When it comes to qualifying campaigns, Lars Lagerback has been there, done it and bought the t-shirt. More importantly, the 64-year-old - as an ever-present at the last three FIFA World Cups™ – knows a thing or two about emerging successfully from these perilous preliminaries.
Nonetheless, the road to Brazil 2014 offers a new and unfamiliar challenge, with the former Sweden and Nigeria coach tasked with steering Iceland to a first-ever major tournament. That campaign begins tomorrow when Lagerback’s side host Norway, familiar Nordic rivals and Group E’s top seeds.
Few are tipping Iceland to spring a surprise. After all, they have won just one match in each of their most recent qualifying campaigns for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ and UEFA EURO 2012, finishing bottom of their section in the former and second-from-bottom in the latter. It was no wonder, given these results, that they slipped to an all-time low position of 131st in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking back in April.
But their coach sees cause for optimism, and an improved ranking position reflects his reasoning, with Iceland rising 12 places in table unveiled yesterday. A 2-0 win over the Faroe Islands on 16 August facilitated this recent leap, and they go into tomorrow’s qualifying curtain-raiser with genuine hopes of causing an upset. “The players are positive and have been working hard,” said Lagerback. “Norway will have to play really well to beat us."
Strengthening the Swede’s belief that his side will be a force to be reckoned with has been the emergence in Iceland of a clutch of international-class forwards and attacking midfielders. Striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, for example, is making a name for himself with Dutch giants Ajax, and scored both Iceland’s goals in the win over the Faroes. The 22-year-old has now found the net six times in 11 international appearances, and faces competition for attacking places in the shape of Heerenveen’s Alfred Finnbogason – top scorer for Swedish champions Helsinborgs last season – and Bjorn Bergmann Sigurdarson, who recently made a £2.4m move to Wolverhampton Wanderers.
I think he could be a really world-class player in the right environment. He has fantastic feet and can shoot from anywhere.
Eidur Gudjonsen, Iceland’s record goalscorer, also remains an option and featured as a substitute in the victory over the Faroes. However, the former Barcelona and Chelsea forward has been replaced as his national team’s creative fulcrum by Gylfi Sigurdsson, the midfielder whose signature Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur battled for during the summer.
Spurs eventually won that tussle, paying £6.8m for a player whose skill, vision and explosive shooting made him one of the most spectacular players on show in the English Premier League last season. As Lagerback said: “Gylfi had a fantastic season with Swansea and he has great quality. He’s a fantastic player at linking play around him. I think he could be a really world-class player in the right environment. He has fantastic feet and can shoot from anywhere. We have found a role for him in the Iceland team where he can be involved as much as possible and really influence the attacking part of our game.”
Should Sigurdsson hit form, his coach believes that Iceland have every right to fancy their chances in a section that, as well as Norway, contains Slovenia, Switzerland, Albania and Cyprus. “I mean, we are not in the toughest group for the World Cup,” said Lagerback, acknowledging the fact none of the Group E rivals made it to EURO 2012. “We don't have any of the five or six biggest countries.”
Iceland remain outsiders all the same, but with talent coming to the fore and an experienced coach at the helm, this recent jump in the world ranking could be just the start of this Nordic nation’s rise.