Germany are the world champions and may lift the Henri Delaunay trophy come the final, but those achievements won’t overshadow the campaign of Iceland, the barnstorming sensation of Euro 2016.
Not that condemning a dozen of extravagantly-paid Premier League prima donnas, whose second nature is clumsy failure, to an early exit was a total surprise. The curve of England’s tournament had been all too familiar: hope and optimism followed by disaster and despair. Iceland were the anti-thesis of a disjointed and aloof Three Lions team – organized and efficient – but above all, the Icelandic enterprise had a plan. From the moment Kolbeinn Sigthorsson scored in 18th minute, Iceland never looked like relinquishing their lead.
Iceland’s historic win was a whiff of fresh air in a tournament that is reminiscent of football’s dark ages and the 1990 Italy World Cup, a tournament wherein defenses and caution prevailed. Euro 2016 has been little different – the football has been dour, a procession of stalemates, with just 2.04 goals [prior to the France vs Iceland game] on average per game, little technical refinement and even less tactical innovation.
Iceland, then, are the Cameroon of 2016, yet that may be an unjust tag. Roger Milla took Italy by storm, but Cameroon, in spite of also pulling above their weight, were a more established football nation than Iceland has ever been.
“Considering how few we are in Iceland - the population of Leicester [330,000] - we feel like world champions,” said Þorsteinn Harðarson, a reputed Icelandic sports journalist.
That’s an accurate assessment - at Euro 2016, only Germany have really enthused; at the Copa America Chile, and not Argentina or Brazil, won, but all these countries have a single common denominator –they are all top tier footballing countries. So, in relative terms, Iceland is a world champion, a European version of Uruguay.
The South Americans have long achieved excellent results in the game. Uruguay has a limited talent pool with a population of 3.7 million, like Iceland. The Celeste finished at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Uruguay incessantly produce top talent, with Luiz Suarez, Edison Cavani and Diego Godin, among others, as their key players.
So how did Iceland get to where they are today? Their quarter-final progress is neither a fluke nor a fairytale, but the result of calibrated development. Iceland has been a model of resource allocation, building full-size domed pitches and remodeling its coach education system. The country’s state of the art football development resulted in near-qualification for the 2014 Brazil World Cup.
Finally, this summer, Icelandic football erupted, after smoldering for long. They got two valuable points in draws with both Portugal and Hungary before exploding in the last minutes against Austria, hardly the Wunderteam of 1934 with Matthias Sindelar. ‘Thetta redast' - Group F had ‘all worked out okay.’
‘We know we are the smaller team, but we play as a team,” said traveling fan Rósa Steinþórsdótti from Reykjavik after the Hungary match. In the ‘90s, Steinþórsdótti had played for the Icelandic national women’s team and she came perilously close to qualifying for the women’s European Championship. She admitted to chanting ‘Messi, Messi’ when each time Ronaldo touched the ball.
‘It is our fighting mentality,” declared Alert Hlodversson, an investment banker from Iceland, while sipping from his rose wine outside the Moulin Rouge ahead of the quarter-final with France. “We took the fight to England in the second round. They didn’t know what to do.”
“Iceland has a certain fisherman’s attitude, the country has a big fishing industry,” explains Þorsteinn a parallel between national and footballing identity. “When you are working as a fisherman you have to be organized, work hard and just do what has do be done. That’s the definition of this Iceland team.”
Iceland is indeed a land of fishermen, who have sailed the Arctic Sea and Atlantic Ocean without waterproof jackets or rubber gloves in times gone by. They have also tried harnessing geothermal energy to make aluminum and also had a cataclysmic fling with investment banking. The island is now a hipster destination, soon set to give in to a more mundane form of mass tourism.
But the national identity has always been conceived in relation, not so much to water, but rather to a conscious self-uniqueness, a hardened folk who built a life on a remote volcanic rock, in heroic harmony with nature.
At the Stade de France, lit up by the boisterous Icelandic ‘Hu’ chant, that self-determination, and first-four-matches aggression, made way for an expansive experimental game in the opening minutes of the quarter-final.
"I will continue saying that we haven't seen Iceland's best game yet," co-manager Heimir Hallgrimsson had said prior to the game. "As we have already got past the obstacles that have been put in front of us, I think the ones ahead get smaller.”
The approach backfired. The momentum was against Iceland, tired in mind and body, and this time there was no grand come-back. Inside the first stanza, France scored four goals of an insulting simplicity. For any team, damage control to prevent a total annihilation would be the half-time message, but not so for Iceland. They played liberated after the break and got consolation goals through Sigthorsson’s tap-in and Birkir Bjarnason’s header.
The insipid denouement of the Icelandic saga – wherein they shackled a narcissistic Cristiano Ronaldo, humiliated Austria and simply outclassed England – won’t obfuscate Iceland’s value at Euro 2016 - a lightbulb at a drab and dull tournament. They played with a disarming romanticism, won €14 million in prize money, made friends everywhere and have a solid football development programme in place. ‘Thetta redast.'