Icelandic invasion looms as team hits Ranking high

  • Iceland up to all-time high of 18th in latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking

  • The Nordic sensations have risen 113 places in under six years

  • World Cup tickets already requested by 16 per cent of the population

Less than six years ago, Iceland sat 131st in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking and had never been to a major tournament. Nor were they showing any signs of reaching one. In the qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, the team had finished bottom of their section with just one win from eight matches. When they attempted to reach UEFA EURO 2012, the outcome was identical: eight games and just one victory.

But though it would have been easy for Iceland, with its famously tiny population, to accept its natural place in football's food chain, they refused to do so. By the time the team reached that low ebb of 131st in May 2012, the national association (KSI) had already spent years investing heavily in all-weather facilities, coach education and youth development. And it wasn’t long before these efforts bore fruit.

It is, in fact, now difficult to recognise the Icelandic also-rans of the recent past. Today, the team occupies 18th place in the World Ranking – their highest-ever position – and are heading for their second successive major tournament, having narrowly missed out on the 2014 World Cup.

The story of Iceland’s remarkable 113-place rise is one of consistent, continued progress, and of a team that now believes it belongs at world football’s top table. “We played in the quarter-finals [at EURO 2016] and lost 5-2 against France. But maybe our goals were too low,” coach Heimir Hallgrimsson said recently. “I’m not going to say we’re going to win the World Cup now, but at least we are aware of that in our heads. We plan to stay [in Russia] a little bit longer than maybe we did at the Euros.”

Hallgrimsson’s side were one of the few sides to make significant ground in the latest World Ranking, amid a quiet period of international action. Their rise came in the wake of back-to-back friendly wins in Jakarta, with an Indonesian XI and then the Indonesian national team dispatched by an aggregate score of 10-1.

It offered Hallgrimsson the chance to test the depth of his squad, with most of his star men missing, and several fringe players seized their chance to shine. PSV Eindhoven’s Albert Gudmundsson, for example, scored a hat-trick as Iceland came from a goal down to beat their hosts 4-1, this in the wake of a 6-0 thrashing of the select XI.

Iceland’s Russia 2018 fixtures 16 June: Argentina-Iceland (Moscow) 22 June: Nigeria-Iceland (Volgograd) 26 June: Iceland-Croatia (Rostov-On-Don)

The team has become a symbol of Icelandic pride, and after 30,000 supporters – nearly 10 per cent of the population – travelled to EURO 2016, even greater numbers are expected in Russia. By the end of last month, no fewer than 52,899 World Cup tickets had been requested, meaning that over 16 per cent of Icelanders are hoping to follow the team on this historic adventure.

As Hallgrimsson vowed: “Our fans will come in numbers to Russia and they will be the top stars of the World Cup. They will be happy people.”

Iceland’s World Cup hopes in quotes “If you’re on your good day, you can beat almost anyone. And we’ve shown it through the years. The boys have shown that the bigger the event, the more focused and disciplined and better they play.” Heimir Hallgrimsson, Iceland coach

“I think we’ll have a good chance of making it through the group stage. We haven’t got anything to lose and I think we’ll go into the World Cup with the same mentality we had going into the Euros.” Gylfi Sigurdsson, Iceland midfielder

"Lionel Messi is one of the best, if not the best, who ever touched the ball, so it's going to be nice to test ourselves against him. We know it's going to be tough, we're going to be defending 95 per cent of the time. But that five per cent, when we play a little bit of football, we may nick a goal and surprise a few people.” Johann Berg Gudmundsson, Iceland winger

"This is our first time going to the World Cup and most of the nation were hoping for either Brazil or Argentina - so we got that wish. We want to go through to the next round for sure - then go as far as possible." Olafur Skulason, Iceland midfielder