Published 30/05/2016 at 13:57 GMT | Updated 10/06/2016 at 17:19 GMT
It is little short of remarkable that Iceland, a country with only 323,000 inhabitants, are at Euro 2016 – not least because they reached this year’s expanded tournament automatically. They have put many other nations to shame through their superb coaching structure, which sees most children taught by a UEFA ‘A’ or ‘B’ licenced coach almost as soon as they can walk, and are benefiting from a generation of marvellous footballers led by Swansea’s Gylfi Sigurdsson. Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson, their joint coaches, oversee an intelligent, tactically astute side that narrowly failed to qualify for the last World Cup and spectacularly delivered on their rich promise this time around.
Iceland's team celebrate their victory over the Netherlands
Image credit: AFP
Is there any ceiling to Iceland’s progress? Their management team are convinced they can come through Group E and then give anyone a game in the knock-out stages, and given their meteoric rise it is certainly hard not to be swept along by the confidence surrounding them. A place in the round of 16 looks realistic in an open group and, after a season that has seen Leicester City show just how far you can get through a redoubtable team spirit and canny management, it would be intriguing to see exactly what Iceland can do next.
A simple 4-4-2 belies the fact that Iceland are, perhaps contrary to stereotypes, a decent technical side and Sigurdsson will pull the strings ably in the middle. Captain Aron Gunnarsson of Cardiff will do the dirtier work alongside him and there will be genuine threat on the wings through Johan Berg Gudmundsson and Birkir Bjarnason, who are able to lead fast and direct counter-attacks. The defensive duo of Ragnar Sigurdsson and Kari Arnason is assured although if either is exposed by speedy forwards they may struggle.
THE MANAGERS: LARS LAGERBACK AND HEIMIR HALLGRIMSSON
Iceland's national football team head coaches Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson
Image credit: AFP
The experienced Swede Lagerback and shrewd local head Hallgrimsson have been joint managers since 2013, when the latter stepped up from his role as assistant. Hallgrimsson has a remarkable story – he still works, now and again, in his dental practice on the remote Vestmannaeyjar islands – and will take the role full-time after Euro 2016. Lagerback has national hero status; the 67-year-old was previously in charge of Sweden for nine years and had a brief spell with Nigeria but will surely be best remembered for his achievements with Iceland.
TOP THREE PLAYERS
Iceland's Gylfi Sigurdsson and Birkir Bjarnason celebrate
Image credit: AFP
Gylfi Sigurdsson: The Swansea playmaker is Iceland’s one genuine star. A player with superb technique and fearsome deadball ability, he is also said to be one of the squad’s hardest-working players and will be influential in central midfield. He was superb in qualifying, scoring six times.
Kolbeinn Sigthorsson: Sigthorsson gives Iceland a cutting edge even if he only scored three times in a disappointing season with Nantes. He was prolific at Alax prior to his move last summer and netted three important goals in qualifying, including a winner against Czech Republic.
Birkir Bjarnason: The Basel midfielder should start on the left for Iceland and is, in keeping with the entire squad, a tireless performer with a real creative edge. He had a fine season domestically, scoring 12 goals, and is close to 50 caps for the national team.
SOCIAL MEDIA STAR
Finnbogason, who has had a fine spell with Augsburg in Germany, is a solid tweeter and could perhaps lend Bjarnason, who recently signed up and had “NO idea” what to write for his first entry, a tip or two.
JONATHAN WILSON’S KILLER KNOWLEDGE
Lagerback has always preferred a 4-4-2 and that will almost certainly be Iceland’s shape. Sigthorsson averages a goal every other game from centre-forward and at the age of 26 is only seven behind Eidur Gudjohnsen’s all-time scoring record. Kaiserslautern’s Jon Dadi Bodvarsson looks like his preferred partner of late, although Alfred Finnbogasson is an option, as is Gudjohnsen.
HOW THEY QUALIFIED
The goalless draw against Kazakhstan in September that secured Iceland’s place in France was greeted by wild celebrations in Reykjavik but it was far from their most impressive result of qualifying. Iceland began their campaign with a 3-0 home win over Turkey and an identical result in Latvia, before earning a stunning 2-0 home victory against Netherlands – setting them fair to go through automatically. A late defeat in the Czech Republic was their only real setback, but they put that right in the return game and later won by the odd goal in Amsterdam. They finished second, two points behind the Czechs – a scenario that would have seemed unthinkable a few years ago.