- Iceland became the smallest nation ever to reach the FIFA World Cup
- Heimir Hallgrimsson’s side finished ahead of Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey
- Coach and players have been reacting to the achievement
It is safe to assume that there will be a few sore heads and hoarse voices in Reykjavik this morning.
Then again, perhaps avoiding a hangover is a national speciality. That, after all, was arguably Iceland’s most significant achievement in their triumphant and historic FIFA World Cup™ qualifying campaign.
Coach Heimir Hallgrimsson had been well aware of the danger, knowing that his team could not afford to be sluggish and dwell on their EURO achievements, having been drawn with four formidable rivals. “After the EURO, as everyone knows, Iceland had a big, big party,” he told FIFA.com. “And you know how it is the day after a party – it’s not always easy to get up and start work again. We knew we faced a big challenge in that respect.”
The party analogy returned last night as Hallgrimsson and his players basked in the remarkable feat of having become the least populous nation ever to reach a World Cup.
"The hardest thing was to get going again after France,” said the Iceland coach. "The first beer after a party is not the best.
"And what's more we were in a group contested between Croatia, Turkey, Ukraine and Finland, who are much better than their position in the group would have you believe. The success is not an end in itself but a long journey towards a final destination."
Whatever that destination will be - and only a fool would rule out Iceland springing a surprise or two in Russia - it has been a thrilling expedition. Albert Bunjaki, coach of the Kosovo team beaten 2-0 to secure Iceland’s place, lauded the victors as “a great example for small nations like our own”, and there was evident disbelief in the immediate aftermath.
"Are you kidding! We are going to the World Cup!" was the reaction of the local TV commentator at the final whistle, and even Hallgrimsson seemed bewildered. "This is just odd. I don't really know what to say. The mind is all over the place," he told RUV.
"I mean... Pele, Maradona and Aron Einar Gunnarsson!" he added, referring to Iceland’s bearded midfielder.
Hallgrimsson knows that it is the World Cup that forged the legends of the game’s all-time greats, and that his players – many of whom were unknowns prior to EURO 2016 – will now have a chance to make their mark. Gunnarsson himself, though, insisted that qualifying does not represent a miracle; rather, simply mission accomplished.
"Nonsense? I don't know if this is nonsense," he said. "After we lost against Croatia [in the 2014 World Cup play-offs] we aimed at qualifying next time.
“In my opinion we were in the most difficult group, but we decided that we were just going to finish this. We had no interest in some play-off bother."