Iceland is a country of just over 300000 people. Football might be a passion, and physical shape is needed to live in the North Atlantic, but Brazil has 6-700 times the quantity of talent to draw from. And the Icelandic winter is not friendly to football.
But with an investment in training infrastructure and lifting the standards of coaching, then Icelandic football has gone from a small and irrelevant football nation to a team, which can equal any opposition, and that has happened in the matter of a decade.
Danish football is the imported game, Swedish football is the traditional major power, who play the Nordic game, but the Icelandic game is purity of the Nordic game. This means Iceland always play a variant of 4-4-2, and then they make it work with grit, will, determination, and fight. You are not going to see Icelandic plays whining the game away, instead you are going to see a controlling unit of players, who are just willing to work that much harder for their follow man.
In the qualification for the 2014 World Cup, Iceland was seeded last in their group. They shocked the football world by finishing second. In the playoff round they drew 0-0 at home, but lost 0-2 in Zagreb to Croatia. Great things were in store.
Many did however not pick up on 2014 qualification surprise, and in 2016 Icelandic football was ready to convince any doubters. The UEFA 2016 was started against Portugal with a chocking 1-1 draw. Portugal would eventually go onto win the tournament. Iceland would draw Hungary as well, and then beat Austria. Just qualifying for the tournament was massive for Icelandic football, and now in they were in a quarterfinal against England. There was surely no way they could beat the home of football… Iceland won 2-1. To many Iceland started to look like a potential new Greece, who in 2004 through a similar tight structure and fight ended up winning the tournament. Quarterfinal was against France, another of the major European powers. And here the adventure ended for now.
Was Iceland a one-hit-wonder? Well, now they are in the 2018 World Cup after winning their qualification group ahead of Croatia (qualified through play-off), Ukraine, and Turkey.
To characterise Icelandic football is they can get 1-1 against any other team. Not because the individual 11 Icelandic players are better. They simply are not. Many positions are filled with players, who any other European country would never consider bringing to a World Cup. But Iceland works hard, and they earn every single point they get.
Where do the Icelanders play?
Iceland are viking warriors. They used to mostly play in Scandinavian football, all 3 keepers play in Denmark, where one even plays in the second level of Danish football. However, only 2 non-keeper play in Scandinavia, 1 in Sweden, 1 in Norway.
Today most of the Icelandic players play in England and Wales 6 (though only 2 in the Premier League). 3 play in Rostov in Russia, 2 in Germany, and 2 back home in Iceland. The rest are one playing in each of Italy, Netherlands, Belgium, Turkey, and Bulgaria.
Note how the majority are still focused in the physical Germanic football leagues, which fit the Icelandic play-style. And then the 3 players in Rostov is a bit of an odd one out, where the Icelandic players are slowly becoming the stars of the team, after all joining before or during last season.
Political influence and national narrative
Iceland gained independence from Denmark during the Second World War. Following the German invasion of mainland Denmark the British invaded and took control of Iceland (later transferred to the Americans). The Americans build an airbase, which later also became Iceland’s only international airport. This airbase was Iceland’s ticket into NATO, as Iceland did not want to maintain a military. However, they do have a civilian coast guard to patrol their sovereign sea-borders.
Iceland was and is so important to NATO, because they are at the centre of the GIUK gap. Greenland-Iceland-UK form the narrowest point, where Soviet Northern Fleet nuclear ballistic missile submarines would have to pass in order to get into the North Atlantic. From the North Atlantic though would be able to approach the US Eastern Seaboard and rain down death and destruction, while remaining undetected. Therefore, Iceland was and is of critical strategic importance.
Iceland are hard-working people somewhat isolated in the North Atlantic. Only recently has it become a tourist spot for the nature interested. For a long time Danish was the foreign language the youth would learn, and only recently was this changed to English. Icelandic youth would often go to Copenhagen to do university studies.
Iceland does a lot of fishing and have displayed their viking blood in the face of massively superior Royal Navy ship trying to protect British fishers in water claimed by Iceland. Iceland threatened to leave NATO and expel the American presence, which in all cases eventually let to Iceland getting their way. But not without livefire ammunition being fired and significant numbers of rammings, which became the diplomatic way for fighting between two countries seemingly NATO allies.
It is not unreasonable to consider Iceland a newcomer on the international stage. Both in football and in politics. But one should never underestimate them, as the English did both on the football pitch and during the Cod Wars. Iceland never gives up, no matter the odds.
Group and expectations
Iceland started the 2018 World Cup like Euro 2016. 1-1 against a potential favourite. This time Argentina. Just as in 2016 a hard fought draw, against a technically superior team. There is no limit to what this Icelandic football team can do this time around.
The second game is against Nigeria. They lost 2-0 to Croatia and did not impress. This is likely at least another point for Iceland if they can keep their organisation as well as they usually do.
The final game is against Croatia. During the qualification both teams won at home, so this could likely be yet another 1-1 for Iceland. Especially after Argentina where destroyed by Croatia 3-0.
Croatia are already though, and they are certain to finish top of the group unless they lose to Iceland. Argentina play Nigeria in their last game, and need to win, and then rely on other results.
If Iceland beat Nigeria, then Iceland need a point or more against a Croatia (who are likely field reserves from the start) to be through. If it is a draw, then Iceland need to be beat Croatia to be through (2x drawn in round three also has Iceland through, but that is too much of a gamble). However, if Iceland lose, and then beat Croatia, then you have the potential for goal-difference and all such other confusion.
Hopefully with Iceland and Croatia through, then they face (hopefully) Denmark and France of group C.
At this point the only European teams to really struggle are Germany and Poland, however, both have only played a single game. This while neither Argentina or Brazil have beaten a European team yet, something only Senegal and Mexico have done. This tournament is playing out really nicely for our small continent.