My seven year old self would not talk to me for about a week had I mentioned that I was rooting for Iceland in an international sports competition. Like most kids from my generation, D2: The Mighty Ducks, bestowed more knowledge about this tiny island country than any non-Icelandic seven year old would ever know; “Greenland is covered with ice, and Iceland is very nice!” says Maria while wooing Coach Gordon Bombay over ice cream. Okay, so that may not be entirely accurate, but along with my limited, and slightly erroneous Icelandic immersion came a bitter resentment for the unscrupulous squad and their leader Wolf “The Dentist” Stansson, the vile coach that ended Coach Bombay’s NHL career (don’t even get me started on the beach ball incident and the hit during three bar). With that all said, two decades later, my bitterness towards the country has finally ebbed.
Most of the reason for the change of heart is that coming into the UEFA Qualifying Playoff, Iceland’s role is reversed from D2. They are massive underdogs heading into the playoff with the lowest FIFA ranking of the eight teams at 46th in the world (for comparison, the next lowest country is Romania in 29th). Their country of a fraction above 320,000 people (a population comparable to St. Louis) is also the smallest of the remaining teams in Europe. They would also be the smallest nation to ever compete in a World Cup; Trinidad and Tobago currently hold that honor at 1.3 million residents. Iceland has never once qualified for a major international tournament, but with the young talent such as Cardiff City’s Aron Einar Gunnarson, Tottenham’s Gylfi Sigurdsson, and Ajax’s Kolbeinn Sigthorsson coupled with the ageless veteran Eidur Gudjohnsen, they are hoping to end that skid.
Iceland’s opponents, Croatia, by contrast are currently ranked eighteenth in the world, and boast several high profile superstars, including, Darijo Srna of Shakhtar Donetsk, Mario Mandzukic of Bayern Munich, and the maestro, the proverbial Gunnar Stahl of the squad, Luka Modric, of powerhouse Real Madrid. Now, my comparison of Modric to Stahl is flawed on a number of levels; his diminutive stature, he is a play-maker over a goal-scorer, and is not overly physical. However, he is representative of the bad guy in two ways for me. First, he left my beloved Tottenham Hotspur in a nasty high profile deadlock between player and club for Real Madrid two summers ago. Secondly, he is the face of the Croat side, much as Stahl was for Iceland, so he, and country, must be vanquished by the noble Icelanders.
Iceland endured a rollercoaster of results early on in a relatively soft qualifying group. The country’s hopes of qualification seemed to be coming to an end trailing eventual group winners Switzerland 4-1 during the second half in Berne. They had lost at home to Slovenia 4-2 three months earlier, and another loss likely would have seen them eliminated. Kolbeinn Sigthorsson began the comeback in the 56th minute only two minutes after the Swiss side went up 4-1 when Blerim Dzemali converted a penalty. The improbable comeback was completed with AZ Alkmaar’s Johann Gudmundsson scoring his second and third goals of the match, the last of which came in stoppage time. This victory induced a spark in Iceland as they won their next two matches against Albania and Cyprus, followed by a draw in Norway, ensuring they finished two points ahead of third place Slovenia.
Despite a storybook qualification, Iceland certainly do have their work cut out for them. As previously stated they are the lowest ranked team left in the playoff phase, with seventeen spaces separating them and Romania. Croatia also boast players from top leagues around the world, whereas Iceland has a minor smattering of players from top domestic leagues. However, neglecting the disparity in top level talent and FIFA ranking, current form is certainly in Iceland’s favor. Iceland is unbeaten in its last four matches including away to Norway and Switzerland. Conversely, the Croats are winless in their last four matches including home and away defeats to 35th ranked Scotland (Scotland was ranked 63rd before the dual victories saw them soar to 35th in the world rankings). So there is beyond a glimmer of hope for an in form side competing against a struggling side who will also be under the care of new manager, Niko Kovac following the sacking of Igor Stimac.
The stage is set for Friday’s match where the game time temperature should be near freezing with rain in the forecast. The cold temperature will surely favor the home side as the Norse Gods of their ancestors appear to be smiling an icy smile down on the Iceland squad. Disney could not have drafted a more intriguing prologue to a potential hit on the big screen, now we all wait to see if Iceland can write the rest of the story.
Bra Bra Bra!!! á Íslandi!!!