Situated 611 miles north-west of Scotland, sits the volcanically-active, nordic island of Iceland. Its number of inhabitants sits at just over 350,000, making it almost 5 times less populated than the county of Kent, and only just greater than the Welsh city of Cardiff. Handball is their official national sport, the language spoken is still ancient Norse, and the majority of those living there firmly believe in elves.
It seems remarkable then, that this tiny viking nation could even be in contention to qualify for a World Cup, let alone play in one. They enter this tournament having reached the quarter-finals of Euro 2016, which after infamously knocking out England, could well be considered the greatest achievement in the history of the country.
Two years on from that unforgettable night in Nice, and Iceland’s footballing reputation is still growing at an remarkable rate. They qualified for Russia 2018, the first World Cup in history to feature their national team, by topping their preliminary group. This is an incredible achievement in any case, but it is even more impressive when you consider they were placed amongst Croatia, Turkey and the Ukraine. This feat saw them placed 18th in FIFA’s World Rankings – 113 places above where they sat just 6 years earlier, in 2012. It has been a meteoric rise to say the least.
However, don’t put their success down to fairy tales. Iceland have achieved all that they have thanks to a regimented playing style, that relies on defensive solidarity and an elite work ethic. A pragmatic 4-4-2 formation has been their weapon of choice over the past few years, which allows them to defend in numbers when without possession (which often is the majority of the game), whilst having enough creativity in the likes of Gylfi Sigurdsson and a clinical striker in Alfred Finnbogason to make the most of any opportunities forged through effective transition play.
They are hugely confident in their own abilities, which was evident against England two years ago, and also in their first game in Russia, against Argentina. This seemed to be the ultimate test for Iceland, to see if their steely determination and seemingly unbreakable organisation could fend off Lionel Messi & co. However, it seemed as though, after just 19 minutes, that it would not be enough. After a direct pass to Sergio Agüero allowed the striker to work a yard of space inside the penalty area, the Manchester City talisman fired impeccably into the net to score his first ever World Cup goal. From there, it seemed to be one bridge too far for Iceland. Surely Argentina would extend their lead.
Just four minutes later, the game did indeed have its second goal – but it had gone the way of the ‘Strákarnir okkar’. Iceland had replied in incredible fashion, taking advantage of questionable Argentinan defending and goalkeeping to tap home a historic equaliser. The two-time World champions were level with the debutants once again – and incredibly, that is the way it would stay. Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria were just some of the names that were unsuccessful in breaching the wall of white shirts that seemed more than content to be camped on the edge of their own penalty area. It was backs-to-the-wall at times, but overall, it was yet another well-earned milestone for this more than admirable outfit.
It is hard to say just how far Iceland will progress in this world cup, or whether they will progress at all – but they have had a perfect start to their maiden campaign. A group that also contains Croatia and Nigeria provides stern opposition, but taking a draw from one of the favourites to life the trophy will give them a huge confidence lift – not that they needed one, mind. It is also difficult to predict how long this may continue in general – with what appears to be an ageing first team with no real youth products emerging, the Icelandic footballing legacy could well die along with this eleven. But there could be little complaints with that. It has been a journey that has seen the underdogs become the overachievers, but there are plenty more minutes of football to be played yet. A place in the round of sixteen would seal god-like status for these viking descendants. Valhalla awaits.