Iceland is the smallest ever national team to qualify for a World Cup following their 2-0 victory over Kosovo in October to confirm their place in Russia 2018. The country, which has a population of just 334,252 hit the headlines at the 2016 European Championships reaching the Quarter Finals, knocking out England in the process.
Ahead of their first ever World Cup the team known back home affectionately as Strákarnir okkar (our boys) have been taking in some warm weather training in Doha along with a friendly encounter against Qatar, which is set to take place on Tuesday evening.
“I think that Iceland has always been an outward looking country and it’s in our mentality to travel away and explore new things” noted Ómar Smárason, head of media and marketing at the Iceland football association (KSI). This is certainly clear in the makeup of the squad chosen for the trip to Qatar with all 26 members playing their football across Europe.
England is certainly a preferred destination for Icelandic players with five players in the squad currently plying their trade in either the Premier League or Championship. “It’s good to be in the Championship, it’s a strong physical league and I don’t think that many players can make it there” noted Bristol City defender Hörður Magnússon. The former Juventus youth player made the move to the Robins last season and after a slowly started to play regularly in Lee Johnson’s team.
Magnússon also agreed that the competitive nature of England’s second division has informed Iceland's playing style. “I think so when I played in Italy the style was much different and not the similar to what the national team group is playing. You just have to watch our captain Aron Gunnarsson play in Cardiff it’s his typical style as a defensive, tough midfielder who can keep and use the ball well. This shows when he plays for Iceland.”
Whilst Aston Villa midfielder Birkir Bjarnason disagrees stating that the squad called from across Europe has given Iceland the edge in recent years. “I don’t think the Championship has anything in the part of what we are doing with Iceland. We have many different players who have played in different leagues and different teams, this has been our strength.”
Iceland’s manager Heimir Hallgrímsson has continued the work of former joint coach Lars Lagerbäck and has broadly stuck with the same group of players harboring a club mentality amongst the national side. This according to Bjarnason has started in the backline.
“First of all the defensive work in unbelievable in our team. But on the other hand, I think we play good football. Of course, it’s the team and defensive work that we build on. Secondly we and then we have good players in the team who can play football, so we have a good mix in the side.”
After exceeding expectations in their first major tournament appearance, Bjarnason is relishing the opportunity for his country to take on some of the World’s best players. “It’s exciting to be heading to the World Cup in Russia. It’s never been done before in Iceland it will be fun to match this team against other teams outside of Europe, perhaps some teams in South America.”
It’s perhaps best to give the final word to Ómar Smárason who has been working with the KSI since 1998 and best placed to give an insight into Iceland’s golden generation. “This group is like family, they have been together for many years. All footballers have egos but genuinely this group does not, everyone is so grounded and down to earth and focused on playing football. France 2016 was special for the country, but I have a feeling that Russia 2018 will also be one to remember.”