The Preliminary Draw of July 2011 showed exactly what was expected of Iceland in the Brazil 2014 qualifiers. Lars Lagerback’s team were seeded sixth from six in European Zone Group E, below Albania and Cyprus, having been allocated to a pot alongside the likes of Andorra and San Marino.
In truth though, this position merely reflected their recent results. Iceland had finished bottom of their South Africa 2010 qualifying section, and fared little better in the UEFA EURO 2012 preliminaries, winning just one of their eight matches.
Fast forward two years though, and the now stand on the brink of history and a place in the World Cup record books. Iceland, with a population of less than 300,000, are just two play-off matches against Croatia away from becoming the smallest nation ever to qualify for the game’s biggest tournament, eclipsing Trinidad and Tobago.
Already, their success story is arguably the fairy tale of this preliminary campaign. Yet despite their remarkable rise from qualifying cannon fodder to a side capable of finishing ahead of Norway and Slovenia, Lagerback insists that he is not surprised. Indeed, in an interview with FIFA.com, the former Sweden and Nigeria coach insisted that, in shocking the world, his side have merely succeeded in fulfilling his expectations.
“I thought when I took the job that this was a team with the potential to qualify,” he said. “The first time I met with the players and staff, I set them a goal of climbing around 50 places in the FIFA rankings - and finishing in the top two in our section. I looked at the squad, and particularly at the players who had done so well in the 2011 U-21 EURO in Denmark (beating the hosts), and saw that here was a squad with a lot of talent and potential. But it’s always easy to set goals; what you need is the players to rise to the challenge and prove that I was right to believe in them. And that is exactly what they have done.”
Reykjavik's play-off fever
Though some might find the Iceland coach’s initial confidence surprising, if there is anyone who knows what is required to qualify for major tournaments, it is Lagerback. After all, as Sweden coach, he successfully guided his team to two World Cups and three European Championships, all in the space of just eight years. But although he remains a proud Swede, the 65-year-old acknowledged that leading Iceland to Brazil would eclipse even his greatest achievements with his native country.
He said: “I think it would be a little bit more special with a smaller nation such as Iceland if we did manage to qualify. We have been big underdogs from the start and all I heard before the play-offs draw was that everyone wanted to play us. So if we surprise a few people and succeed in our aim, it will definitely be something very, very special.
We have been big underdogs from the start and all I heard before the play-offs draw was that everyone wanted to play us.
“The job here has been really enjoyable so far. I’ve been welcomed very well by the players, by the association and, whenever I meet people in the street, they are very kind about the job we are doing. It helps that we are winning, of course. I’ve been in football long enough to know that’s what dictates a lot of these things. But the atmosphere around the team, and around the country, is very nice indeed.
“And the interest right now is huge. I heard the tickets for the play-off match were sold out in just a couple of hours and, even though there are only 10,000 seats in the stadium, that’s quite a large percentage of Iceland’s population! The last two games were also sold out, and that’s not a normal thing in this country. So it should be a great occasion, and hopefully the players can make the most of the opportunity they have given themselves.”
Few, though, are tipping Iceland to make that final, historic step towards Brazil 2014. Bookmakers have even installed Croatia as odds-on favourites to win the first leg away in Reykjavik, and Lagerback is well aware that there is reason behind this calculation.
“It’s quite right that Croatia are favourites; I expected it,” he acknowledged. “I’ve faced them before with Sweden and the task of going down to Zagreb for the second leg in particular will not be easy. They’ve obviously had some problems in the last year but they’re still a very good team and, at home, they’re going to have a very enthusiastic crowd behind them. But we’ll be looking to make it difficult for them, all we’ll also be looking to score goals because I always feel our biggest strength is in attacking areas.”
With players such as Alfred Finnbogason, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and the veteran Eidur Gudjonsen at his disposal, there is little disputing that particular assertion. Iceland also have the benefit of continuity, a luxury denied to their opponents, who go into the play-off under a new coach, having sacked Igor Stimac at the end of a largely unhappy group campaign. Lagerback, though, is not convinced that this will count in his side’s favour.
“It’s funny,” he said. “This is the third game in a row we have faced a team that has just sacked its coach, so it’s a familiar situation for us. But I’m not sure if it’s a positive thing because, from what I heard, there were a few conflicts between the players and the old coach. If that is true, it could be a boost for them psychologically to get away from that. I also know Niko Kovac (Stimac’s successor) a little bit – I was down in Croatia with him for a couple of days when he did his pro license – and I think he can be a really good coach. So maybe it’s not the advantage it might have been.
“Really, it’s down to us. If we play to our very best, we have a chance. We’ve been performing really well since the summer and I do think self-confidence in the squad is high. We have players who are not only talented, but who also have a great attitude and character. Importantly, they also have a strong passion for coming home and playing for their national team. I’m already very proud of what they have achieved in these qualifiers, and hopefully it’s not finished yet.”