Iceland eye Euro 2016 progression after exciting ascent to make first finals
Holly Thackeray | Updated April 15, 2016
Job sharers Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson are history men, at least in Iceland. The former Sweden tactician and his Icelandic partner, ex-assistant coach of this international outfit, make an intriguing pair, and deserve all the plaudits for propelling this island of geysers and rock on Europe’s periphery to their first-ever tournament finals at Euro 2016.
France is the shining stage next summer, and the Nordic nation are guaranteed to be there, which is quite a feat. In Euro 2016 qualifying so far, Iceland have already taken on the might of big tournament regulars in Turkey and the Netherlands, scoring six with just one reply in four games against their supposed betters.
Turkey were at least a test the second time around, but Iceland’s excellent start meant the Crescent Moons and Clockwork Orange were destined to duke it out for third place, as the Czech Republic finished a surprise first.
Of course, the spectacular collapse of the Dutch and apparent problems between players in a Turkish camp divide along intense Istanbul club lines gave Iceland an advantage, but the volcanic country explosively seized their chance.
Lagerback and Hallgrimsson leaders of men
As the players celebrated in the downpour following a hard-fought point haul against Kazakhstan on home soil, Lagerback stopped to speak to press, but appeared, as ever, to be cautiously tempering expectations.
“Someone said it is like a fairytale and I guess that is true in a way, but not in another. This is the result of hard work from a lot of people,” said the experienced coach.
Having steered Iceland, the smallest country to ever qualify for the finals, to the summit of their sporting potential, at least in football, Lagerback, now 67, is widely expected to retire after Euro 2016, leaving Hallgrimsson to take up the reins thereafter.
“There has been a lot of talk about my role and that I am going to become president, but all it is about is that we are a group of people who have worked incredibly hard in a good environment. And then we have some very, very good footballers,” added the modest Swede.
Such seemingly long-term planning for a smooth transition shows what Iceland’s program is all about. The Nordic nation have gone about their qualifying campaign with spirit, precision and a stereotypical cool, which looks set to continue for the future.
Iceland productive at both ends of the pitch
Having already squeezed the potential from their comparatively limited recruitment pool, the cherry on the cake for Iceland (5/1 to win Euro 2016 Pool F) would be to go one step further and escape from the group stage in France, where they face prestigious company in the form of Portugal, Austria and Hungary.
While in qualifying the Czechs, another surprise package (by bridging a generation gap earlier than anticipated), pipped Iceland to the Pool A post in that most enthralling of groups, the central Europeans lagged behind on goal difference.
This shows Lagerback’s boys are not just about containment and opportunistic attacks. Midfield schemer Gylfi Sigurdsson was far and away his nation’s top marksman in qualifying, and also led the group scorers with six strikes.
As Iceland’s most prominent talent, the Premier League plotter has shown he excels as the hub of creativity, and has a similar starring role with his country as with club Swansea City.
France expecting a familiar face
While, Iceland icon and former Chelsea and Barcelona cult hero/forward Eidur Gudjohnsen, now with Molde is still an experienced option for his country to call upon, haven come out of his international break in 2015.
The all-time leading scorer for his nation with 25 goals, Gudjohnsen (37) missed out on recent friendly squads but is still encouragingly tipped to make the final cut, giving his nation an extra dimension.
However, the Nordic minnows are more than the sum of their parts, as all the best underdogs are, but their improvement in individual quality is illustrated by only a smattering of players now being based domestically or in Scandinavia.
Custodian Hannes Halldorsson has been a safe pair of hands, keeping six clean sheets in qualifying, and can be found plying his trade in the Eredivisie, while long-throw specialist Aron Gunnarsson of Cardiff City is the inspirational skipper, with players from Ligue 1 and the Swiss Super League also present. Iceland (odds-on at 4/6 to qualify from Group F in France) have gone international, and it is paying off.