The clock may have run out for everyone’s new favorite national team, but soccer in Iceland is just getting started. Easily the greatest story to come out of the UEFA European Championship, it is sad to see this nation go. It may not have won the tournament, but it surely captured all of our hearts.
Few would have dared imagine that the tiny 330,000-person island nation of Iceland would have qualified for the Euro Cup, let alone that it would knock out England on its way to the quarterfinals. Yet this is exactly what happened in Iceland’s first-ever major tournament.
Iceland’s road to the Euro Cup is quite remarkable, considering that soccer was not a major sport for the past few decades. Somewhere along the way though, the Icelandic people decided they wanted to become great at soccer, so they built up the infrastructure to encourage more people to play. It is a strategy that has clearly paid dividends. The love of soccer is not merely limited to playing however. In Iceland, over 400 people are UEFA-certified referees, a staggering number considering just 600 even referee at all.
The island nation ended up advancing to the Euro Cup out of a qualifying group that included the Netherlands, Czech Republic and Turkey, among other teams. Iceland ultimately finished second in its qualifying group. That alone was an accomplishment well worth celebrating, but Iceland was not satisfied with simply qualifying. Taking advantage of an easy group for the Euros, Iceland proceeded to take the world by storm.
Portugal, Austria and Hungary: These were the other members of Group F, all of whom were supposed to steamroll right over Iceland. This was a country where any man between the ages of 25 and 40 has a 2000 to one chance of getting called up to play for the national team. For the record, Kim Kardashian West has the same odds for becoming president of the United States. Iceland, a country with a population only slightly smaller than that of Austin, Texas, one of the smaller cities in Texas, ended up finishing second in Group F – ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, the team widely expected to win the group.
If you are not astonished yet, consider the fact that Iceland’s coach is a dentist when he is not busy managing Iceland’s team. In a world where we are used to only seeing managers manage, this is amazing. A part-time dentist guided the Iceland team to a finish that was better than England’s. It appears that the English Football Association may need to take a page out of Iceland’s book by hiring someone completely unpredictable to replace Roy Hodgson.
In all seriousness, it was a sheer joy to watch Iceland play. Led by captain Aron Gunnarsson, it was clear that this Iceland team was here to stay when it tied Portugal in its first game of the Euro Cup. That game was also memorable for Ronaldo’s meltdown, where he essentially said that Iceland would not go anywhere because it was a small-mentality team. Look who had the last laugh.
Iceland further carried that momentum when it tied Hungary. At that point, it really looked as though Iceland would advance from Group F. It was the thrilling 2-1 defeat of Austria that really sealed the deal and turned a bunch of us into believers.
A Round of 16 matchup against England would have been the kiss of death for many other teams, but not for Iceland. After conceding an early penalty, the team quickly bounced back with goals from Ragnar Sigurdsson and Kolbeinn Sigthórsson. Losing to a lesser squad and collapsing in a half-hearted effort is one of the most English things ever, but credit must be given to the ferocity of Iceland. I am not sure that many teams would be capable of bouncing back from an early goal in the same energizing way as Iceland. That was largely due to the sheer energy of the crowd, which refused to give up on its team. It is worth mentioning that nearly 10 percent of Iceland’s population was in France for the tournament.
The stunning victory over England meant that Iceland would face France in the quarterfinals. I know I was fervently hoping that Iceland could keep the magic going, if only for jokingly calling the team’s run way back in the group stages. Alas, it was not meant to be. Right from the get-go, France played with a sense of purpose that was difficult for Iceland to match. By halftime, the score was 4-0 for France. Yet Iceland, true to form, refused to give up. Not many teams would continue to try after being down so many goals, but Iceland managed to pull two back to end up with a 5-2 defeat.
Iceland’s defeat is nothing to be ashamed of, and it should take immense pride in its performance this tournament. With the ultimate Cinderella story, this tiny team showed the world what it was capable of. The players will forever be immortalized as heroes, while the rest of us will look back fondly on this team. The clock may have struck midnight on Iceland’s Euro Cup, but this country is just getting started on making its mark on the soccer world. It is something I very much look forward to seeing in the years to come.
Vanessa Craige is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. The Beautiful Game appears every Tuesday and Friday.
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