With a population of just under 349,000, Iceland is the smallest nation to have ever qualified for a World Cup. Their fervent fans cheering them on with the Viking Clap, the small country has had upsets left and right. And after their 1-1 draw with powerful Argentina in their first match of the 2018 World Cup, it’s time the Icelandic team is given their due, and other nations should start taking them seriously.
For most of their existence, Iceland has been a mid to lower level nation. Usually in one of the lower pots during qualification, Iceland was always seen as a team that should be beaten in group play. During this time, Iceland never progressed past the group stages and never qualified for a major tournament.
The tiny nation’s fortunes started changing at the turn of the century. During qualification for Euro 2004, Iceland finished one point behind second-place Scotland. During group play, they drew 0-0 in their home match against perennial giants Germany. Iceland was anchored by Eidur Gudjohnsen, who was making regular appearances in the Premier League for Chelsea.
After sliding down the rankings for the next eight years, Iceland started making waves again during qualification for the 2014 World Cup. In the group stage, they finished in second place with five victories and scored 17 goals. This moved them on to a play-off against Croatia, where they lost in the second leg and were eliminated.
In 2016, they finally qualified for their first major tournament and scored some of their biggest victories. During Euro 2016 qualification, in which they were drawn into a group with Netherlands, Czech Republic, and Turkey, Iceland finished in second place, only two points off the lead. During group play, they beat Netherlands twice, who in 2014 were semi-finalists in the World Cup. They also scored victories against Turkey and Czech Republic. During the tournament itself, they had a 1-1 draw with eventual winners Portugal, and scored a last-minute goal against Austria to move on to the knockout phase. Here they completed one of their biggest upsets, a 2-1 beating of England and advanced to the quarterfinals. They lost to France 5-2 and thus were eliminated from the tournament. In this match, national star Gudjohnsen made his final appearance for his country. Even though they were eliminated, Iceland won the hearts of many soccer fans and their rabid fans introduced the world to the Viking Clap, which is now being used by fans of the Minnesota Vikings.
In the lead up to the 2018 World Cup qualification, Iceland were ranked 23rd in the world, their highest ranking. In the group stage, they were drawn once again with Turkey but also had Ukraine and a rematch with Croatia. During group play, they finished top of their group with seven victories from ten matches. They scored 16 goals and only gave up seven as they advanced to their first World Cup appearance and moved up to 22nd in the FIFA World Rankings.
Made up of scrappy players who play in many leagues in Europe, Iceland is a serious threat to advance to the next stage of the 2018 World Cup. The team is led by captain Aron Gunnarsson and goal scorers Alfred Finnbogason, who scored the tying goal against Argentina, and Gylfi Sigurdsson. Goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson has made some incredible saves, including an incredible stopping five-time player of the year Lionel Messi’s penalty kick. It’s time the rest of the world starts taking Iceland seriously in future competitions.