Full hearts, clear eyes, can't lose: 5 nations who punched above their weight
"I wouldn't say that I'm a hero," said Iceland coach Lars Lagerback on a rainy Sunday night in Reykjavik, moments after the tiny Nordic island nation qualified for the European Championship. "Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and people like that are real heroes."
The locals would surely beg to differ, though, after the Swede led his team to a 0-0 draw against Kazakhstan to ensure a memorable first-ever qualification to Europe's grandest football stage.
History was made too as Iceland became the smallest-ever nation to make it to the tournament proper.
The numbers have been bandied around plenty this week, but they are well worth repeating. Iceland is home to around 330,000 inhabitants, of which just 21,508 are registered footballers. Reaching Euro 2016 is an astonishing feat, without taking into account the fact they beat the Netherlands (twice!) to get there.
Population: 330,000 (2015)
Qualified for: European Championship (France 2016)
- Gylfi Sigurdsson (Swansea City): The Premier League playmaker needs little introduction to fans who subsist on a regular diet of English football. Although he came through the Reading Academy as a teenager in 2008, it was only after a move to Germany with Hoffenheim and a subsequent loan to Swansea that he began to draw attention. While a big-money transfer to Tottenham didn't really work out, Spurs' loss was the Swans' gain as Sigurdsson rediscovered his form at the Liberty Stadium. A dead-ball specialist, the midfielder is capable of splitting defences as well as powering shots in from distance. He is also the first Icelandic player ever to be named Premier League Player of the Month.
- Eidur Gudjohnsen (Shijiazhuang Ever Bright): Iceland's all-time top-scorer is often regarded as one their greatest ever players, having played at clubs like Chelsea and Barcelona and winning numerous league titles as well as the Champions League. While he is certainly in the twilight of his career now, the striker made a triumphant return to the national set-up in March after 18 months away, scoring in their 3-0 win over Kazakhstan. One would expect Gudjohnsen to be on the plane to France next year and even if he plays a supporting role, his teammates will likely be glad to have his experience to draw upon.
Road to France
Iceland were drawn in a tough group that included European contenders Netherlands, Turkey and Czech Republic. While the Dutch were expected to clinch one of the two automatic qualifying spots, they now find themselves fighting for a playoff berth with Turkey. Part of the reason they are in this predicament is thanks to none other than Sigurdsson, who scored all three goals in Iceland's 2-0 and 1-0 wins over the World Cup third-place getters.
Iceland's only blip was a narrow 2-1 loss to the Czechs back in November, but they got their revenge by the same scoreline this June and can now take it easy with matches against Turkey and an already-eliminated Latvia to come.
"I would give credit to the youth coaches in Iceland. They are probably among the best in the world." – Assistant coach Heimar Hallgrimsson after the 0-0 draw against Kazakhstan
Did you know?
When Lagerback took over as Iceland coach in 2011, the national team was coming off a demoralising Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, having won only once in eight games. The Swede was reported to have told Hallgrimsson that they would qualify for the 2014 World Cup. "I thought he was crazy," said Hallgrimsson, but Lagerback was almost proven right, with Iceland just missing out after an agonising two-leg playoff defeat to Croatia.