago was suddenly looking like a reality. They followed up the win against the Dutch with victories against Kazakhstan, the Czech Republic, and Netherlands again (this time on away turf) and by October 2015, all the chips had fallen into place. Iceland, a country of 330,000 and with no heralded superstars in their team had booked rightful passage to France aboard UEFA’s prize vessel, The Euro 2016.
In spite of Iceland’s enormous success in the qualifying campaign and its massive improvement in general, there was still a general feeling of disbelief amongst the general diaspora regarding its chances at this summer’s quadrennial continental showpiece. Recent victories against the likes of the Netherlands and, Czech Republic notwithstanding, there was still this overwhelming feeling about the team ending up as the whipping boys of their group. Drawn alongside the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal (world no. 8), David Alaba’s Austria (world no. 10) and an increasingly resurgent Hungary, it was almost as if Iceland had no right to be there. The same half-baked judgement calls, the same punditry like predictions, statements in the ilk of ‘good that you are here, enjoy it while it lasts’ that had been directed all season long at miracle mongers Leicester had found a new subject in Iceland.
And it was probably this very lack of trepidation that turned out to be Iceland’s biggest weapon and opposition teams’ hubris. Iceland cut through their group like it was nobody’s business taking the early lead in all but one of their matches even throwing in the wily old fox, 37 year old and out of retirement Eidur Gudjohnsen into the fray at one point. Their performances were so good that they ended the group stages unbeaten, finishing second only on goal difference, leaving Portugal hanging by a thread and Austria wondering whether they had left their running shoes back home in Vienna. This conquest was alive and kicking!
Iceland players celebrate with their fans after successfully qualifying for the knockout stages of Euro 2016. (Source: Reuters)
Roy Hodgson’s England has looked really solid this time around. Nice and compact at the back, creative in midfield and possessing some lethal finishers up front. However, England’s lack of scoring ability in front of goal has already become the subject of widespread global ridicule. The likes of the usually clinical Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge haven’t been able to hit the target as often as they would have liked to. In fact England has scored a grand total of 3 goals in the Euros so far, one of them a gem of a free kick by Eric Dier.
Iceland for their part, who were given as much chance of qualifying for the knockouts tournament mascot Super Victor, have racked up 4 goals. So when the two teams line up at Nice later tonight, England would be hoping that Lagerback and his boys, Gudjohnsen, Sigurdsson and co. are nothing but nice to them once the ball is set rolling. Iceland will have it much simpler as they need to do exactly what they have been doing all tournament long. The opposition has changed but the game remains the same. The Icelandic coaches’ pep talk seems to be a pretty straightforward one too: there’s nothing to lose now, so we might as well go ahead and win. Or maybe they will opt for something akin to Shah Rukh Khan’s speech in Chak De India.
Who knows? But while the game will be played on even ground, the difference in pressures that will be bearing down on the two teams tonight is also undeniable. If after tonight, Iceland returns home, they do so, each player having achieved Nordic God status. If England returns home, they do so to the revival of the ever so common chokers tag and the prospect of a head coach losing his job; a David and Goliath battle set to take place in every sense of the word, with the two teams interchanging roles depending on the subject matter at hand.
It is perhaps poetic justice then that the population of Leicester in England is the same as that of the entire Iceland, who may quite possibly land the tag of Leicester City (current English Premier League champions) of the international stage if they somehow manage to overcome Leicester’s Jamie Vardy and England tonight. It is also perhaps poetic justice that in this edition of the Viking Quest, Viking Quest 2.0, when our heroes take on their latest challenge tonight, it is Jhonny Drama’s signature exclamation from the fictional TV show of the same name that they will be looking to emulate, ‘VICTORY!!!’