By Philip O’Connor
STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – The smallest nation ever to qualify for the World Cup will also be the tournament’s worst-kept secret as Iceland’s giant-killing performances in 2016 sent a loud and clear warning that they will not be in Russia just to make up the numbers.
Having come agonisingly close to reaching the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil only to lose in a two-legged playoff to Croatia, Iceland made it to Euro 2016 where they went on a deep, thrilling run.
They drew with Portugal and Hungary before beating Austria to get out of their group, and claimed the scalp of England en route to the quarter-finals where they were knocked out by hosts France.
After years of gradual but continuous improvement, the gritty 2-1 win over 1966 World Cup winners England blew away any doubts that the tiny island nation could hold its own on the world stage.
Much of the credit for their success was given to Swedish coach Lars Lagerback, but even though he departed after the tournament, the team have continued to play the same brand of quick, rugged football that brought them so much success.
Replaced by his assistant Heimir Hallgrimsson, Iceland notched up seven wins, two draws and just a single defeat to top Group I ahead of Croatia, who booked their own berth by beating Greece in a playoff.
Their best performance in qualifying came in their first home game when they were 2-1 down to Finland, but two stoppage-time goals by Alfred Finnbogason and Ragnar Sigurdsson gave them all three points in a rip-roaring finish.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that there is a population of only just over 300,000 to choose from, the squad lacks depth, but every player who takes the field is very clear about their role in the team.
Their recent success is built on unrelenting defensive discipline to win the ball in their own half before counter-attacking at pace.
They are also not averse to stopping counter-attacks by conceding a cynical free kick when they lose possession to allow time to regroup.
Led by playmaker Gylfi Sigurdsson, the Icelandic squad may not be household names but, pitted against Argentina, Nigeria and their old foes Croatia, they will have plenty of opportunities to write their names in the World Cup history books this year.
(Reporting by Philip O’Connor)