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Iceland beat stronger teams like England in Euro 2016. Photo: Martin Bureau/AFP
Iceland beat stronger teams like England in Euro 2016. Photo: Martin Bureau/AFP

Iceland: Land of fire, ice, football

The smallest nation to qualify for a major tournament is also football's biggest story

Euro 1968, when Italy won the semi-final on a coin toss, is unforgettable; Euro 1996 is remembered for the first-ever golden goal winner at a major tournament—Oliver Bierhoff scoring against the Czech Republic to give Germany the title.

Euro 2004 was about Greece winning it—Cristiano Ronaldo left in tears at the final whistle, days after winking at his bench when he got club-mate Wayne Rooney sent off. Euro 2012 is still about Mario Balotelli whipping off his shirt and tensing his muscles: a show of defiance, genius and madness, captured in one image.

Despite Gareth Bale’s 60-yard runs and maze-like free kicks, and Antoinne Griezmann scoring scooped goals as a testament to his pedigree, despite Ireland beating Italy to provide blueprints on how to beat a team which is better, Euro 2016 will be remembered for Iceland. It will be remembered for its players running up to their fans, hand in hand, and breaking into a Viking victory cry: a harmonious end to their beautifully chaotic football, as a nation which is known as the Land of Fire and Ice provides us with a fantasy story greater than the Game Of Thrones.

The play on George R.R. Martin’s famous A Song of Ice And Fire doesn’t end there. Just like the epic series, the good guys eventually met a ruthless end, against France. The hosts dismantled Iceland with ease, preying on every wrong step by a team assembled and encouraged by a part-time dentist, which fell two steps behind in the quest to reach a trophy that was always going to be as hard as finding the mythical land of El Dorado.

But this was not about the destination; this was about the journey—and Iceland’s journey has mapped a path for underachieving powers like England to sleeping giants like India. The question both can ask is simple: If Iceland can, why can’t we?

This is a nation of 330,000 people, going from No.131 in the Fifa rankings to 34th place in a span of four years—a culmination of remarkable football planning and building infrastructure.

From being a country where children couldn’t play football for more than five months due to the winter, Iceland, according to a BBC report, “now has 30 full-size, all-weather pitches, seven of which are indoors, and almost 150 smaller artificial arenas that ensure youngsters at grass roots can continue to play football in winter, often inside indoor dome structures."

This has led to their current crop of players, labelled “the indoor kids". Joint head coach Heimir Hallgrimsson is quoted in the report as saying: “For this nation, the dome pitches were a revelation. Every village wanted an artificial pitch, and there is now one close to almost every school in Iceland. These guys with us in the national team were brought up on artificial pitches. Many would have had youth coaching in an indoor dome. They could go out if the weather was good, but they always had good facilities to train."

Iceland’s 639 Uefa B licensed coaches finally had the time and talent to work with. According to statistics from the KSI, Iceland’s football association, they also have 196 Uefa A licensed coaches and 13 Uefa Pro licensed coaches. In comparison, as of 2014, India had 38 AFC B licensed coaches, 71 AFC A licensed coaches and nine AFC Pro licensed coaches. India also has two professional leagues—Iceland doesn’t have any.

But that’s not the only difference. India’s reigning player of the year, Eugeneson Lyngdoh, explains what India can learn from a team that drew with Portugal and Hungary, and beat Austria and England in their dream campaign, led by Hallgrimsson and Lars Lagerbäck. “We say football is a team game—and Iceland got it right on that count. They set an example on how every individual has to play their part in a tactical plan. The fact that all of them are playing outside Iceland also means they are smarter at understanding how to play. It’s not just a country, it seems like a community—and the relationship between the fans and the players is phenomenal," he says.

In their final Euro 2016 game, Iceland lost to France, but not before giving their fans two goals to cheer for. Those goals were not consolation, but testimonies to a nation whose potential took them past Turkey and the Netherlands (twice) in qualifying. These victories spurred on the 7,000-odd people who saw them play a qualifier at home—the number swelled to around 30,000 fans, who screamed with them in the grand stadiums of France.

Iceland entered Euro 2016 as the smallest country to have qualified for a major tournament. It left as the biggest story. And that is some victory in defeat.

Pulasta Dhar is an I-League commentator and news editor (sport) at Scoopwhoop.

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