During UEFA EURO 2016, it seemed that the entire football world fell in love with Iceland. The enchanting underdog story of Europe’s most sparsely populated country proved irresistible, and a mountain of remarkable statistics underlined the scale of their achievements.
With just 323,000 inhabitants, Iceland had already earned their place in the record books as the smallest country ever to qualify for a major tournament. Everything about them, from their little-known players to their co-coach, a part-time dentist, was modest. Everything, of course, except their results, with eventual winners Portugal and the multi-millionaires of England among the teams left licking their wounds.
And while adulation rained down from across the world, the warmest affection awaited them at home, where a spine-tingling ‘Viking clap’ provided the highlight of a euphoric return to the packed streets of Reykjavik. “We were all so proud of them,” Harpa Thorsteinsdottir, the star striker of Iceland’s women’s side, told FIFA.com. “It’s been such a great time for the country. Everybody is just so proud of how far we’ve come in the world’s biggest sport, really putting ourselves on the map. There are so few of us in Iceland, so to see our team going up against bigger countries with huge populations and big history was fantastic and put smiles on everyone’s faces.”
Fantastic it was, and yet something which is not widely recognised – and which Thorsteinsdottir knows only too well – is that Iceland’s men were merely following where the women had already led. Indeed, for all the attention lavished on the ‘miracle’ of the team making the quarter-finals in France, it’s worth acknowledging that their female counterparts have twice reached the same stage of the Women’s EURO. Furthermore, while the men’s side rose to a record ranking position of 22nd on the back of their French exploits, the women sit 16th and have been ensconced in the top 20 for eight years running.
Thorsteinsdottir and Co are also on the verge of qualifying for a third successive European finals, having emerged as one of the qualifiers’ most impressive performers. The numbers – six wins from six, with 29 goals scored and none conceded – speak for themselves, as do the ten strikes that have established their talismanic striker as the competition’s top markswoman.
I definitely feel that the last two or three years have been the best of my career.
“I think we are in the best shape we have ever been,” said Thorsteinsdottir. “The balance looks to be perfect at the moment between the experience of the older players – a core who’ve been together for years - and the talent and freshness of some youngsters who’re starting to really impress.
“On a personal level, I definitely feel that the last two or three years have been the best of my career. The team is creating a lot more chances for me than ever before, so it’s natural that leads to more goals – and I have to thank them for that! But I also feel a lot stronger and more confident for the experience I’ve gained over the years and I think that shows in my play, especially when I’m in front of goal.”
Having explained the secret to her success, Thorsteinsdottir was then asked to do the same for Icelandic football as a whole, outlining how her tiny country is managing to punch so consistently above its weight.
“Not only do we have great facilities, we also have qualified coaches working with our kids right down to three and four years old,” she said. “The association is very good in terms of education and most clubs simply will not hire a coach unless they have the highest qualifications. That’s created a high level of coaching standards and a consequence of that is that the players are all being taught in the right way.”
The 30-year-old also sees cause for encouragement in Iceland’s ever-improving domestic women’s scene, and admits that she is unlikely to be tempted by a move to the more glamorous leagues in USA and mainland Europe.
“I’m quite happy where I am, although my family is definitely a big factor in that,” said the Stjarnan striker. “I have a son and a step-son and, although it’s getting better, the money still isn’t huge in women’s football even in the bigger leagues, so it would be difficult for me to move abroad and earn enough to support them.
“I’m enjoying my football and my life here with my family, and we’re already making plans for the boys to come and watch me at the EURO next year. Like the men’s team, we’ll be going there to make a big impact. We’ve been to the quarter-finals before and now we want to go even further. I really hope it can be another fantastic tournament for Iceland.”