It is without a doubt and any exaggeration to say that the last three years have been the biggest in Iceland's football history. Within a whisker of reaching their first FIFA World Cup™, the well-drilled unit from the north have just spectacularly sealed a place at their first major tournament at UEFA EURO 2016.
Arguably their chief protagonist in guiding them to France is Gylfi Sigurdsson, Swansea City's rampaging-yet-elegant attacking midfielder, who has contributed goals and assists by the bucket-load during this unprecedented stretch of success. So much success in fact that no team has more ranking points per capita in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking top 50, as the island nation of 330,000 will be the EURO's smallest ever side to compete at the finals.
FIFA.com got hold of the Icelandic superstar to talk emulating David Beckham, getting a boost from the Brazil 2014 near-miss and his reaction to making history with his nation.
FIFA.com: Can you describe the feeling at the end of the Kazakhstan game, having clinched qualification for EURO 2016?
Gylfi Sigurdsson: Not really! It was an unbelievable feeling. We obviously set ourselves a goal before World Cup qualifying, wanting to qualify for the FIFA World Cup. We just missed out in the play-offs and had to set ourselves another goal for the EUROs, which was again to qualify. Of course, after seeing our draw, with the Netherlands, Czech Republic and Turkey all in the same group with us, some of us considered it an impossible target. But then to be able to finish the job off with two games to go is an unbelievable achievement and the feeling that goes with it, to be on our way to the finals, is fantastic.
Have you had a chance to capture a snapshot of the feeling back in Iceland too?
In World Cup qualifying there was a lot of media interest with more people starting to come to games and travelling to away matches. We started seeing the interest in the team was much more than it had been for the last ten to 15 years. Then, in this competition it's been incredible the support we've had, 3,000 came to see the game in the Netherlands – 1 per cent of the nation! That's unbelievable. To be able to finish it off against Kazakhstan at home made it all the sweeter.
Your run in trying to reach Brazil 2014 caught a lot by surprise, but now do you feel there is a new found respect for Icelandic football?
Yes and probably rightly so. We had a very tough group. Having beaten [the Netherlands] twice is quite a strange feeling for a small nation like us. Of course we want to win the group now, but all the credit we have been getting is probably deserved.
How has the journey been for yourself, having clocked up three goals against the Netherlands in arguably two of the biggest nights in Icelandic football history?
Both the World Cup and EURO qualification have been personally very good, having got those three goals against the Netherlands and a few others. So, personally it has been fantastic but if you look at the whole team as well and the results we have been getting, each and every player has been fantastic during qualifying.
It's been incredible the support we've had, 3,000 came to see the game in the Netherlands – 1 per cent of the nation! That's unbelievable.
Will you be heading to France with any expectations?
At the moment we want to win the group and ensure we have a higher seeding for when we get there. We will have to see what group we're in, but there's hardly any pressure on us going into the tournament because we've achieved a lot so far. I think most of the players will be going there to enjoy the experience, but of course we'll be trying to qualify from the group and reach the knockout stages. If that's possible then we'll take it from there.
In terms of trying to get to Brazil, to have got so close and have fought so hard, what was the reaction to going out in the play-offs? Did it buoy you for this campaign?
I think it did. Of course it was a great chance to get to the World Cup finals and get to Brazil but I think as well as we played throughout the group stages then, and we were one game away against Croatia, we kind of got ahead of ourselves. There was probably a bit of inexperience from the team. Not having been in that kind of position before, being so close to a major final, the maturity and experience of the Croatian side meant they were able to take advantage of us. That feeling, in the dressing room after the game and being so close to the World Cup finals, spurred us on and that's been in our minds throughout this competition.
Your prowess from free-kicks was a particular feature of that run, scoring a couple of spectacular efforts. Was that a skill you tried to add to your repertoire early on?
Growing up as I kid I used to watch the Premier League and used to see David Beckham taking those kinds of free-kicks, so from a young age I was probably quite lucky to have him on the TV every week. It was something I used to practice when I was in Iceland and just kept doing it after I left. My dad played in Iceland and I think went over to Sweden for a couple of years. He and my brother used to bring me out when I was little, and then of course just watching football [helped me hone my style]. Beckham and Frank Lampard were the ones that I particularly liked watching, and with Lampard scoring so many goals from midfield it was hard not to look up to him.
You're set to meet Croatia again in the race for Russia 2018. How did you feel when you saw them come out of the hat with you?
Good and bad, of course. They're a fantastic team, but we've played them recently which is good, as we will know what to expect from them. We're in a very tough group again (joined by Ukraine, Turkey and Finland), which I think is down to the seeding we've had over the last few years. So hopefully in the next few competitions it's going to get easier for the younger boys that are coming through.
I used to see David Beckham taking those kinds of free-kicks, so from a young age I was probably quite lucky to have him on the TV every week.
And, off the back of competing in France, do you expect to have even more confidence amongst the team?
I hope so, yeah. The experience of a major tournament will help us and show us what it's like to get there. Having got to the European finals we want to make it all the way to the FIFA World Cup and if we get a good start to the group it will set us up nicely.
Both Iceland and Swansea are sides which seem to get the most out of their resources, with the Swans having the best money spent to points gained in the English Premier League last season and Iceland now ranked 23rd. Do you see any similarities between the two?
In a way. The squad and the players are quite similar in the way that all the players are really good friends with no major issues in that kind of area, but the teams kind of play a different kind of football. With Iceland we play 4-4-2, while at Swansea it's 4-3-3, so I would say it's more personality-wise, rather than the football the teams play. With Iceland, a good core of the group have been playing together since they were 16 or 17.
With Swansea, your season so far has been a bit up and down. Any ideas as to why?
I think you're spot on, there's no denying it. We started really well and then in the last few games we haven't been getting the results we've wanted. With the standards we've set this season and the season before we're not very happy with our performances and the results we've been getting. We've been working hard for the last few weeks and we're pretty sure that the result is going to come, so when we do turn it around and start getting a few goals things will be back to normal.
Having performed particularly well last season, maybe against expectations, where are you looking to go this time out?
Of course we want to improve. I believe our squad is stronger than it was last year, with more depth. Of course we want a good run in the FA Cup and improve in the league, which we know is going to be tough with the money that some of the teams are spending above us, but I think we're capable of it. We just need to get on a good run, get through Christmas and hopefully that will take us up to where we want to be.