They’re used to feeling the earth shake in Iceland. They’re also used to feeling as remote from football’s big stages as they are from their nearest neighbours on the continent. Less familiar are the seismic shifts in the football landscape that will occur if the national team hold their nerve in their final World Cup qualifiers this month to become the smallest nation ever to make it to the finals of the world’s biggest sporting showpiece.
The pressure is building, both along the fault lines of Strákarnir Okkar’s qualification bid and at KSÍ HQ as president Geir Þorsteinsson fumes over the defection of midfielder Aron Johannsson to the US, but ‘Our Boys’ are braced for what tremors may await in the coming weeks. Time will tell if the foundations laid by head coach Lars Lagerback are sound enough to bear them.
It was less than three years ago that Europe’s most isolated nation picked up just four points and a solitary win en route to finishing bottom of their 2010 qualifying group, but even in those overcast days Icelanders could see a break in the clouds through which the starlets of their current crop shone. The U21’s were about to cap a solid campaign to see themselves into the European Championship finals and the outstanding performers from that side are now showing their maturity in the senior set-up. Captain Aron Gunnarsson, alongside Spurs’ Gylfi Sigurdsson and Ajax forward Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, have brought European pedigree to a team historically lacking bite against the continent’s top sides and the Cardiff City midfielder commands a presence in midfield that defies his years.
Gunnarsson’s reflections on the challenge ahead chime with humility and pathos: “I don’t really get the feeling that people expect us to qualify.” Perhaps not, but back in 2010 when the competition began FIFA’s official competition preview didn’t even bother to count Iceland amongst the outsiders – all a far cry now for a side that have outscored Spain, France and Croatia in edging to within touching distance of World Cup history. And if the tiny nation of just 340,000 inhabitants make it over the line they’ll set some record, smashing the one set by 1.3 million strong Trinidad & Tobago in 2006. If Gunnarsson and his team overcome their doubters and power home next month eye-brows across Europe will arch with Romanesque splendour.
The plot is enriched by the added quirk that last month much coveted midfielder Aron Johannsson opted against pursuing his international career with Iceland, the side he represented throughout his development in the youth ranks, and committed his future to Jurgen Klinsmann’s United States, citing his desire to compete in the World Cup finals as the tipping factor. The US have already booked their place In Brazil so any sub-plots about Johannsson flying too close to the sun in a rush of hubris will have to wait, for another four years at least, but that hasn’t stopped Þorsteinsson getting his hackles up at the KSÍ over the Americans’ approach to player sourcing: “This is annoying. We are 320.000 people in Iceland, and 20,000 thereof are soccer players. I do not understand why the US, with their hundreds of thousands of soccer players do not look inward and create their own soccer players.”
Þorsteinsson and his organisation have earned the right to sound those numbers out to anyone who’ll listen, certainly until the crunch matches against Cyprus and Norway roll around in October. Four points are still needed to confirm Iceland’s place in the play-off round for the finals and Slovenia, just two points behind, are poised to pick up the pieces should Lagerback’s men buckle under the pressure. A 1-0 defeat in Nicosia last autumn threatened to derail the campaign before it had gathered pace and Group E’s bottom team will pose questions of Gunnarsson and his team. Oslo will be a sterner test – Norway are sniffing out their first appearance on the world stage in fifteen years – and nothing is being taken for granted.
These are unchartered waters for Strákarnir Okkar and the price of failure might be difficult to guess at from this distance. The team have progressed rapidly in a short space of time but falling so close to the finish could muddy the spirit in the camp and derail a young and enthusiastic group. Estonia upset the odds two years ago to reach the play-offs before being crushed by Ireland and the Baltic minnows have flopped this time around. But this Iceland team deserve to be judged on merit and off the back of this campaign there’s plenty of that to inspire a final push for the line. It’s a long haul from Iceland to Brazil, but with so much ground already covered the World Cup’s newest suitors will be feeling primed to cause a few tremors of their own.
By Robert O’Connor