By Li Hualiang
After shocking the world by reaching the quarterfinals of Euro 2016, the Iceland national team continued its unexpectedly good form by qualifying for its first World Cup. Although the team contains few household names, the island nation will be looking to ruffle a few feathers in a tough Group D that also contains Argentina, Nigeria and Croatia.
With a population of about 330,000, the Nordic country made history in the European Championship two years ago in France, advancing from the group stage and then dispatching England in the Round of 16 before being eliminated by hosts France in the last eight.
Buoyed by their unprecedented success, Iceland’s good form continued into their World Cup qualifying group, as they won seven of their 10 games to top their group and qualify directly for Russia, forcing main competitor Croatia into the play-off round.
By making its World Cup bow this summer, Iceland will become the smallest nation by population ever to qualify for a World Cup. The country did come close to appearing at the 2014 edition in Brazil, however, finishing second in their qualifying group to Switzerland before falling 2-0 on aggregate to perennial rivals Croatia in the play-offs.
Most of the players in Iceland’s 23-man squad for the World Cup also featured on the country’s Euro 2016 roster, such as Gylfi Sigurdsson and Aron Gunnarsson.
The 28-year-old attacking midfielder Sigurdsson is undoubtedly the team’s key player. His vision, shooting expertise and ability from set-pieces make him the team’s main attacking threat. However, a knee injury sustained in March while playing for his club side Everton has threatened his participation in Russia, and Sigurdsson faces a race against time to be fit in time for Iceland’s first game against Argentina on June 16.
After playing Argentina, Iceland face Nigeria and then Croatia in what has been termed the ‘Group of Death’. If Iceland do manage to progress from the group stage, it is likely that their Euro 2016 conquerors France will be lying in wait in the Round of 16.
Iceland have proved that population size does not matter in the world of international football, and the team does not rely on individual stars. Rather, the team’s main strength lies in unity, not only between players, but also between players and fans. Two years ago, almost ten percent of Iceland’s entire population headed to France to support the team, where their enthusiastic support was exemplified by the famous “Viking clap”. That is sure to reappear in Russia, and may just help Iceland shock the world once again.