Iceland is the smallest nation in the world to qualify for the World Cup. This achievement for the island nation is nothing short of historic. Their journey to the grandest stage of football involves a Swede, a dentist, some national funding, and a Eurovision song contest.
What happened was beyond imagination for a country with such a small population and a semi professional football league. Their plans for World Cup qualification began at the turn of century when the country built seven all weather indoor football pitches so that the game could be played during the harsh winters. Within eight years, 200 such pitches were built in remote parts of the country.
Coaching also became a profession and the batches became highly subsidised. Now there are almost 500 UEFA B coaches for children up to 16 years. Investment continued even after the 2008 financial crisis period, which rendered the island nearly bankrupt.
When most of these children came of age, they were shipped out to more competitive leagues across Europe for experience. These players include today's stars like Gylfi Sigurdssun, Johann Berg Gudmundsson and among the old guard, Eidur Gudjohnsen, who all came together for the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.
The only player to have played only in Iceland is goalkeeper Hannes Thor Halldorsson, a part time film maker who directed Iceland's 2012 Eurovision song contest music video.
In 2011, Sweden's Lars Lagerback became the coach and appointed Heimir Hallgrimson, a part time dentist, as his assistant. Together they built a team that was very tough to beat as Switzerland found out when they lost a 4-1 lead thanks to a great hattrick by Johan Godmundsson during the 2014 qualifiers. They came close to qualification, but failed as they lost 2-0 against Croatia in the final leg of the qualifier.
A tearful Eidur Gudjohnsen retired on television and Lagerback too thought of leaving the post. But he did not lose his will and stayed back. He kept on training his assistant to succeed him once he felt it was time to leave. They qualified for the Euro 2016 and soon became a global story thanks to their victory over England and the iconic Scottish club Motherwell FC inspired 'thunderclap'.
Next came the 2018 qualification campaign and this time Hallgrimson took full charge. They had Croatia in their group but their Euro success and the 2014 qualification loss motivated them.
History was rewritten in the last match of the qualification rounds when they won 2-0 against Kosovo in Reykjavik which led to huge celebrations.
In an era in which club football has taken centre stage, Iceland is a timely reminder that international football still holds meaning. With the right investment and direction everyone has a chance. In a globalised world that at times seems confused and unsure of itself, pride in a flag and a team is nothing to be ashamed of.
( The author is a student of Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology, Shibpur, West Bengal ).
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