Until recently, the Icelandic national team seemed almost to be in hibernation, having caught a chill during their dispiriting bids to reach the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ and UEFA EURO 2012. They managed just a solitary win in either campaign and, in April last year, had slipped as low as 131st in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.

Now back up to 70th, however, their pulse is finally quickening, and hopes are rising that they can grace their first ever FIFA World Cup finals when Brazil 2014 rolls around. Having picked up three wins and three losses so far, Iceland certainly control their own destiny in Group E, where they are targeting at least second spot and a place in the play-offs.

Currently, they lie third, five points behind leaders Switzerland and a point shy of surprise package Albania, but the mood of optimism is not based on statistics alone. More importantly, the Nordic side are being driven forward by a core of in-form, exciting young talents, such as captain Aron Gunnarsson.

"As long as we have a chance, we'll do everything we can to seize it," the 24-year-old Cardiff City midfielder told FIFA.com.

"We've blown hot and cold since the start of the qualifiers and we don't have any room left for error. It's going to be very tough to qualify, but I'm looking further forward than that. Our squad is made up of very young players. We're a team on the rise."

Along with Gunnarsson, the other emerging prospects in the Iceland ranks include Ajax forward Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson, both 23. All have been under the spotlight since leading Iceland to the 2011 UEFA European U-21 Championship, but credit for the senior team's renaissance must also go to Swedish coach Lars Lagerback, appointed in October 2011.

Having taken teams to the last three FIFA World Cups, he has, according to Gunnarsson, "completely succeeded in sharing his experience and has brought us a new philosophy of the game. He's given us confidence. He's been able to make us realise the huge potential we have, despite the small size of our country."

It should therefore come as no surprise that Lagerback is aiming to collect all three points in Berne when Iceland visit the group frontrunners on Friday. "Our goal is to win and maybe we'll be able to surprise the Swiss," he said, despite his charges having lost 2-0 to Die Nati on home soil last October.

"For the game in Iceland, I was suspended and Kolbeinn Sigthorsson was injured. It's not an insult to the other players to say that the squad loses quality when one or several of our more experienced players are missing."

Setting an example 
Although he is still fairly young, with 34 caps under his belt Gunnarsson has indeed become a pillar of the team, but paradoxically he has precious little top-flight experience in the club game. In fact, he has played just three games in the Premier League, having spent the last five years in England's second tier with Coventry City and his current side.

"I've been in England for a long time now and it was a dream of mine to play in the Premier League," he said. "It's the best championship in the world. I've worked hard and to achieve that goal is something incredible, especially wearing the colours of a club that's very dear to me."

To top everything off, Gunnarsson even enjoyed the honour of registering Cardiff's first ever Premier League goal during their memorable 3-2 win against Manchester City. "That was obviously nice, but the most important thing was to get the three points," he explained. "It was our first match [at home] and the entire city was looking forward to it. We didn't want to mess it up."

The defensive midfielder has now struck 14 times for the Bluebirds in two years at the club, but he has yet to open his account with Iceland. "That will happen when the time is right – there's no pressure," he added, before pointing out that he can also operate at right-back. "In my defence, I play in a different position for the national team."  

Given that versatility, allied with his ambition, maturity and talent, it is easy to see why Lagerback handed Gunnarsson the captain's armband, overlooking the presence in his line-up of the more experienced stalwarts Helgi Danielsson and Eidur Gudjohnsen. "If I inherited the armband, it's because the coach has a young team and because I'm not old myself, despite my 30-odd caps. It's an honour for me, and I hope to set the best example possible back in Iceland."

There could be no better example than a leading role in Iceland's march to a maiden FIFA World Cup finals, of course, but Gunnarsson is eager to retain a sense of perspective. "I don't really get the feeling that people expect us to qualify," he said.

"We're a small country, with just 320,000 inhabitants. We need to be realistic. People expect us to play well, give everything and work hard." That said, with Gunnarsson on board, Lagerback's men could be about to break through the ice.