Snow, geysers and volcanoes, rather than football, are usually the first things people tend to associate with Iceland. It is hardly surprising, seeing as the nation’s main isle is the largest volcanic island in the world.
Yet despite average yearly temperatures of just seven degrees, football is king in Europe’s second biggest island nation.
“Football is the most popular sport in Iceland and almost everyone has an opinion about the national team,” Iceland international Birkir Saevarsson told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “The people expect us to win every match, even though we’re a really small country. That shows the depth of feeling the population has towards the game.”
Brazil 2014 in their crosshairs
With 34 appearances for the national side under his belt, the defender is one of the more experienced members of the squad and has his sights set on making history. Iceland have never reached the finals of a FIFA World Cup™ or UEFA European Championship, but Lars Lagerback’s troops are making up for lost time in the European Zone qualifying for Brazil 2014.
A haul of nine points from the first five games has left Iceland level with Albania and only two points behind group leaders Switzerland. “We’ve started well, even if we feel we could have got something from the matches in Cyprus (a 1-0 defeat) and against Switzerland (a 2-0 loss). Nevertheless, reaching the World Cup is feasable for us,” Saevarsson said.
Crucial to Iceland’s chances will be the ability to take points off their direct rivals. “The key is to pick up as many points as possible at home, because we have two very difficult away games against Switzerland and Norway,” Saevarsson continued.
Lagerback catalyst for upswing
Having participated in his country’s unsuccessful attempts to reach South Africa 2010, where Iceland finished last in qualifying Group 9 after earning just five points from eight matches, the road to Brazil 2014 is Saevarsson’s second qualifying campaign. It has proven significantly more fruitful, with more points on the board already than in the entire previous qualifying phase.
The architect of the improvement, which is reflected in Iceland occupying their highest position in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking for seven years (73rd place), is coach Lagerback. The veteran Swedish strategist, who was at the helm of the national team in his homeland for nine years, has been in charge of the Iceland side since October 2011.
Lagerback’s tenure got off to a rocky start with five consecutive defeats, yet eventually his philosophy began to show through. Five victories from the following eight matches have allowed Iceland to dream of a place at next year’s global showdown.
Biggest prize yet
“A lot has changed recently. We have better facilities that help us play football in Iceland,” Saevarsson told FIFA.com. “When I was younger we had to train on gravel pitches and in winter it was impossible to do anything other than running. Now there are several indoor pitches with artificial grass, where you can train all year round. That has helped a lot of young and technically gifted players come through, many of whom are already at big European clubs. They still need to mature and gain more experience, but it feels like the flow of good young players isn’t going to stop any time soon. Icelandic football has a bright future.”
The country has a rich tradition in producing top-class players, such as Eidur Gudjohnsen, Asgeir Sigurvinsson and Eyjolfur Sverrisson, who all made a name for themselves at foreign clubs.
Saevarsson himself left his home city of Reykjavik in 2008 and has been a cornerstone of Norwegian side Brann Bergen’s defence for almost five years, racking up over 120 appearances in the process. Prior to the move, Saevarsson won the league title (in 2007), the cup (2005) and the league cup (2008) with FC Valur in his homeland. He is now eyeing a top-three finish with Bergen this season, in order to secure a berth in European competition.
Despite his collection of silverware, Saevarsson knows that reaching Brazil 2014 would top any of his previous accomplishments. “Participating at a World Cup would mean so much to people in Iceland. It would be an unbelievable achievement.” So much so, that it would also represent the greatest success in the country’s footballing history.