By Kris Voakes
The last time Iceland had a major say in world football, it was the eruption of a volcano playing havoc with Champions League travel which had everyone talking. But almost four years on from the ash clouds of
Eyjafjallajokull, the country’s national side are within 180 minutes of causing another massive sporting disturbance.
Tuesday night’s 1-1 draw away to Norway, combined with Slovenia’s defeat to Switzerland, ensured that the tiny Nordic country is within a two-legged play-off of being represented in the final stage of a major tournament for the first time ever. It is a feat which has surprised everyone, including a national association which believed the next Euro qualifiers may be its best chance of causing upsets.
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This campaign was meant to be nothing more than a long run-up for their attempted assault on the finals in France, but with a squad of great promise, a stack of youthful exuberance and a depth of experience at club level, suddenly Iceland have become more than just an outsider for a flight to Brazil.
While Eidur Gudjohnsen remains their most famous ever player two years on from a double fracture of his leg which had looked set to end his international career and four years after he won the Champions League with Barcelona, the likes of Tottenham’s Gylfi Sigurdsson, Cardiff’s Aron Gunnarsson, Ajax striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and Johann Gudmundsson of AZ have been among the star names during a campaign which has upset an entire continent.
An opening victory over Norway was not expected to be the catalyst for bigger things, especially when it was followed four days later by defeat to Cyprus in Larnaca. But wins in Albania and Slovenia sent Iceland flying past the four-point mark they’d registered two years earlier in Euro 2012 qualifying ahead of their key trip to Switzerland last month.
Trailing 4-1 in the 56th minute their World Cup future looked bleaked, but somehow they rescued a sensational 4-4 draw, inspiring further victories against Albania and Cyprus in Reykjavik which left them needing only to match Slovenia’s result on Tuesday to reach the play-offs. With that task negotiated, Monday’s draw will now include an unfamiliar name.
Iceland’s population of 320,000 may never have known such times, but coach Lars Lagerback has seen it all before. He led his native Sweden to World Cups in 2002 and 2006 as well as three European Championships before taking charge of Nigeria in time for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Yet even he must have believed in his heart of hearts that in taking the Iceland job he had waved goodbye to any hope of being back for a fourth straight finals in Brazil next June. They were helped by their being drawn in one of the weaker groups of the European section, yet still it has taken a fantastic effort to finish second ahead of more familiar footballing nations.
The job is far from complete though, with their poor record thus far leaving them guaranteed of a fixture against a seeded team next month. Add in the fact that the seeds are of such strength this time around that even France missed the boat and one could determine that Iceland have a good 80 per cent of the job still to do. Even a typically Icelandic winter’s night may not be enough to help defeat such storied opposition.
But if the impossible dream can be seen through to the end, then Iceland’s fans could be heading for a country in which the 1950 World Cup final drew an attendance comparative to 62 per cent of the Nordic nation’s population. Another 180 minutes down this road, and all 320,000 of them will want to be a part of one of football’s most unlikely success stories of all time.