Iceland's EURO 2016 Fairytale Continues

Four years ago, I wrote about the decision to expand the European Championships from 16 to 24 teams. I thought it was a stupid decision, one that would dilute the quality and the entertainment value of what is usually a good tournament.

Not for the first time, or the last, I was completely wrong.

I’ve been completely won over by the new format for this tournament. That a team can finish third in a group and still qualify has meant that although you could argue that there has been more defensive football on display than usual, there have been barely any of the dead rubbers that are usually present in these tournaments as all teams knew that one win may be enough to go through as one of the 4 best third-placed teams.

If I was to change anything, it would be a slight change where, in the case of teams finishing on equal points, instead of the teams being split by goal difference, more weight is given to teams that have won a game; it seemed unfair to me that Albania and Turkey won games and didn’t qualify, whereas Portugal didn’t win a game and still went through.

Having 8 more teams than in previous tournaments meant there would be an extra knockout round. The first few Round of 16 games were poor, with Croatia v Portugal being a desperately boring game. However, on Sunday, the round burst into life, with more goals being scored on that day than in the entire knockout stages of some previous Euros.

However, the best was yet to come, as Monday night, Iceland pulled off one of the truly stunning results in European Championship history when they beat England 2-1.

It’s fair to say that Iceland have been one of the stories of the tournament so far, and they have completely charmed the whole of Europe in the process.

Iceland’s friendly, enthusiastic supporters have proven a refreshing contrast to the unwelcome return of a small minority of knuckle-dragging morons of various nationalities that have polluted EURO 2016.

Whereas some teams go into international tournaments laden with expectation that sends players into their shells; Iceland’s attitude is one of going out on the pitch and giving every drop of effort they can and they’ll see how far that gets them.

Maybe it’s the novelty factor, maybe it’s the fact that this Iceland team is the best there’s ever been, but it seems as though Iceland’s players and fans are having more fun than anyone else in the tournament. The connection that Iceland’s players and supporters have seems to be much closer than the relationship most teams have with their fans.  

 

A week last Saturday, I was lucky enough to be in Marseille for the Iceland v Hungary game. Iceland took the lead towards the end of the first half and then put in an excellent defensive display in a bid to hold out for the win, only to be somewhat cruelly denied when the otherwise excellent Birkir Sӕvarsson turned a brilliant cross into his own net with two minutes to go.

Later that night, waiting for the train back from Marseille to the city in which I was staying; I got talking to a group of Iceland fans. There was one family in particular who I was talking to, a guy in his 30s with his young son and an older gentleman who I assume was his father; but was definitely the healthiest looking person I’ve ever seen. 

I asked them if they were going to Paris for Iceland’s last game against Austria (I meant the last group game, but said the last game). The man instantly replied “No, I’m going to the NEXT game; it won’t be the last one”, which all the other Iceland fans around agreed with.

And, it turns out, they were completely correct.   

There has been a lot written about the achievement of Iceland even qualifying for a major tournament in the first place. Iceland is by far the smallest country ever to have made it to a European Championships. If Iceland was a US city its population of about 332,000 would rank between Santa Ana, California and Corpus Christi, Texas in terms of population.

I wrote a couple of years ago, when Iceland made the playoffs for the 2014 World Cup, that Iceland’s rise in football isn’t an accident, but rather the fruits of a long-term vision for Icelandic football coupled with lot of hard work and investment. In the early 00’s, before the financial crash in Iceland, Iceland invested a lot of money in building indoor halls and also invested a lot of money in subsidising coaching courses for Icelanders who wanted to gain coaching qualifications.

The result of that investment is that Icelandic kids have places where they can play all year round, and exposure to quality coaching from a young age. To coach kids over the age of 10 in Iceland requires a coach to have a minimum of the UEFA B Licence, which is one step below what is required to coach professional teams in England. Iceland has about 600 qualified coaches, one for every 550 people. In England that number is more like 1 coach per 11,000 people. 

Even despite the knowledge that Iceland qualified quite easily for the tournament, beating the Netherlands home and away, there weren’t too many people before the tournament that expected much from Iceland. They were drawn in a group with Portugal and Austria, who were both expected to be too strong for Iceland. Iceland’s best hope was seen as being the game against Hungary, with both Iceland and Hungary competing for the third place spot in the group and with that a potential place in the next round.

Iceland’s resilience in getting a draw in their opening game against Portugal drew a marvellously petulant reaction from Cristiano Ronaldo, who refused to shake hands with the Iceland players before saying about them:

“They were just defend, defend, defend and playing on the counterattack. It was a lucky night for them... I thought they’d won the Euros the way they celebrated at the end. It was unbelievable. When they don’t try to play and just defend, defend, defend, this in my opinion shows a small mentality and they are not going to do anything in the competition.”

Well, nobody in the Iceland team was listening, as following their draw with Hungary, Iceland beat Austria to finish second in their group, ahead of Portugal, and it was Iceland’s winning goal that introduced the world to the commentary of Gudmunder Benediktsson (a translation of his commentary is here).

 

Iceland’s reward was a game against England on Monday night. The English media and fans immediately saw this game as a gimme, and were looking ahead to the prospect of playing France in the quarter-finals.  Here in the UK we were treated to days of bad puns about frozen food (there’s a supermarket chain in the UK called Iceland).

 

Iceland won the game, and deservedly so. England did take the lead, and you could see in their eyes they thought that was job done, but before they could say ‘hubris’, Iceland had equalised, then one goalkeeping mistake from Joe Hart later, they took a lead they never really looked like relinquishing. If anything, it was Iceland who looked the more likely to score, and they ended up with more shots on target than England.

The reaction to this win was terrific. The players celebrated with the fans in the stadium. Back in Iceland, 99.8% of the population watched the game. The fans watching outdoors on big screens in Reykjavik rejoiced. Gudmunder Benediktsson (who had been fired from his job as assistant manager of KR Reykjavik a few days earlier) was once again overjoyed.

 

Iceland will play France on Sunday night. While France will be massive favourites to win, Iceland have showed that they are not easy to play against, and are still unbeaten in the tournament. France still haven’t really clicked as a team yet, and Iceland could take advantage of that.

Iceland’s style of play has been criticised, usually by someone bitter at not being able to beat them. Yes, they play a counter-attacking style, and defend deep, but what’s wrong with that? There’s nothing at all wrong with playing to your strengths, and Iceland’s strength is their organisation and teamwork, with Iceland exemplifying the concept of working as a team better than any other side at the Euros.

That being said, there have been some players who have caught the eye. Midfielder Birkir Bjarnason has been one of the standout players of the tournament in my opinion, and any team of the tournament surely must contain at least one of the defensive duo of Kari Arnason and Ragnar Sigurdsson, both of whom have defended heroically.

Whatever happens on Sunday, Iceland have had a magnificent tournament and one that will never be forgotten. Because of the infrastructure they have in place, it is highly likely that Iceland will be seen at major tournaments more and more in the future. Judging from what I have seen and what the world is seeing, they will be very welcome additions to any competition.