Thursday 04 August 2016, 12:10

Numbers game adds up for inspiring Iceland

In football, numbers and statistics can often be dry and unrevealing. Not with Iceland. For the UEFA EURO 2016 sensations, it was facts and figures – each seemingly more ridiculous than the last – that underlined the full, remarkable extent of their achievements in France.

Iceland, of course, broke records simply by being there, the country’s population of 323,000 establishing it as the smallest ever to participate in a major tournament. Indeed, it was mentioned during the EURO that any Icelandic man between the age of 20 and 40 has a one in 2000 chance of representing his national team. Add to this that their then co-coach, Heimir Hallgrimsson – now in sole charge – is a part-time dentist and the Nordic minnows would have been a newsworthy curiosity even if they’d departed on the back of three heavy defeats.

Their campaign unfolded very differently, of course, with a draw against eventual champions Portugal and a win over star-studded England the highlights of a fairy tale run to the quarter-finals. The result of their success was the creation of yet more spectacular statistics, this time in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, where Iceland – who slumped as low as 129th as recently as four years ago – now at a record high of 22nd. Their EURO triumphs took them up 12 places in the space of a single month, and left them as the highest-ranked Nordic nation, comfortably clear of the region’s traditional heavyweights, Sweden (40th), Denmark (44th) and Norway (49th).

For Iceland, these are not simply numbers. What they add up to is a new status in a football world that now recognises them as a force to be reckoned with. As Hallgrimsson said after returning from the EURO: “People will take us with complete seriousness now. There was a sense at times that we were made fun of in the past – we have a small population, the coach is a dentist, things like that – but I cannot see that happening any more.”

Expectations and identity While Iceland’s detractors are now an endangered species, fans and admirers have never been in more plentiful supply. This is true across the continent and wider world, but especially so at home, where close to ten per cent of the population left for France to cheer them on (of those who remained, 99.8 per cent tuned in to watch their memorable win over the English). Yet while Hallgrimsson was in awe of this support, saying the euphoric scenes that greeted the squad’s return “will live with me forever”, he also highlighted another consequence of their success. “Icelanders are demanding – we will now be expected to qualify for every major tournament,” he told The Guardian.

The next competition they will attempt to reach is, of course, the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia, and that will be no easy task in a section that includes Croatia, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland and the ambitious debutants of Kosovo. “We have a tough group and it will be tough to be the top team,” acknowledged Hallgrimsson. “But we could and should use as a brick to build on. That's our task. The World Cup is what we talked about before the EURO. Success is not a destination but a journey in the right direction.”

There is no doubting now that Hallgrimsson, along with his former coaching partner Lars Lagerback, correctly identified what direction that should be. And while their fast, direct and occasionally physical style of play may have ruffled a few feathers at EURO 2016, the 49-year-old Iceland coach insists they will stick unapologetically to this chosen course.

“Our football now has a clear identity,” he explained. “We have found a way to win football matches using our players’ specific qualities, and by getting everything out of them. If there have been a few questions about our style, I would answer by saying that if we attempted to play like Spain we would only ever be a bad replica of them. When we could, we showed the quality of football we can play. We are comfortable with who we are, and the task is now to make it work for years into the future.”