Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that Iceland's senior side have yet to qualify for a UEFA EURO or FIFA World Cup™ finals, their coach Olafur Johannesson was in cautious mood when outlining his side's goals for the year ahead: "We want to improve our game and get as many points on the board as possible in our World Cup qualifying group," he told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview.
The Scandinavians are still in with a chance of qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, though they are already 11 points behind runaway group leaders the Netherlands and three adrift of second-placed Scotland in European Zone Qualifying Group 9. The team placed 93rd in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking restored hope with a 1-0 home victory over FYR Macedonia in October, their first win of the current campaign, but 1 April's 2-1 reverse against Scotland in Reykjavik has since dealt their chances a considerable blow.
Despite that recent setback, Johannesson has not lost sight of how much qualification would mean back home: "Qualifying for the World Cup would make everyone in Iceland so proud. It would be a massive achievement for our country, the players, the coaches and everybody who is involved with the national team."
The 51-year-old tactician is, however, acutely aware of the battles facing Icelandic football in general: "Football is extremely popular among all age groups - male and female. The problem is, we don't have a very big population and so we only produce a small number of top players. They tend to go and play abroad anyway, so we need to improve things on that front."
An official FIFA member association since 1947, Iceland is currently home to fewer than 22,000 registered footballers, of whom only around 50 have experience of other European leagues (predominantly England, Germany and Norway). Some of the more successful Icelandic players on the continental scene in recent history include former Stuttgart ace and ex-national team coach Asgier Sigurvinsson, ex-Tottenham Hotspur and Bolton Wanderers stalwart Gudni Bergsson and former Besiktas and Hertha Berlin midfielder Eyjolfur Sverrisson.
However, the most famous and arguably the greatest Icelandic footballer of all time is Eidur Gudjohnsen, the 30-year-old FC Barcelona schemer who joined the Catalan giants three years ago after spells at Chelsea, Bolton and PSV Eindhoven.
And on 24 April 1996 in Tallinn, the blonde-haired forward's name was etched into the football history books when he came on as a substitute in a friendly match against Estonia. "Eidur replaced his own father," recalled Johannesson. "It proved to be the start of a glittering career." Indeed, it was the first and to date the only time that a son has replaced his father in an official international football match.
Another milestone for the nation captained by Portsmouth defender Herman Hreidarsson was a friendly victory over current world champions Italy in August 2004, when over 20,000 fans (an Icelandic record) turned out to witness a historic success at the Laugardalsvollur stadium. Also frustrated by the Icelanders was former Germany supremo Rudi Voller, who exploded into a fit of rage during a post-match interview after the three-time FIFA World Cup winners were held to a goalless draw in 2003.
"Brazil, Spain and Italy are all excellent sides, but the gulf between them and the so-called lesser teams is becoming smaller all the time," said Johannesson, when asked who were the world's best national teams on current form. "In football, anything is possible. That's why it's is the most popular sport in the world."
Through its Goal Project initiative, FIFA has once again been supporting the Icelandic Football Association (KSI) by expanding the technical centre in Reykjavik. Football followers in the country will hope this helps their national representatives begin qualifying outright for international tournaments, rather than merely taking part as hosts - such as at the UEFA U-18 Championship in 1997 and the UEFA Women's U-19 Championship ten years' later.
Meanwhile, Iceland's upcoming qualifiers against the Netherlands and FYR Macedonia on 6 and 10 June respectively could well decide whether they stay in the hunt for a place in South Africa next summer. And even though the odds are stacked against them, as the interview concluded Johannesson underlined his belief that his squad are on the right track: "So far we've made real strides and hopefully we can continue to improve our game further still."