Located in the middle of the ocean in the far northwest of Europe, Iceland and its 320,000 inhabitants can often appear a little isolated on a map. Things are a little different in the realm of football, however, with the Nordic country having put itself right at the heart of the continent, to the extent that Iceland's national team now have their sights on a place at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. Currently second in Group E, five points behind Switzerland, the islanders are in prime position to secure a play-off berth.
Should the rest of Europe be surprised? Not according to Alfred Finnbogason, one of the stars of Iceland's qualifying bid, as he explained to FIFA.com.
"We can be proud of what we've achieved so far," Finnbogason said. "This is quite simply the best qualifying campaign in our country's history. We've given ourselves a great opportunity to go through. I really believe we can do it. If we manage to get good results in our last two games, we'll have a chance in the play-offs. With a little luck in the draw and self-confidence, we'll make it through."
Anything looks possible at this stage. Indeed, who could ever have imagined seeing three Icelandic players among the five top marksmen in one of Europe's most competitive leagues? That, after all, is the current reality in the Dutch Eredivisie, where AZ Alkmaar's Aron Johansson, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson of Ajax and Heerenven's Finnbogason have made blistering starts to the season. Scorer of ten goals in just seven games, Finnbogason even finds himself joint highest scorer in Europe. "Obviously it's gratifying to be at the top of a list like that, especially as the competition is so high," he said. "Wish me luck that I can stay there."
Luck has little to do with Finnbogason's success, of course, and the same goes for that of his fellow Icelandic forwards. Instead, much can be traced back to the country's huge efforts to develop infrastructure over the last few years. In a part of the world where climactic conditions make everything difficult, forcing the local championship to run from May to late September, the authorities have taken steps by investing in indoor centres and artificial pitches. As a result, the standards of youth training have improved considerably, allowing a club like Breidablik, for example, to launch the careers of Johann Gudmundsson, another Eredivisie stalwart, Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson and Finnbogason himself.
"None of that is a mere coincidence, of course," the 24-year-old said. "If Iceland now has successful forwards, particularly in the Eredivisie, it's because of the work put into training before now. A new generation of players is coming to fruition." Naturally, talent cannot be left out of the equation either, and Finnbogason certainly has plenty of that. Standing 1.84m and boasting all-round ability, he has been rattling in goals almost everywhere he has played since turning professional in 2008.
Learning from the master
Kicking off with 27 strikes in 38 games for Breidablik, Finnbogason lifted the Icelandic Cup in 2009, before adding the league title and finishing top scorer the following year. That earned him a move to Belgian outfit Lokeren, and although he only managed four goals in 22 outings, he soon rediscovered his touch in Sweden, helping himself to 12 efforts in 15 matches for Helsingborg. Those figures, and Finnbogason's obvious potential, then caught the eye of a certain Marco van Basten, Heerenveen coach and a man who knows a thing or two about goalscoring acumen.
The pair quickly began communicating on the same wavelength, and they have forged an understanding that has helped Finnbogason rack up 34 goals in 38 games. Unsurprisingly, the duo have also developed a powerful mutual respect.
"He's on his way to becoming a fabulous striker, and I'd put him in the same class as Ruud van Nistelrooy, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Jon Dahl Tomasson," Van Basten has said, citing some of Heerenveen's most clinical forwards of the past.
"He's played a very important role in my progress," added Finnbogason. "Thanks to him, I'm learning everything you need to know about being a striker."
All that remains now is for the Reykjavik native to turn heads further afield, with his performances yet to fully register on Europe's radar. "That's how it feels to some extent," he said. "I had a great season last season. It's up to me to continue the same way and prove that it wasn't a miracle."
In a sense, that is also the mission facing Iceland as they prepare for the final sprint down the road to Brazil 2014. "The Iceland team was undoubtedly lacking credibility before, but there's nothing odd about that given our results at the time. I think we've managed to gain more recognition since then. Either way, I don't think teams should under-estimate us today."
It is a lesson Cyprus and Norway would do well to heed as the race for qualification reaches its climax in Group E.