Leading the march of the unheralded teams at the 2016 European Championship, Iceland provided a warm, feel-good story that few believed would last beyond those four glorious weeks in France.
The smallest nation _ totaling around 330,000 inhabitants _ ever to qualify for the tournament had reached the quarterfinals, famously bloodying the nose of England along the way. Their fans’ “thunderclap” war chant became the soundtrack of that summer and would soon spread through the continent.
How could Iceland’s national team ever top that?
It turns out that was just the start of this soccer fairytale, not the end.
On Monday, Iceland’s players went a step further by qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, ensuring the Nordic country’s presence on the sport’s grandest stage for the first time. A 2-0 win over Kosovo in Reykjavik prompted wild celebrations that spilled into the city center.
Hours after the game, the team took to a stage at Ingolfstorg Square in downtown Reykjavik in front of around 5,000 cheering fans. The players _ led by bearded captain Aron Gunnarsson _ danced and, of course, performed one more rendition of the thunderclap to the backdrop of a beating drum.
“Some people consider this the biggest single event in the history of Icelandic sport,” Klara Bjartmarz, general secretary of the Icelandic Football Association, told The Associated Press.
In 2006, Trinidad and Tobago _ with a population of 1.3 million _ became the least-populous nation to play at a World Cup. Twelve years on, Iceland will dwarf that figure.
Much like Leicester gave the sporting underdog hope by winning the English Premier League in 2016 at preseason odds of 5,000-1, Iceland’s improbable rise in international soccer is making other smaller nations dream.
Iceland is “a great example for small nations like our own,” said Albert Bunjaki, the coach of a Kosovo team that was embarking on its first qualifying campaign as a member of world soccer’s governing body, FIFA.
Iceland coach Heimar Hallgrimsson was struggling to come to terms with the achievement.
“The mind is all over the place,” said Hallgrimsson, who combines managing his country’s national team with running a dental surgery in a small town in Iceland.
“I mean… Pele, Maradona and Aron Einar Gunnarsson!”
Hallgrimsson was the assistant to head coach Lars Lagerback at Euro 2016, and was promoted ahead of the World Cup qualifying campaign when Lagerback stood down. A modest and well-respected coach in Iceland, Hallgrimsson has managed to keep motivational levels high within the squad after the Euros.
He has also stuck to his own unique approach. Before the qualifier against Kosovo, like with every Iceland home game, Hallgrimsson met up with a supporters’ group in a Reykjavik bar and disclosed the team’s starting lineup and tactics. The fans, it appears, are as big a part of this journey as Iceland’s players.
The Icelandic FA is set to benefit to the tune of at least $9million for getting to the World Cup. This comes after it earned 14 million euros from the team’s run at Euro 2016, a windfall that Bjartmarz said was partly shared with Iceland’s clubs while some funds were kept “for more difficult years.”
The federation is pushing for a new national stadium to be built in Reykjavik, while money will continue to be ploughed into coach education and better training facilities for clubs.
“We knew we had the moment with us after the European Championship, so that was something we tried to build on,” Bjartmarz said in a phone interview.
“But we haven’t changed anything, just continued with what we believe in.”
At the last count _ in 2015 _ Iceland had 22,000 registered soccer players, men and women. Although Bjartmarz is “quite sure” that number will have increased after the Euros, it still sums up the size of Iceland’s achievement over the past few years _ starting with reaching the European playoffs for the 2014 World Cup, where the team lost to Croatia.
Fittingly, Iceland beat Croatia to top spot in Group I four years on. Ukraine and Turkey were also swept aside. Iceland is currently 22nd in the FIFA rankings, punching far above its weight.
So, Hallgrimsson’s well-organized, hard-working team and its loyal fanbase heads to Russia. Who knows what’s next in this enchanting voyage.
“This success is not an end in itself,” Hallgrimsson said in quotes carried by FIFA.com, “it is the beginning of a long journey towards the final destination.”