FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017

FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017

17 June - 2 July

FIFA Confederations Cup 2017

In-sync Iceland out to slay another giant

Iceland players celebrate their team's 2-1 win in the UEFA EURO 2016
© Getty Images

It will go down as one of the images of the year. When the final whistle sounded, the English players fell to the turf in Nice. They had just suffered one of the most painful defeats in their history. "The worst", in the view of former international Gary Lineker, because the nation that invented football had lost to "a country with more volcanoes [130] than professional footballers [100]".

Debutants Iceland, the big surprise package at UEFA EURO 2016 along with Gareth Bale's Wales, celebrated progressing to the quarter-finals in style. Captain Aron Gunnarsson led his team-mates over to the corner of the stands where some 10,000 of their compatriots were clustered. This represents around three per cent of the population: with just 330,000 inhabitants, Iceland is the smallest country ever to grace the finals of a major tournament.

When the players came to a halt, the supporters in turn fell silent, whereupon Gunnarsson lifted up his arms and raised them above his head, before suddenly clapping. His team-mates and the fans imitated his gesture, perfectly in sync. Then the captain let out a forceful grunt, which was once again echoed by his fellow players and the 'congregation'. This routine was repeated over and over, growing ever quicker and louder, with the bearded midfielder serving as the master conductor.

Origin of a chantIt is tempting to think that this was some sort of ancient Viking tradition, but this haka-esque ritual is in fact a recent borrowing.

In 2014, Icelandic minnows Stjarnan caused a stir in the UEFA Europa League qualifying rounds by knocking out several bigger clubs, Motherwell chief among them. On their visit to Scotland, the Stjarnan fans and players – who included Iceland's current back-up goalkeeper, Ingvar Jonsson – were so impressed by the way in which the home crowd supported their side that they decided to adopt one of their chants. That European adventure would be ended by mighty Inter Milan in the play-off round, but it could still be seen as the start of something in Iceland. In fact it was the continuation, because when experienced coach Lars Lagerback had taken the helm of the national team in 2011, the Swede did so conscious that change was already afoot on the island.

Iceland U-21s, a side featuring several players who are now making waves for the full national team, had just crushed Germany 4-1 to seal a spot at the UEFA European Championship for that age group. Furthermore, Icelandic football was shifting away from its traditional reliance on fighting spirit. "These days Icelanders also stand out for their technical skills and that's thanks to the improvement in the training conditions," Lagerback told FIFA.

Due to Iceland's harsh climate, it only used to be possible to play in summer and even then rarely on grass, as Eidur Gudjohnsen – the best footballer in the country's history – told us. "When I started out, even when we played in summer it was on gravel, whereas now we've got lots of indoor facilities where you can play year-round," said the 37-year-old, who is living the dream at the EURO, despite being restricted to a bit-part role on the pitch.  

Coaching education pays dividends for IcelandersIn the early 2000s, Iceland – a country with more sheep than people and where handball was the leading sport – decided to make large-scale, concerted efforts to promote football. As part of this drive, a number of indoor halls and over 100 mini artificial pitches were built next to schools spread across the length and breadth of the island. But that is not all: in this country of just 100 professional footballers, there is now at least one UEFA-qualified coach for every 500 inhabitants. As the youth coach and coaching instructor Dadi Rafnsson, who regularly works with the Icelandic Football Association, put it in an interview with The Telegraph, "coaching has now become a viable second profession."

The best example of this domestic boom in the dugout is provided by Heimir Hallgrimsson. This dentist by trade, who initially served as Lagerback's assistant and is now the joint-coach, will take the reins solo after the EURO, tasked with guiding his homeland to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.

All of these factors inspired Icelandic football's initial consolidation and current blossoming on the big stage over the past month. A pair of 1-1 draws against Portugal and Hungary before a last-gasp 2-1 victory over Austria were enough for them to claim second place in Group F en route to advancing to the Round of 16. They followed that up with a bang by upsetting England to set up a meeting with hosts France this Sunday.

Les Bleus are the heavy favourites, but considering what we have seen so far, it would be foolish to count out the possibility of Aron Gunnarsson and Co's victory cry reverberating through the air again, this time at the Stade de France.

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