Earlier this month, a University of Iceland professor of geophysics, Páll Einarsson warned of an volcanic eruption in the near future, thanks to a volcano the locals called “Hekla” (translated as Gateway to Hell).
It wasn’t quite a volcano, but there was a different kind of an eruption underway 1500 miles away from Reykjavik, the capital of the tiny Nordic nation.
At the 2016 European Championship in France, Iceland’s footballing revolution was showing the desired results, one group game at a time. Their incredible journey from a 133rd ranked nation in 2012 to the knockout stages of the Euros made global headlines, including oddities like their manager Heimer Hallgrimsson’s profession away from the football field as his home village’s part-time dentist.
But how did they get there?
The story of Iceland’s rise has been attributed to a grassroots coaching revolution which began in the early 2000s, with the current squad, mostly bearing the fruits of the work done behind the scenes. “Iceland’s ascent is the culmination of a more-than-20-year project that has turned what had been little more than a seasonal hobby into a national passion,” wrote Davis Harper in Howler Magazine earlier this year. The coaching revolution, quite literally had two aspects—indoor pitches (because of the weather) or “football houses” as they were called and a significant increase in the number of coaches in the country. “Under the guidance of Sigurdur Ragnar Eyjolfsson, who started working as director of education at the Icelandic FA (KSI) in 2002, hundreds of specialists got UEFA coaching licences. Quite incredibly, in 2010 alone, no fewer than 630 coaches attended different UEFA courses, which works out as 0.2 percent of Iceland’s population,” according to ESPN’s Michael Yokhin. “Youth coaches were paid very good salaries. The job became an attractive one, and all clubs were required to employ highly-qualified coaches in their youth teams in order to get licences from the KSI. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the average coaching level in the country is one of the best in the world,” Yokhin added in his story.
The other momentous moment in Iceland’s meteoric rise is the appointment of former Sweden boss Lars Lagerback, who is attributed with changing the mentality of Iceland’s senior national team. The results were soon beginning to show. Iceland nearly made it to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. That dream came to an end in the play-off stage when Croatia won 2-0 on aggregate to make it to Brazil. To quote the volcano stereotype, Iceland were on the verge of eruption, with qualification for the 2016 European championships within their grasp. Iceland began their qualification campaign with three straight wins in their group, over Turkey, Latvia and The Netherlands. A brief dip in results later with defeats and draws, Iceland brought their campaign back on track with wins over Kazakhstan and Czech Republic, before a 1-0 win in Amsterdam against The Netherlands helped them clinch qualification for the Euro 2016.
Their Euro 2016 journey began against Portugal, led by the imperious Cristiano Ronaldo, the man who often rivals Lionel Messi for the Ballon D’Or or the “world’s best player” tag. Iceland announced their arrival in European, if not world football, when Basel midfielder Birkir Bjarnasen scored Iceland’s first goal in a major international tournament to cancel Nani’s opener for Portugal. The result stayed that way, with Iceland clinching an all important point with a draw. But what followed after the match was equally significant. Ronaldo belittled Iceland, saying, “Iceland didn’t try anything. They were just defend, defend, defend and playing on the counterattack. It was a lucky night for them...I thought they’d won the Euros the way they celebrated at the end. It was unbelievable. When they don’t try to play and just defend, defend, defend, this in my opinion shows a small mentality and they are not going to do anything in the competition.”
Ronaldo was wrong.
In their second group game against Hungary, they led through a Gylfi Sigurdsson penalty in the 40th minute, before Birkir Sævarsson’s 88th minute heart-breaking equaliser broke Icelandic hearts. Their last group match against Austria was a must-win, if Iceland wanted to extend their dream to the competition’s knockout stages. After a bright, enterprising start to the game, Iceland led through Jón Daði Böðvarsson’s 18th minute goal, and luck followed them after Austria’s Aleksandar Dragović missed a first-half penalty. But fifteen minutes into the second half, Austrian substitute Aleksandar Dragović equalised, before drama was to ensue. After Iceland survived an Austrian onslaught, denying repeated sorties it was down to Elmar Bjnarason, who set up his fellow sub Arnor Ingvi Traustason, whose goal, right at the death, the 94th minute to be precise, sent Iceland through to the knockouts, where England awaited them in the Round of 16s (or pre-quarterfinals).
When they were pitted against England, European as indeed world football’s much-regarded holy cows, the result was a foregone conclusion. The commentary, by and large, was about how much England could win by—2,3,4 goals—even dismissing the slightest possibility of a defeat, let alone one of the humiliating variety. But within 18 minutes into the match, Iceland’s Kolbeinn Sigþórsson would score the goal that would register the biggest win in their footballing history, and send England out of the Euros, much like the Brexit referendum last week. A few minutes later, a shell-shocked England manager Roy Hodgson would end his four-years at the helm, with a resignation.
In many ways, Iceland’s eruption was complete. Few could script or even believe a story that reads, a small Nordic nation of 330,000 heading to a major international tournament, making the knockouts in dramatic fashion and knock-out one of the major European teams to set up a quarterfinal clash with hosts, France.
Professor Einarsson may well be right.