Iceland have never qualified for a major tournament. They have always had to sit and watch their bigger, stronger Scandinavian siblings go to the ball. And it has not been much fun.
Their best performance so far, the closest they have come to qualification, was when they were squeezed out by one point for a play-off spot for Euro 2004. Squeezed out by Berti Vogts’ Scotland.
But this time things are different. Iceland are on the brink of a World Cup play-off place, second in Group E. Tonight they travel to Norway knowing that a win would send them into the final round. And with Slovenia – one point behind them – going to group winners Switzerland, a draw might even be enough.
It is the biggest game in Icelandic football history. Not just for the prospect of being two games away from a World Cup – although that means everything – but doing so at the expense of a fellow Scandinavian nation.
“They all look down on us so much, we are not even their little brother, we are their little cousin,” explained Tomas Thordarson of Icelandic newspaper Morgunbladid. “They have more or less no respect for us, and we absolutely love beating them.”
Sweden are guaranteed a play-off place but Norway are out and Denmark are fighting to come second in Group B. “If we can leave Denmark behind, and beat Norway in Oslo, it would add a cherry on a cake that is already very, very sweet,” Thordarson added.
So there will be no pedestrians or cars on the streets of Reykjavik this evening. The whole country is shutting down to watch the game. There will be nearly 3,000 Iceland fans at the Ullevaal Stadion in Oslo – almost 1 per cent of the country’s population. The significance of this match is almost impossible to overstate.
“This will be the most important game in Iceland’s history,” said striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson yesterday. “And we’re aiming for the play-offs.”
It is a very strong position for Iceland to be in, and one that would have been a great surprise as recently as last month. Iceland, in Berne, were 3-1 down at half-time to Switzerland when coach Lars Lagerbäck threw on Eidur Gudjohnsen, the veteran striker, Iceland’s greatest ever, whom he had not favoured at the start of his tenure.
Iceland even went 4-1 down but then Gudjohnsen started to turn the game, with Sigthorsson pulling one back before Johann Gudmundsson scored his second and third goals to complete a hat-trick in an unlikely 4-4 draw.
It was such a good performance that Gudjohnsen – now 35 years old and playing for Bruges – was restored to the starting line-up by Lagerbäck, playing up front alongside Ajax’s brilliant young Sigthorsson in a 4-4-2 system. Iceland beat Albania 2-1 in Reykjavik and Cyprus 2-0 on Friday night, leaving them in the play-off places.
That partnership between Gudjohnsen – at the end of a brilliant career during which he has played for Chelsea, Tottenham and Barcelona – and Sigthorsson – seemingly at the start of one – represents the essence of the team. Even Alfred Finnbogason, the top scorer in the Dutch league this season with Heerenveen, can no longer start up front.
Lagerbäck’s genius has been balancing Iceland’s experience and youth. “He started the campaign in a conservative manner, playing it safe by keeping the core of the side that finished bottom of the qualifying group for Euro 2012,” explained Tor-Kristian Karlsen, experienced chief scout and sporting director. “Step by step, he has successfully integrated the younger players – mainly those born between 1989 and 1992 – that represent some kind of a “golden generation” for Iceland.”
This is one of the best groups of players in Iceland history – not just Finnbogason, Sigthorsson and Gudmundsson but two Premier League midfielders as well, Gylfi Sigurdsson of Tottenham and captain Aron Gunnarsson of Cardiff.
While Gudjohnsen has an important leadership role in the team, the young talents also bring the best out of him. “He is finally playing in a team with players of his class, big players who have experience in big games,” said Thordarson. “He is thriving in the atmosphere, there has been a total change of attitude. He still has a lot of magic left in his shoes.”
Between Gudjohnsen and the youngsters, there is more than enough confidence that they can win tonight and progress to the play-offs. “We play better football than Norway and are higher ranked [in the group], so there is no way we’re dropping out now,” proclaimed Sigthorsson.
This is uncharted territory for Iceland, but there is no fear in the squad. “We are young and do not scare easily,” said Gunnarsson. “We have already put pressure on ourselves and now we just have to handle it. Norway have nothing to lose so they might play well, but we just have to think about our game, stay cool and everything will be OK.”
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